Marvel broke the mold of character origin films with “Black Panther,” then tried to put that mold back together for “Captain Marvel.” The film’s strong cast was simply not given a dynamic story to tell, meandering through a patchwork plot that failed to become exciting at any point. Brie Larson as the titular character tried her best, but there was no third dimension to her story or her personality.
The movie opens on a cartoonish alien planet, Hala, complete with blue people, funny outfits, and laser guns. Captain Marvel, initially referred to as Vers, is a novice soldier being trained by her mentor, Yon-Rogg, played by Jude Law in the creepiest contact lenses since the “Twilight” movies. Vers also has a nasty case of amnesia, having no idea where she came from, how she ended up on Hala, or why she can shoot laser fire out of her hands.
It isn’t long before Vers and her alien fight squadron get ambushed by some other aliens and Vers gets captured and hooked up to a memory-extracting device. The device is not the most obvious exposition tool I’ve ever seen in a movie, but it is close. Through Vers’ memories, we see that she was once an Air Force pilot, although she is initially unable to recall specific details of her time on earth.
She gets a crash course in her past, however, when she escapes the enemy aliens in one of their pods and literally crashes into a Blockbuster in Los Angeles. This marks the beginning of a non-stop parade of obnoxious ’90s references. The movie’s attempt to trigger nostalgia through pop culture is only outmatched by “Ready Player One.”
Vers gets a buddy before too long when a young Nick Fury (with both eyes!) pairs up with her as she uncovers clues about her past and tries to catch up with the bad guys. Samuel L. Jackson is good in the role, but the most notable thing about his performance is that he is 70 years old and through the magic of make-up and editing he is playing a man in his 40s. It’s alarmingly convincing.
For all the time and effort spent on de-aging Jackson, however, the alien costumes are incredibly lame. The bad guy aliens, the Skrulls, are all fitted with masks and gloves that look like they came right off the set of the original “Star Trek” series. Ben Mendelsohn and Gemma Chan, both tremendously charismatic actors, are barely discernable through unmoving prosthetics and over-the-top makeup.
The already soft plot deflates almost entirely just before the climax of the film. Instead of high-intensity action that sets up Captain Marvel as the female hero we’ve all been waiting for, we are treated to several awfully sad stories from various characters. The drum of anti-war sentiment beats softly in the beginning of the film but evolves into all-out banging by the end.
“Captain Marvel,” extremely aware of its duty to check all the boxes about feminine equality in all circumstances, clumsily jams in various feminist tropes whenever possible. Vers’s development into a warrior woman is also choppy. At the beginning of the movie, she is green, but quite confident. Somewhere toward the middle, however, she becomes much meeker, even crying on the phone to her mentor, who has to reassure her that she can do it. Her final transition into full Captain Marvel comes only after she decides that her fire hands are a real leg-up, and it was high time she started using them to her advantage.
Clearly, not giving Vers a romantic interest in her origin story was meant as a signal that she doesn’t need a man to be strong and courageous. Well, okay, but as an audience we could have used the intrigue. Vers may not need a man, but creepy-eyed Law and age-smoothed Jackson are not enough man candy to attract a millennial crowd of ladies.
The writer-director team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were given an impossible task with “Captain Marvel.” Their prior experience was entirely independent film and television shows. For their first big-budget, wide-audience film they were tasked with following up “Black Panther” with the next great Marvel movie that would also make a powerful statement about sex and social justice — an arduous undertaking for even the most seasoned superhero filmmakers.
The end result was a mostly empty bag. The few action sequences were okay, and the final 20 minutes of the movie, despite leaving some silly questions unanswered, were fairly exciting. Unfortunately, it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the lack of depth in story and characters. Perhaps Captain Marvel’s charisma will magically appear when she meets the rest of the Avengers.