1. It remains, when you think about it, absolutely insane that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has featured two new movies, one of which introduces an entirely new character, in between two halves of a nearly six-hour epic where half the cast dies in Part One. Talk about your flex moves! Not only will we you give the cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers—seriously, they killed Spider-Man!—and not only will we make you wait a year to find out what happens, we will in fact give you two other movies, featuring only peripherally connected characters, for you sit through while you wait. This is like if, in between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, while you struggled with the new information about Luke’s parentage, Lucasfilm dished you a movie about C-3PO’s origin story and a side quest about Yoda’s dad. That they’ve felt comfortable enough to let us idle here this long to find out what happened to Black Panther, well, it is quite the extended strut.
2. One thing Captain Marvel has going for it that Ant Man and the Wasp didn’t, in addition to a firmer connection we’re all waiting around for, is that it gives us a lead character we can care about and (even more important) an actor who rises to the occasion. In many of these Marvel origin stories—and by my count, this is the eighth one since the original Iron Man—the movie goes through great pains to explain to us why we should care about this new character, why, with everything else we have to keep track of, we should readily agree to adding one more to the mix. Captain Marvel, like many MCU movies, sometimes labors under the weight of having to tell its own story while still connecting to the larger, ongoing saga, but it has no issues with justifying its main character: We see in her eyes, from the first second, what’s different about her. The movie has us on her side before she ever says a word.
3. The key is Brie Larson, an instantly, almost subconsciously empathetic actress who finds a new, fascinating gear here as Vers who, when we first meet her, is a Kree warrior fighting in outer space with an elite force led by her trainer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Vers has no memory of her past, but it returns to her when, in the midst of a battle, she’s dumped onto a distant planet that turns out not only to be Earth, but also her home planet and in the year 1995. She ends up, rather conveniently, running into future S.H.I.E.L.D. head Nick Fury (a digitally de-aged, and convincingly so, Samuel L. Jackson) and a series of Air Force pilots who provide clues to her past through a supersecret initiative called “Pegasus.” It’s through this that she discovers powers that she couldn’t possibly have understood, and also that, in an amusing ongoing joke, computers worked a lot more slowly in 1995 than they do now.
4. We’ve seen a lot of this before, though the ’90s setting is a nice twist and provides a soundtrack that will prove consistently pleasing to any aging Gen Xer. But it’s Larson who gives this weight and emotional depth as a woman who doesn’t understand her past, but still knows, somehow, that she is meant for greatness and that she uniquely has the grit to figure out how. It’s a true movie star performance in which her impressive physicality is just the start of it. Vers’ backstory is uncertain for most of the film, and when we find it all out, it’s not particularly revelatory; again, we’ve seen it all before. But Larson connects with us instantly, and the film, wisely, just sort of stays out of her way and lets her take over. If anything, once she superpowers up as the film goes along, and we see less of Larson’s face and more of Captain Marvel’s CGI costume, we miss the person we were locked onto all along; this is a movie in which the hero’s journey is less about saving the world than discovering her own power and wielding it (though the saving of the world is nice, too). There is a scene late, when Larson conveys Vers’ realization of who she is and the strength she had all along, that is as emotionally powerful as any in a Marvel movie. It’s Larson who sells it. She’s the movie’s primary asset.
5. The film is otherwise entertaining and exhausting in the equal measures we have come to expect from modern Marvel movies—if you’ve seen one bad guy bent on galaxy domination, you’ve seen them all. You know the music, so it’s all about how they play the notes. Larson gets valuable support from Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn, still reliably Ben Mendelsohn even under layers of alien makeup, and the ’90s backdrop is at least a welcome changeup from the usual formula. But this movie isn’t about the supporting characters, or the setting, or even how well its big action set pieces play out. (Adequately, one supposed, though I’m not sure directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are natural orchestrators of fight scenes; their strength lies elsewhere.) It’s all about whether or not they can sell this Captain Marvel as someone who, later, even the mighty Avengers can call to someday help them save the world. In Larson, they have a star who is more than up for the task. You’ve seen this movie before. But you haven’t seen her.
Director: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Writer: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Djimon Honsou, Lashana Lynch, Annette Bening
Release Date: March 8, 2019
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.