On an intergalactic mission, gutsy and formidable extraterrestrial warrior-hero Vers (Brie Larson) is separated from her Kree combat unit led by mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Captured by their green-faced shapeshifting arch-enemies the Skrulls she is subjected to a mind-probe that somehow revives long-suppressed memories. After a daring escape she pursues the Skrulls to the backwards planet of Earth and the city of Los Angeles circa 1995. Where young S.H.I.E.L.D agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is intrigued by her remarkable abilities and warning of an imminent alien invasion. With Fury's help our heroine recovers her past identity as brave fighter pilot Carol Danvers only to discover neither the war she has been fighting nor her greater purpose in life are what they appeared to be.
Inevitably given the history of women in popular media (if sadly nonetheless) Marvel's first female led superhero film had a tumultuous journey to the screen, beset by agitators from the get-go. The likes of which included the predictable misogynists irate as to why this existed at all. Thin-skinned cultural commentators butt-hurt over star Brie Larson's call to expand press junkets beyond the traditional roster of straight white males. And comic book fans otherwise cool with female led superhero films but wondering why it had to be Carol Danvers, a character with a history some maintained was 'problematic.' Among her perceived sins: 'appropriating' her superhero name from an established male hero, whiplash personality shifts and, oh yes, that time in the comics when she gave birth to her own rapist (yikes!) Of course such criticism conveniently overlooks that, like Spider-Man, Batman and every comic book superhero, Captain Marvel is subject to the interpretive whims of an array of writers with wildly varying results. For every iconic character redefining slam dunk like the Kelly Sue DeConnick run (whose groundbreaking work earned her a cameo in the movie) there is a misstep like Brian Michael Bendis' character assassination in the unloved Civil War II miniseries.
Where Marvel Studios' Captain Marvel succeeds most brilliantly is not only crafting a coherent singular origin and character arc for Carol Danvers but fashioning her quest to recover her identity as a parable for self-empowerment. As comics scribe Gerry Conway observed way back in the Seventies, when the character was launched as Ms. Marvel, there is "a parallel between her (Carol's) quest for identity and the modern woman's quest for raised consciousness, for self-liberation, for identity." Fittingly in light of the slings and arrows lobbed at movie, character and actress for not conforming to some perceived notion of what they ought to be, Captain Marvel achieves its most powerful image with a montage of young Carol Danvers (star-in-the-making Mckenna Grace) knocked down then rising, again and again. Higher, further, faster baby, indeed.
Outspoken, gutsy, even gung-ho with a winningly weird sense of humour, Brie Larson's Carol Danvers leaps off the screen. In a keenly calibrated performance equal parts slapstick heroine and unflappable badass, Larson actually evokes the vulnerability and humanism Harrison Ford brought to Indiana Jones (a role Larson often cited as a childhood inspiration). Ingeniously constructed the plot is layered with flashbacks that give substantial insight into who Carol Danvers is and what makes her tick, without disrupting the narrative flow. Indeed the multi-authored script, featuring input from co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Meg LeFauve and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) scribe Nicole Perlman does a solid job bringing all the arcane alien conflict and cosmic chicanery down to a relatable human level. Pacier than most Marvel origin stories the film still takes time out between hi-octane set-pieces to deepen the relationships between Carol, her best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch, making a real impression), the latter's daughter and future superhero Monica (the delightful Akira Akbar, surely another star-in-the-making), and most crucially young Nick Fury.
The Nineties setting adds an amusing though unobtrusive layer of nostalgia, making jokes about dial-up internet speeds and fine use of vintage tunes from Nirvana's 'Come As You Are' to No Doubt's 'I'm Just a Girl', a wistful Stan Lee cameo likely to tickle Kevin Smith fans, and a heady dose of buddy action comedy. Breakneck car chases evoke various Michael Bay (only y'know, good), Richard Donner and Jan De Bont films, there is a memorable fight sequence atop a speeding train, while Larson's sassy female Martin Riggs trades snappy banter with a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson in the time-honoured tradition of mismatched buddy duos. Clark Gregg also gets Disney's fountain of youth treatment as fan-favourite Agent Phil Coulson. The blossoming relationship between Carol and Nick is especially well developed as two mavericks betrayed by someone they trust learn to trust each other. Perennial Marvel menace the Skrulls make their long- awaited movie debut and do not disappoint. Ben Mendelsohn gives a scene-stealing turn, at long last given a chance by his Mississippi Grind (2015) directors to show how great he is beyond those stock snarky villain roles. The film is further distinguished by a surprise twist that threw some Marvel fans for a loop, but provides a crucial facet of the central theme: overcoming prejudice, finding common ground and seeing people not how we want them to be but as they are. All in all a stellar intro for the heroine intended to set the pace for the future Marvel universe. Oh, and there's a cat...