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Marvel at ‘Captain Marvel’

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There’s no disputing that the Marvel Cinematic Universe rules the box office like nothing the entertainment industry has ever seen. Film after film drawing massive numbers, with grosses in the middle nine figures AT WORST. The MCU has produced some of the most globally popular movies of all time.

As we near the end of Phase Three – set to culminate with next month’s “Avengers: Endgame” – we are finally introduced to one of the characters who promises to be a major player in how that arc ends: Captain Marvel. The superpowered spacefarer stars in her own eponymously-titled outing, serving as the first female character to headline an MCU movie.

You may have heard about efforts from certain elements to undermine the film before its release. You may have also heard about how ultimately ineffectual those efforts were. Because a LOT of people saw this movie on opening weekend. And what they saw was pretty darned good, a quippy, zippy origin story that manages to stand on its own merits while also serving as connective tissue for the rest of the MCU out of necessity.

“Captain Marvel” could have floundered under the storytelling load it was asked to shoulder, but instead manages to (mostly) soar, giving us a fun and engaging narrative, some decent gags and some solid action set pieces (along with a killer ‘90s soundtrack). Excellent performances (particularly from star Brie Larson) serve as the glue that binds it all together.

Vers (Larson) is a warrior with the Kree Starforce, based on the alien race’s homeworld of Hala. She and her mentor Yonn-Rogg (Jude Law, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”) are part of the Kree’s ongoing war against the Skrulls, a race of shape-shifters threatening to overrun Kree colonies.

She is also amnesiac, having lost her memory some years ago; however, some glimmers of her past bubble up through her dreams. Many of those memories center around a mysterious woman (Annette Bening, “Life Itself”) that Vers can’t remember, but is so important to her subconscious that she is the avatar Vers sees when communing with the Kree’s sentient AI ruler the Supreme Intelligence.

But when a battle with the Skrull criminal Talos (Ben Mendelsohn, “Robin Hood”) leaves Vers isolated and stranded on Earth (along with Talos and a number of his Skrull cohort), it’s up to her to find ways to take them out before they can overrun this planet as well. To that end, she winds up inadvertently (and somewhat reluctantly) teaming up with SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, “Glass”).

As she spends more time on Earth, she slowly comes to realize that this was where her fragmented memories were coming from. It turns out that up until her supposed death in a crash in 1989, Vers was actually Carol Danvers, a hotshot Air Force pilot. The mysterious woman from her dreams was Dr. Wendy Lawson, a scientist whose research may have paved the way for faster-than-light travel – research that both the Kree and the Skrulls desperately want.

It soon becomes clear, however, that very little is as it seems. With only Fury, her old friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch, “Brotherhood”) and Maria’s cat Goose to help, she must decide if she’s prepared to do what it takes to end a seemingly-endless war once and for all – and with whom she’s willing to team up to do it.

“Captain Marvel” was always going to be a commercial success – as the lead-in to the next phase-concluding “Avengers” movie, there was a preexisting degree of investment on the part of audiences. At this point, the MCU really is too big to fail. But while there is a certain baseline expectation of quality that we can reasonably expect from these films, you also don’t see much deviation from the formula – and any expansion beyond that baseline of quality tends to come from how skillfully a particular film operates within those parameters.

What co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Geneva Robertson-Dworet) bring to the table is something unusual for an MCU offering. While the franchise has shown a willingness to make some unconventional choices regarding who takes the helm, we’ve never seen the keys given to anyone with this kind of indie sensibility. Boden and Fleck made movies like “Half Nelson” and “Sugar” and “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” – no one’s idea of blockbusters. Yet when they take those small-scale narrative chops and turn them onto a cosmic-level Marvel movie … it works. It feels like maybe it shouldn’t, but it does.

Obviously, the key to all of it is Larson. She’s an Oscar winner who is clearly invested in her performance; she obviously doesn’t consider herself above the material. She’s charismatic and engaging in such a way as to endow even the character’s initial amnesiac blankness with real magnetism. Jackson – whose digital de-aging isn’t nearly as distracting as you expect – gets as much to do as he ever has in an MCU movie, and he takes full advantage. The comic vibe between the two of them is undeniable and legitimately fun. Mendelsohn is low-key great, giving one of the sneaky-best villain performances we’ve seen in one of these films. Bening, Law, Lynch, Djimon Honsou – every one of them shines.

(And as someone whose musical tastes calcified in the early-to-mid-90s, I must note that the soundtrack is KILLER, if not always 100 percent suitable in the moment.)

“Captain Marvel” isn’t quite top-tier MCU – the pacing lags a bit in the middle and things occasionally get clunky in terms of the plotting – but it’s far from the bottom. It’s a fun movie that advances the overarching story while also working well enough on its own. With outstanding performances by Larson and Jackson, some clever jokes and a handful of good action sequences (both large-scale and small), it’s a worthy choice as Phase 3’s penultimate offering.

[4.5 out of 5]

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