Captain Marvel

3 stars

More than a decade after its humble launch and with nearly two dozen movies on the company roster, Marvel Studios has gotten very good at making this all look easy. The team, led by omniscient overseer Kevin Feige, has popularized superhero cinema on an unprecedented scale and managed to build a beloved brand with consistency as a core value. Even though this is clearly made possible by smart management and a stringent commitment to a familiar formula, there remains a sense of amazement at how casually they can will new franchise streams into existence.

Captain Marvel marks a Marvel milestone by being the studio’s first female-led blockbuster, but instead of being a solo tale for an established onscreen Avengers character like Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow (her movie is scheduled for 2020, though) or Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch (she’ll show up on a new Disney+ show later this year), this acts as the audience’s introduction to Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), who was previously only vaguely referenced during a post-credit scene in last year’s Avengers: Infinity War.

Yes, Marvel currently has a lot of balls in the air, with most heroes either set for big screen sequels or small screen spin-offs, but this courting of chaos has long proven to be key to the company’s success. They need fresh faces to keep extending the narrative thread and they need to be constantly making decisions about which character gets elevated to lead status and which ones will remain supporting players.

Carol is the first headliner to debut in a solo movie since 2016’s Doctor Strange, but while Marvel doesn’t go that route too often, the studio’s ability to streamline this process of careful expansion ensures each launch goes smoothly. This is where the carefully concocted formula benefits everyone involved.

Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have inherited the Marvel method and made the transition from indie dramas to cosmic action extravaganza look like a cozy lateral move on the filmmaking front. There’s such confidence in everything that bears the Marvel logo now, so Captain Marvel arrives onscreen as a portrait of calm, collected cool. That’s how Boden and Fleck have envisioned her and that’s how star Brie Larson plays her.

There’s something oddly laidback about the whole approach here, an overly nonchalant attitude that stifles some of the thrills and lessens the movie’s potential impact, but even though Carol is almost too cool for all the drama her adventure unearths, Larson’s performance resonates. Her femininity feels fresh and uncompromising and her presence is intriguingly both grounded and otherworldly.

When conflict arises, Carol leaps into action as if it’s a reflex, an impulsive drive to do good. She enters each situation as if failure isn’t even on the table. She’s utterly relentless, which isn’t quite translated to the screen with the sustained energy such a description suggests, but still opens the movie up to some promising possibilities.

At one point, No Doubt’s upbeat pop hit “Just a Girl” blasts through the speakers during an all-out ass-kicking courtesy of Carol and the sugary slice of irony does not go unnoticed. It’s an unusually boisterous moment in the movie and it’s easily the best use of the pic’s otherwise throwaway 1990s setting. Beyond the soundtrack, the decade is mostly represented by a quick glimpse of a VHS-stocked Blockbuster video store that Carol crashes into.

Of course, as is often the case with Marvel and its many interlocking pieces, the story’s location on the overarching timeline is a result of mere logistics. And besides, it allows Carol to team up with a young Nick Fury (an impressively de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), who still has both eyes intact and knows nothing about space alien threats, which we all know will later become one of his many specialties.

Carol explains to him that a sinister race of green-skinned extra-terrestrials called Skrulls have been hiding out on Earth and that she, a sort-of space cop belonging to a group called the Kree, is here to save the day. There’s a mystery to solve and a handful of pre-Avengers references that will be fun for fans to spot and also, perhaps most importantly, a cute cat that holds the secret to the movie’s wackiest gag.

It’s an entertaining mix, especially whenever Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) appears onscreen. Mendelsohn has been Hollywood’s go-to guy for slimy villain roles of late, but the excellent actor has far more opportunities to show off his chops here than he did in last year’s double feature of Ready Player One and Robin Hood.

With such a strong cast, also including Jude Law and Annette Bening, there’s no shortage of talent in front of the camera. No matter how many times Marvel starts a new solo series, they never fail to fill even the one-off roles with deeply gifted stars. All that veteran skill probably helps the formula go down easier. And Captain Marvel is clearly as committed to that formula as any Marvel pic before it, so this seems like a necessary plan.

Over the past decade, much of the Marvel focus has been on the characters above all else, relying on them to prevent the formula from going stale. This works again in Captain Marvel’s favour. The movie lacks the thematic depth of last year’s fellow franchise launcher Black Panther, but this latest title succeeds somewhat modestly thanks to Carol’s own uniqueness.

Another key element of the Marvel machine is the constant regeneration of interest. Feige and co. are great at serving their audience and then leaving them eager for more. This is a solid starting point and now the wait begins for the next chapter of Carol’s supercharged heroics. Wherever this franchise takes her, it’s likely that Marvel will make it all look effortless and, if this movie is any indication, unflappable Carol won’t mind.