Like many movies in the MCU, the first act of Captain Marvel is its strongest, with directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck making a great case to helm the next iteration of the Star Trek franchise. It’s a tight intergalactic introduction with a brilliant fight sequence, plenty of excellent creature work, and a splendid score by Pinar Toprak.
It’s a smart move to avoid the classic origin format here as we meet Carol when she’s already a seasoned member of the Kree’s elite Starforce, a team of warrior heroes whose only goal is to defeat the notorious Skrulls, an alien race who have been devastating the Kree’s home planet of Hala.
All is not what it seems in Carol’s world; after being ambushed by the Skrulls, she has a rude awakening and comes crashing down to Earth—literally—sparking a quest to uncover the mysteries of her past. There’s a little Thor in amnesiac Carol’s return to her home planet as she navigates the would-be alien world, and there is, of course, a bit of Captain America as she too is a woman out of time.
As we get ever deeper into the lore and films of the MCU, it’s going to be harder and harder for these tropes to seem fresh, but on the whole Boden and Fleck do a great job shaking up what we’ve come to expect from a superhero debut. It helps that Larson is a charming lead as the sarcastic and confident Carol, whose performance sells every single beat.
Larson’s primary co-star is Samuel Jackson. His Nick Fury is presented here less as the hardened S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent we’ve come to know and more as the resigned pencil pusher—that is, until he meets Carol. The pair are a joy to watch play off each other. Their real-life friendship comes across, though some of the narrative decisions do seem a little forced when it comes to establishing Carol’s influence and impact on the man who has for so long been at the core of the MCU.
The much-hyped ’90s setting works best as a background, and the film is at its weakest when it pushes too hard for nostalgia. Sadly, some of the music beats are so obnoxiously obvious—would it have hurt to go a little deeper and have gotten some Breeders or Sleater Kinney?—that they distract from the scenes they’re soundtracking, which is a shame as Toprak’s Vangelis-inspired score is one of the best the MCU has offered up yet.
Beyond this, the film struggles to truly break any new ground when it comes to representation. The film falls into the trope of introducing diversity through villainy, failing to build on some of the great cast. It’s also hard to ignore that the first woman to hold the mantle of Captain Marvel was a black woman named Monica Rambeau and though they pay homage and introduce the character played by the wonderful Akira Akbar—far too briefly—narratively there’s no reason that Monica couldn’t have been at the center of this story. Another of the film’s underused highlights is Lashana Lynch as Monica’s mother Maria. It’s a great turn from Lynch, as the emotional heart of the film, though the slightness of her role is to the film’s detriment.
In the end, though, Captain Marvel is a fun, fresh take on the superhero movie and hints at an interesting future for the MCU. It’s a sci-fi heavy actioner, which is at its best when it’s being sincere and is a good first step to rectifying some of the problems of the franchise’s past. But coming after groundbreaking films like Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, and even Wonder Woman means that sometimes Captain Marvel’s impact feels like it would have been bigger had it come out closer to the era it was set.