The movie is directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who until now have worked in the realm of quiet, sensitive indie films like Half Nelson, Sugar, and 2015’s fantastically grotty gambling drama, Mississippi Grind. They’re the kind of writer-director team that can coax nuanced performances from stars including Ryan Gosling, Ben Mendelsohn, and Ryan Reynolds, but they’re not obvious fits for the world of Marvel. Then again, neither did other small-budget filmmakers the company has plucked from relative obscurity, such as the Russo brothers, Jon Watts, and Taika Waititi.
Unlike those directors, Boden and Fleck get a little lost in the spectacle. Captain Marvel is a surprisingly loopy celestial adventure of a film, one that digs deeper into the alien lore laid out in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy series. But though Boden and Fleck wrote the screenplay (along with Geneva Robertson-Dworet), their talent for sharp banter and character interplay only shines in the scenes set on Earth. When the story is space-bound, things begin to feel perfunctory. That’s especially true of the action, which reeks of the anonymous house style that Marvel seems to impose on most of its movies (and which makes deviations from the norm, as in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or Thor: Ragnarok, look all the more impressive).
The biggest problem with Captain Marvel, though, is also one of its biggest strengths: the overarching mystery plot that it saddles its main character with. Things kick off on Hala, the home world of the haughty Kree (a race of aliens who were the villains in the first Guardians of the Galaxy). Our hero is not yet known as Captain Marvel or by her human alias Carol Danvers; she’s merely a space cop named Veers, a member of an elite shock troop in the Kree Starforce led by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), a charming but jaded mentor who keeps nudging her to keep her emotions in check while on the job. But she’s plagued by memories of a human past, one she can’t puzzle out even in chats with a collective being called the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening, perfectly cast). So our hero ends up on Earth trying to figure it out—and it takes her most of the movie to do it.
That means Larson, an incredibly gifted actress who did flooring and heartfelt work in films such as Short Term 12 and Room, has to spend most of Captain Marvel’s running time without a backstory. Sure, she can blast energy bolts from her fists, and she has a rebellious twinkle in her eye, but she doesn’t have much of an actual character to play. Luckily, she’s surrounded by a capable supporting cast to bounce off. Samuel L. Jackson shows up as a younger Nick Fury (the film is set in the 1990s) and gives his most committed Marvel performance in years, cooking up some wonderful buddy-cop chemistry with his amnesiac alien partner.