Opening Friday, Mar. 8
Vers is in the middle of an identity crisis.
Played by Brie Larson, Vers is an impulsive young fighter training on a distant planet for a war against the shape-shifting Skrulls. She is also a woman without a past—or so she thinks, though dreams of a past life keep creeping to the surface. When she confesses them to a mentor, played by Jude Law (who seems mostly like Jude Law playing Jude Law, but with yellow contacts), he advises her not to let her emotions prevail. Of course, she does.
It’s her mysterious past, after all, which seems to hold the key to this intergalactic war. When Vers is captured, the Skrulls attempt to extract her memories, especially one persistent vision of the Supreme Intelligence, played by Annette Bening (who appears periodically to Vers in an misty interdimensional in-between, wearing jeans and a leather jacket, like a television preacher moonlighting as a Levi’s model). Havoc ensues, and the gears of the plot actually get to grinding: Vers escapes, steals a spaceship, and hurtles toward planet C-53, where she lands on the roof of a Blockbuster Video in LA. Okay, now we’re talking.
The film is set in 1995, and a scaffolding of enjoyable, har-har nostalgic details quickly rises: This strange planet is populated by VHS tapes, Walkman headphones, pinball machines, and a youthful-looking Samuel L. Jackson. The plot can feel a bit like pinball, too: This movie, which leads into another Avengers sequel, often exhausts itself trying to paint a comprehensive backstory, pinging between past, present, and wink-wink foreshadowing.
In this prequel, Jackson, as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Fury, still has two eyes. He is also full of one-liners (“Witnesses say she was dressed for laser tag,” he quips about Vers’s suit), and his buddy-cop chemistry with Larson quickly emerges as a highlight of the movie. Now earthbound with Fury—and dressed, more comfortably, in a Bruce Springsteen getup stolen off a mannequin—Vers stays on C-53, trying to track down the Supreme Intelligence before the Skrulls do.
The catch? The Supreme Intelligence, and life on Earth, feel a little familiar to Vers, who realizes that her memories all add up to a former life as a U.S. Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers.
One of the slipperiest parts of getting a handle on this movie, which does have so much going for it, is all the racket around it. Months before Captain Marvel was released, trolls caused its Rotten Tomatoes score to plummet from 96 percent to 54 percent. Needless to say, none of them had yet seen the movie. They were reacting to the fact that directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were introducing the first major Marvel movie with a female lead.
Larson, meanwhile, has been outspoken regarding the need for more diversity on screen and the film industry’s bias for the tastes of white male critics. The reviews that have come out after this week’s press screenings have done little to contradict Larson’s point. Critics have found Vers to be too politically correct, too proud, too good at fighting, too single, too perfect.
Larson’s Vers didn’t seem too perfect to me, though. She seemed like a tough amnesiac who used a robust sense of humor to distract from the fact that she had no idea who she was. Generally speaking, comic book heroes arrive on the page with some crucial piece of their story missing. This does make them a bit flat, at times (I dare you to tell me that the butterball Captain America and cornfed Superman have more dimension than Vers). But our superhero is trying to find herself.
In this movie, it was particularly wonderful to see Larson’s character latch onto the gaps in her story and use them for fuel. Like many of the characters Larson has played before—her roles in Short Term 12, The Glass Castle, and Room come to mind—Vers has a patchy past. She has been lied to and manipulated, and she must use her trauma to spur her courage. She must fight back. More specifically, she must use her orange fire-hands to beat up Jude Law.
Some important characters come to the fore only in the last half of the film: There’s a charismatic tabby named Goose, Danvers’s erstwhile best friend and copilot, Maria, and the leader of the Skrulls, Talos, played delightfully by Ben Mendelsohn. As for the big twist, let’s just say that it involves some real big anti-imperialist and anti-war values, which are superficially integral to most superhero franchises but are explored here with refreshing depth.