For over a decade now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has plied us with its stories of conspiracies and smart-alecky celebrity heroes, returning again and again to the same theme: Our heroes are just like us, in that all wish they could go back in time. Think Peter Quill’s mixtape and Captain America’s missed date; Tony Stark’s holographic therapy goggles and the ancestral visions of Wakanda’s heart-shaped herb; that most literal of plot devices, the Time Stone. Of course, given wondrous powers and technologies (or the effects budget of a multi-billion dollar movie studio), who among us wouldn’t try to use them to rewrite the past?
This tendency to find notes of regret and guilt in escapist fantasy logically takes us to the finale of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War and its image of Tony Stark dusted with Spider-ash. But we’ll have to wait until Avengers: Endgame to see how that pans out. For now, there’s the underwhelming Captain Marvel, which, like its hero, is trying to make up for lost time. The 21st entry in this movie franchise to beat all movie franchises is also the first to feature a female lead, introducing audiences to Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), a former Air Force test pilot who returns to Earth as an alien super-soldier with only the haziest recollections of her past life. But while some of the most compelling movies in the MCU cycle—say, Black Panther or Captain America: Civil War—have rested on the shoulders of heroes who understood their own symbolism, Larson’s photon-blasting spacefarer remains a blank slate.
Danvers, the original Ms. Marvel, was an established hero in the comics before she became the most recent character to use the name of Captain Marvel. (Not to be confused with DC’s Captain Marvel, who is getting his own movie with the upcoming Shazam!) Captain Marvel ditches most of that complicated backstory but doesn’t develop the character beyond a handful of beats. Yet it’s also an origin story for the Avengers Initiative—that is, an origin story for the paperwork behind the MCU’s marquee superhero team—that just happens to be set in 1995, the summer of Batman Forever, when comic book movies were still goth-industrial, campy, or some unsightly combination of the two. In that sense, it might be called the ’90s superhero movie that Marvel never got to make. It has the approximate pace and running time of a blockbuster of that era, which means that it’s comparatively short and fast-paced by modern standards. Unfortunately, it also has a lackluster plot; bog-standard chase scenes and pew-pewing space ships; a notable shortage of interesting characterizations; and a fight scene set to No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” that is nowhere as awesome or as silly as it should be.
Not that Larson doesn’t bring confidence and chutzpah to her underwritten role. (Spot-on casting has always been one of Marvel’s strong points.) But her personality gets lost under suits of plasticky armor and in superpowers that directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (better known for indie dramas like Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind) struggle to define in visual terms. Their idea of empowerment involves montages that look like they came straight out of a military recruitment ad. Their sense of the period is no great shakes, either, offering up an anachronistic version of 1995 that seems to be have been lab-grown from dubious memories of the once-mighty brands, bands, logos, and dial-up internet connections of the mid-to-late 1990s. There’s no real point in harping on the fact that neither the search engine AltaVista nor many of the songs on the soundtrack were around that summer, except to acknowledge that being able to spot and grit one’s teeth at these fudged details will make any person over the age of 30 feel Mesozoically old.
Before it gets to Clinton-era Earth, Captain Marvel throws us into one of those long-running interstellar wars that always seem to be going on in the far corners of the galaxy. On one side are the Kree, imperious and militaristic humanoids who bleed NyQuil green. On the other are the devious, shapeshifting Skrulls, who can take on the appearance and some of the memories of anyone they see. In their natural form, they look like green, scaly goblins with big pointy ears. It’s on the futuristic Kree home world of Hala that we first meet Danvers. Here, she’s a supercharged member of an elite squad of Skrull-fighters led by her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). That the group happens to include a certain Guardians Of The Galaxy heavy is our first clue that the Kree might not be so great themselves. Another is that they all seem like pricks.
When a mission on a ruin-strewn planet goes south, Danvers ends up being taken prisoner by the Skrull general Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), who whisks her away on his spaceship and straps her upside down into a contraption that decodes repressed memories. Suddenly, flashbacks of life on Earth—basic training, a childhood trip to a go-kart track, a roadhouse bar—come flying back as the Skrulls fast-forward and rewind her brain; in one nifty sequence that recalls the effects work of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, her captors make her relive one seconds-long moment over and over as they try to make out a single hazy detail. How did Danvers lose her memory? Where did she get powers? What do the Skrulls want with her? Answering those questions would spoil Captain Marvel’s predictable arc.
It doesn’t take long for Danvers to escape Talos (for the time being, at least), and she soon finds herself plummeting down to “a real shithole” of a galactic backwater that the Kree call Planet C-53—that is, our own humble, noisy home world, where she makes her entrance by crashing through the roof of a Blockbuster Video. Even before she’s managed to call a rescue with equipment burgled from a nearby RadioShack, the authorities arrive on the scene, led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), future head honcho of Marvel’s secret agency, S.H.I.E.L.D. The 70-year-old Jackson has been digitally de-aged to his mid-to-late 40s, and the result is spookily convincing and mostly seamless. (The same team handled similar effects for Captain America: Civil War, Ant-Man, and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button.) In comparison, Captain Marvel’s big effects pieces—involving bolts of energy and ominous Kree space cruisers that look unmistakably like the winged headwear of the Flying Nun—seem third-rate.
The all-too-familiar MCU background palette of secret bases, spaceships, hangars, and underground complexes (but this time with crappier computers) contributes to the impression of anonymity. But at least the film has a sense of humor—admittedly faint praise, given how many of its predecessors in the MCU have been funny enough to qualify as ensemble comedies. Here, two characters strike up an unlikely partnership, whup alien ass, make some corny jokes, uncover secrets, and come to the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, superheroes are something the Earth needs. It’s everything you might expect a sci-fi superhero movie to be, if you hadn’t seen one in a long time.