When Captain Marvel comes down to Earth, that’s when she really soars.
It’s a bit of a slow buildup to get there, as the newest Marvel superhero origins story kicks off on one of those far-too-familiar planets where the skyscrapers seem to extend into forever, and commuters are zipping about in flying-car type thingees, and nobody ever seems to be having any fun because they’re constantly at odds with beings from other planets and other galaxies.
Ah, but when the wonderful Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel crash-lands in a Blockbuster store on planet Earth in the year 1995, that’s when the real fun begins — and that’s where this girl-power/woman-power adventure finds its heart and its stride and its super-cool whiz-bang sense of humor.
This isn’t the greatest Marvel movie ever made, but it’s definitely one of the funniest — and one of the sweetest. For a film virtually devoid of romance, there’s a lot of love on display, whether it’s a shared bond between two best friends, the beauty in seeing a family reunited or when Nick Fury turns into a puddle of cuddly goo whenever he’s in the presence of an alien cat named Goose.
“Captain Marvel” starts off with a dream and remains deliberately hazy and confusing through the setup scenes — reflecting the uncertainty of Larson’s Vers, who has spent the last half-dozen years living on the planet Kree, unable to remember her life before living on the planet Kree, unable to remember her life before she was rescued from an earlier crash by the military commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law).
Vers has been gifted with seemingly unlimited superpowers, starting with the ability to shoot high-energy fireballs from her fingertips. But as her mentor Yon-Rogg constantly reminds her, she must learn to control her emotions (silly girl!), and she also needs to reconcile her past and learn her true purpose in life by connecting with a higher power known as the Supreme Intelligence, which takes on the form of Annette Bening when Vers communicates with her.
But wait, there’s more!
Kree is at war with a race of shape-shifting aliens known as Skrulls, who will stop at nothing to, well, win the war. (I told you nobody’s ever having any fun way out there in Superhero Galaxy Land.) A covert mission to rescue a Kree operative from the clutches of the Skrulls sets off a chain of events that literally propel Vers to the California of the mid-1990s.
Vers has never been on this insignificant, relatively un-advanced planet in her life — or has she?
Off we go on the Earth-bound adventure, set to a crackling good soundtrack laden with ’90s hits, and filled with fun cultural references, from Radio Shack to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to “The Silence of the Lambs” to the technology of the times. (Anyone remember when Alta Vista was THE dominant search engine?)
Within hours of Vers’ arrival, she attracts the attention of one Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who at this point on the Marvel timeline still has both of his eyes and is a mid-level bureaucrat at S.H.I.E.L.D. who spends most of his time behind his desk, blissfully unaware of all the frighteningly powerful superheroes and archvillains in his future.
(There’s also a new guy with S.H.I.E.L.D. who shows a spark of potential. Guy by the name of Coulson.)
The initially skeptical Fury quickly comes around to Vers’ side once he gets a glimpse of her powers, not to mention a good look at one of the shape-shifting Skrulls that has followed Vers to Earth, hoping she’ll lead them to a special light-speed contraption that could change everything in the war with Kree.
Larson and Jackson have terrific buddy-movie chemistry, whether they’re giving each other grief or covering each other’s behinds. We’ve seen “de-aging” technology before, e.g., Michael Douglas in “Ant-Man,” Kurt Russell in “Guardians Vol. 2” and Robert Downey Jr. in “Captain America: Civil War,” but the magic reaches new levels here. The 70-year-old Jackson and the 56-year-old Clark Gregg, who plays Coulson, look 30 years younger. Even on the enormous Imax screen at Navy Pier, there was never a moment when I didn’t buy into these younger versions of Agents Fury and Coulson.
Lashana Lynch gives a quietly powerful performance as Maria Rambeau, a single mother and former pilot who might be able to help Vers, aka Carol Danvers, aka the future Captain Marvel, unlock her past. Akira Akbar is instantly endearing as Maria’s whip-smart daughter Monica.
Amidst all the scenes with intergalactic warships and fireball-flinging, co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck wisely find plenty of room to take the foot off the accelerator and cede center stage to Larson, Jackson and the rest of the greatly talented cast. It’s a real treat to see Carol Danvers find her footing and her wings, so to speak, while at the same time Nick Fury is taking the first steps toward becoming NICK FURY.
Also, there’s that cat named Goose, who is one of the coolest cats in movie history. Keep your eye on that cat. He’s got some hidden talents too.
Marvel Studios presents a film directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and written by Boden, Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language). Running time: 116 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.