Despite starring a pair of hot shot jet pilots, Captain Marvel is more Men in Black than Top Gun. It’s a film experience so thoroughly rooted in ’90s pop culture that it doesn’t truly hit its stride until an abducted Brie Larson has crash-landed on Earth, and we fall into the film’s joyful celebration of the pre-millennium period. In that way, it’s more like Thor: preferring the comfort of its comedic moments that play on our knowledge of popular and existing MCU culture than in bringing its alien science fiction settings to life.
Carol Danvers (played by a restrained, steady Brie Larson) is our protagonist—a former Air Force fighter pilot and current member of the elite Kree military team known as the Starforce. Carol doesn’t remember anything that happened to her before waking up six years prior on Hala, the homeworld of the technologically-advanced Kree. Her only personal connections are her mentor, Starforce commander Yon-Rogg (career charmer Jude Law), and her Kree mercenary team, including Gemma Chan as Minn-Erva and Djimon Hounsou as Korath, who both manage to get in some laughs in spite of being criminally underutilized.
Fans of the MCU, and especially the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and Agents of SHIELD, will know that the Kree aren’t to be trusted, but amnesiac Earthling Carol—or as she’s known by her Kree brethren, Vers—has no such knowledge. Instead, she spends her days training with Yon-Rogg, going on missions to stop the shape-shifting terrorists known as the Skrulls, and communing with the Supreme Intelligence, the A.I. leader of the Kree. Made up of the greatest Kree minds, the Supreme Intelligence takes the form of the person you most admire. For Carol/Vers, it is Annette Bening, representing a clue to Vers’ forgotten past. So when Vers crashes onto the Terran homeworld, the frequency of clues to Carol’s past intensifies, making her question everything she thought she knew about her own history and the Kree-Skrull war.
Our hero eventually teams with Nick Fury (a de-aged, movie-stealing Samuel L. Jackson—it’s between him and Goose the Cat), a middle-aged SHIELD agent who is only just learning about the existence of aliens. Together, they search for a scientist who could change the course of the Kree-Skrull war forever. They just have to get to her before the Skrull, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn with the juiciest material), do.
The buddy cop dynamic of Fury and Carol is easily the strongest relationship in a film that too often prioritizes mystery and action over backstory and character development. Carol and Fury stand as an exception, their scenes calling to mind the chemistry between Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K and Will Smith’s Agent J in Men in Black, while shaking up the traditional roles. Here, it is the younger character, Carol, who is the “straight man” with knowledge about the existence of aliens and the older character, Fury, who gets to be the competent-yet-in-over-his-head one who’s along for the ride. They seem to delight in one another’s company, supporting each’s not-unrelated quest and forming the heart of the film.
The movie’s biggest weakness is its lack of interest in depicting Carol’s previous life on Earth. In prioritizing the mystery of what happened to her—a mystery that most people will either probably know the answer to going in or quickly figure out—we lose the emotional devastation of that secret. Later in the film, when we meet Carol’s found family—her co-pilot and friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Maria’s fierce, precocious daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar)—we lose the weight of that reunion because we never really get to see what their lives together looked like.
The action is thoroughly competent and, occasionally, especially when it comes to one fight with ’90s-specific musical accompaniment, inspired. This far into the age of superhero fare, it takes a lot to impress in an action sequence, especially when so much of it tends to be CGI. On a character level, it is thrilling and cathartic to see Carol so thoroughly embrace her power, delighting in her ability to soar—but, visually, it isn’t anything new. That being said, Carol’s hero moment is a delightful subversion of the traditional superhero story beat, not to mention one that feels directly informed by Carol’s experiences as a woman.
Where does Captain Marvel fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe pantheon? Captain Marvel‘s weirder, more science fiction moments owe a lot to Guardians of the Galaxy—especially in its hints of neon-saturated color—without ever fully embracing the playful strangeness of Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok. As far as MCU superhero introduction films go, it’s better than Doctor Strange and Ant-Man, somewhere in the same league as Thor, and doesn’t quite live up to the nuanced gravitas of Iron Man or Captain America: The First Avenger, perhaps partially because it is so conscious of its title as Marvel’s First Female-Led Superhero Movie.
The film has some tough competition in Marvel’s recent fare. This movie is no Black Panther or, if we’re expanding the field of comparison, Wonder Woman, which benefitted greatly from being the first major superhero blockbuster to headline a female protagonist—frankly, a milestone race that was Marvel’s to lose. Luckily, Captain Marvel doesn’t have to be better than all of the MCU’s previous films to be something enjoyable. The MCU has a pretty impressive narrative median, but, past that, like the Avengers, this is a team sport and Captain Marvel is nothing if not a team player.
Captain Marvel continues to prove just how good the MCU is at expanding its universe in new ways that still feel integral to the larger world. Experiencing the film’s final moments is not unlike the experience of watching the final moments of Rogue One, so cleverly does the film weave its way into existing canon, informing what has already happened in the franchise (and what will eventually happen in the world of the MCU) in emotionally-resonant ways. After Captain Marvel, the MCU feels more complete.