'Captain Marvel' Review: An Avenger Origin Story Like No Other

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Courtesy of Marvel Studios

As the 21st film in one of the most lucrative franchises in the history of cinema, Captain Marvel might not seem like it has a lot on the line in its inevitable success. But as anyone with a dial-up connection and access to AltaVista knows, that's not the case. From the misogynistic trolls who attempted to bombard the movie with bad reviews, sight-unseen, to die-hard fans nervous about introducing a major player into Marvel's cinematic universe a little more than a month before the Avengers are set to face their Endgame, there is plenty riding on Carol Danvers' origin story.

However, as the titular superhero points out during one of the film's most satisfying moments of catharsis, from her point of view, she has nothing to prove.

When we first meet Captain Marvel (Brie Larson, in what will be a career-defining role for the already Oscar-minted actress), she doesn't even know she is Carol Danvers. She's a Kree soldier fighting with an elite task force -- an alien SEAL Team Six -- amid an intergalactic war with the shape-shifting Skrulls. She has a different name and a big blank spot where her memories should be, with only the Kree's god-like, all-knowing Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening, in a shock-white wig and rubber super suit) to remind her that there is a past she can't remember.

Marvel Studios knows their way around an origin story, from that very first Iron Man to last year's groundbreaking Black Panther. But this one, the studio's tenth, is refreshingly different in structure and style. The MCU's first female standalone film -- co-directed by its first female filmmaker, Anna Boden, with her partner, Ryan Fleck -- shakes up the timeline and breaks from tradition when it comes to how the story takes Carol from civilian to superhuman. She is already an impressive fighter when the film begins, superpowers and all, if not quite fully self-realized: Jude Law's mentor character, Yon-Rogg, continually reminds Carol that she needs to control her emotions in order to truly harness her powers. (If you find this moment supremely relatable, and perhaps even a little triggering, know that it comes back around in a very real way.)

After a mission goes south, Carol finds herself on Earth, in the year 1995, fending off a Skrull invasion and teaming up with S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, via de-aging effects so realistic that you'll legitimately forget he isn't in his 40s) to unlock the secrets of who she is and the life she left behind.

In execution, the origin-story-in-reverse structure allows Captain Marvel to do away with many of the more overdone origin story tropes. What little "training montage" there is comes as the Skrulls scrub through Carol's subconscious during an early sequence. It's a scene that in another movie might have dragged on and on, heavy and brooding, but instead sets the tone for the film's lighthearted take on a hero's journey. There is no moment when Fury has to sit Carol down and explain what's happening, either. Even after she's landed on Earth, crashing right in the middle of a strip mall Blockbuster that screams '90s nostalgia, Carol remains in charge and calls the shots.

In essence, Captain Marvel draws perhaps its closest parallels to Captain America: The First Avenger. There are echoes of stubborn Skinny Steve in Carol's hunger to fly in a time when the Air Force still wasn't allowing female pilots in combat. It's one of many subtle pulse points that make her journey to superpowered warrior feel eminently relatable to female fans in particular, without needing to declare itself as an overtly feminist moment. The Cap comparison comes full-circle in the film's final stretch, which toes the right side of the line between cheesy and satisfying.

Like all good heroes, she's got a stellar supporting cast: Jackson and Clark Gregg's Phil Coulson bring the laughs as green versions of their beloved characters, only just beginning to grasp the scale of the astronomical threat they face. Lashana Lynch steals every scene as Carol's Air Force bestie, Maria Rambeau, and her onscreen daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar), is a strong contender for the MCU's new favorite precocious preteen. Both Ben Mendelsohn's Skrull leader, Talos, and Goose the cat are also bound to be fan-favorites, though there isn't a lot that can be said about either role without spoiling too much of the plot.

Above all else, Captain Marvel is fun, in a way that superhero movies sometimes forget to be -- packed with rat-a-tat banter and Star Wars-worthy dog fights. The laughs continue, even through the most intense, flashy fight sequences, and the '90s music cues and pop culture Easter eggs are an added bonus as Carol battles for the greater good, rising to meet a galactic threat without any sort of obligatory romantic subplot to weigh her down. Thanos is going to need to up his game, because Captain Marvel is coming in higher, further, faster.

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