There's a lot riding on the success of Captain Marvel, both as the first female-led film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and as the effective flagship character for the sprawling, blockbuster franchise moving forward. Brie Larson's Carol Danvers has been heralded as the strongest character in the MCU, and as the cavalry in the final fight against Thanos in Avengers: Endgame. It's a heavy burden that Captain Marvel effortlessly shoulders -- and even shrugs off -- as it instead focuses on an intimate story about identity and empowerment, delivering one of the best installments of the MCU to date.
Introduced as Vers, an amnesiac member of Starforce, an elite strike team of the alien Kree, Larson imbues the future Captain Marvel with a strong sense of character and personality, even when she has little idea of who she is. Her growth over the course of the film, from the discovery that she was once Carol Danvers to her eventual embrace of her old identity, runs counter to the well-worn Marvel origin trope of sort-of jerks (Tony Stark, Thor, Stephen Strange) who learn a less and become heroes. Instead, the story builds to the revelation that Carol had her life taken away from her, and she has to be strong enough to reclaim it.
That kind of narrative could have felt forced, but under directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Captain Marvel soars. It's filled with welcome tweaks to the MCU formula, dialing back the more sardonic impulses to make a more confident, heroic and intriguing story set against the backdrop of the Kree-Skrull War, an event know well by Marvel Comics readers. The nods to the rest of the decade-old cinematic universe are plentiful but never distracting, and even the arc-welding that connects the film to the larger narrative works within this smaller story.
Larson delivers a powerful performance in the lead role, backed by an impressive supporting cast led by Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg, returning as the fan-favorite Nick Fury and Phil Coulson, albeit -- in the film's 1995 setting -- younger, more happy-go-lucky versions of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Here, Jackson isn't the prickly agency director concerned with myriad global threats, but instead a low-level operative baffled by the absurdity of the events around him. He easily scores some of the biggest laughs, yet still carries that grit that make Fury so compelling.
As Talos, commander of the shape-shifting alien Skrulls, Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Ready Player One) is simultaneously frightening and charming, and Annette Bening acquaints herself well in a surprising dual role. The secret MVP of the film, however, is Lashana Lynch, as Carol's former best friend Maria Rambeau. She receives much of the best dialogue and has her own arc; her relationship with Carol proves to be the film's emotional linchpin.
Although Boden and Fleck didn't have any previous blockbuster experience, it doesn't show in Captain Marvel, which display spectacular fight choreography and stunning spectacular effects. The climax in particular is a marvel to behold, with one of the most assured endings in the entire MCU.
Captain Marvel isn't as thematically deep as Black Panther or as all-out entertaining as Guardians of the Galaxy, but it is perhaps the best modern example of how the Marvel formula can still allow for sincere character explorations and compelling stories. The film adheres to the overall tone of the MCU, while still being very much its own story about someone coming to terms with her power and pushing aside the limitations set by others. It's one of the best movies Marvel Studios has released, and it will probably be a longtime favorite for an entire generation of fans. If Captain Marvel is indicative of the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, than the franchise is more vital and impressive than it has ever been.
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck from a script they wrote with Liz Flahive, Carly Mensch, Meg LeFauve, Nicole Perlman and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Captain Marvel stars Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Jude Law as Mar-Vell, Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson, Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser, Djimon Hounsou as Korath the Pursuer, Gemma Chan as Minn-Erva, Ben Mendelsohn as Talos and Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau. The film opens Friday nationwide.