As the twenty-first film to be released in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Captain Marvel" is an unequivocal success — not the best movie in the series, to be sure, but within the upper tier due to the central performances of Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson as well as a solid script, strong social commentary and a surprisingly charismatic cat.
Set in the not-so-distant past of 1995, "Captain Marvel" tells the story of Vers (Larson), a soldier in the Starforce, the military unit of the extraterrestrial beings known as Kree, fighting against a species of shapeshifters called the Skrulls. When Vers' most recent military campaign against the Skrulls causes her to crash-land on Earth, she must locate the Skrulls hiding out on this planet — who are led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) — with the help of future S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), a friend named Maria Rambeau from the past she can't remember (Lashana Lynch) and the memories of her former mentor Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening). Yet even as she fights the Skrulls and waits to be reunited with her commander and mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), it starts to become clear that her understanding of past and present, right and wrong may be radically skewed.
This type of plot is par for the course in the MCU, but that isn't really a problem: To paraphrase an observation film critic Roger Ebert once made about the James Bond franchise, when there are so many movies in a series, you wind up comparing one to the other like you would vintage wines, seeing how they stack up. When the MCU makes a very good movie, as they've done here, it is because it's either epic and spectacular, like "The Avengers," "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "Captain America: Civil War" and "Black Panther"; or anchored by charismatic main characters who are likable, funny and inspiring, like the "Iron Man" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" series and "Thor: Ragnarok."
"Captain Marvel" is firmly in the latter category. Larson's performance as the titular character is crucial here: She is perfectly cast as a fiercely intelligent, no-nonsense military personality whose understated and dryly cutting sense of humor is a welcome contrast to the more flamboyant quirkiness of Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man or Chris Pratt's Star Lord. Directors and co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (whose scripting responsibilities were also co-helmed by Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve and Geneva Robertson-Dworet) wisely focus their story around the budding friendship between Larson and Jackson, who have a natural chemistry that ranks right up there with the best buddy cop movies. It isn't easy to create core characters who develop a natural rapport that is both funny and uplifting, especially when one of them has been in this series since it began in 2008, but "Captain Marvel" pulls it off.
There is also something to be said for one of the movie's unexpected high points: I can't believe I'm writing this, but the breakout character of "Captain Marvel" may wind up being an adorable cat named Goose, whose cuteness seems destined to launch thousands of social media posts. It might seem silly to focus on a cat when reviewing a superhero movie, but Goose ranked a close second to Captain Marvel herself when it came to making the audience laugh, at least at the screening that I attended. Throwing prominent animal characters into movies isn't always a surefire way to have them succeed — they can be gratingly cutesy at times, or pandering in their efforts to make the audience worry about whether they'll live or die — but the way that "Captain Marvel" utilizes Goose is clever, satisfying and (perhaps most importantly) unforced.
"Captain Marvel" has a number of other strengths as well, and there were numerous details in the film that left me feeling utterly charmed. The references to the 1990s were, like the usage of Goose, witty and entertaining without seeming excessive or shoehorned. The soundtrack uses a number of classic '90s hits to great effect: "Just a Girl" by No Doubt, "Whatta Man" by Salt-N-Pepa, "Celebrity Skin" by Hole and "Come as You Are" by Nirvana, to name just a few. Gags about the infuriating slowness of '90s-era internet landed nicely, along with nods to the then-ubiquity of Blockbuster Video outlets and the fact that characters actually had access to pay phones seemingly on every street corner. It's nostalgia done right: The jokes are there to be appreciated, but the movie doesn't pander, and the script could have worked just as well if it had been set in the present.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the way "Captain Marvel" wears its feminism on its lapel as a badge of pride. As Vers learns more about her backstory (to delve into details here would involve major spoilers, although fans of the comic likely won't be too surprised), we discover that she faced systemic sexism throughout her life as she worked hard to realize her potential as a gifted athlete, fighter pilot and all-around warrior. There were a number of occasions when I was reminded of Larson's 2017 interview with The Times when she described gravitating toward movies that "make people feel more connected to themselves [and] the rest of the world." That applies here as much as it does with Larson's work in masterpieces like "Short Term 12" and "Room." The character growth shown by Captain Marvel isn't simply that of an amnesiac learning her real identity, but of a woman who realizes her destiny by listening to her inner sense of self instead of letting it get drowned out by misogyny of both the deliberately cruel and casually boorish.
In this regard, it is depressingly unsurprising that a sexist campaign that has been waged to hate on this movie by all-too-numerous anonymous internet users (as well at least one brazen Hollywood actor). When they saw the trailers for the film and interviews with Larson, they sensed that this film would unapologetically promote the idea that a female superhero could be in every way the equal of her male counterparts — and, indeed, may actually be more powerful than quite a few of them. While they'll never have the self-awareness to realize that their gripes come from deep-rooted male fragility, and instead trump up baseless assertions of man-hating from Larson, their insecurity is as transparent as a window and as pathetic as President Donald Trump's faux hair. This movie has the number on guys like that and it knows it. The more outraged these men get, the more evident it becomes that they know it too.