Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel is set during the 1990s, has a strong message of female empowerment, and features a cat with a hilariously weird power. These things give it a tone that's completely unique within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Co-writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, It's Kind of a Funny Story) are not the first people you'd expect to make a superhero movie. Their presence is part of Marvel's genius. The company hires filmmakers with interesting perspectives to helm their screen adventures, ensuring that the final products are wildly commercial without being soulless. Captain Marvel exemplifies this trait.

The plot concerns an age-old war between two intergalactic races – “noble warrior heroes” the Kree and shape-shifters known as Skrulls. Both make their way to Earth, where the Skrulls attempt to track down a powerful light-speed engine designed by scientist Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) that will aid their desire to conquer other planets. Brie Larson plays Vers, a member of the Kree. She discovers that she's been on our planet before, existing as an Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers. Only fleeting memories of this are left inside her mind. Carol teams up with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to find that engine first so it doesn't fall into the wrong hands. Surprises await her.

The parts of the plot involving the Kree-Skrull war give Captain Marvel an opportunity to deliver elements viewers expect from an MCU installment. Action scenes, particularly one on a train where Carol battles a Skrull who assumes the form of different passengers, are inventive and fun. Visual effects dazzle throughout, delivering an extra punch when viewed in 3D. A Stan Lee cameo and a post-credits scene tying into the next Marvel chapter are accounted for, as well.

All that stuff is great. What makes Captain Marvel truly special, though, is that this particular film is as much about Carol's personal journey of discovery as it is about superheroes fighting supervillains. Finding Lawson's engine requires exploring her mysterious past. In the process, Carol reconnects with an old friend/colleague, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). Their relationship touches on themes of sisterhood that add emotion to the story. Similarly, through learning about some of the forgotten struggles she experienced, Carol gains a vital epiphany on how endurance and determination have more power than any magical suit or flame-throwing ability could ever hope for. The key to a really good superhero movie is to make viewers care about the central figure outside of their costume. You will absolutely care here.

There could be no one better to inhabit this character than Brie Larson. The actress brings depth to Carol Danvers, helping us understand how making sense of her life is every bit as crucial as vanquishing enemies. At the same time, Larson is totally credible in the action and fighting sequences. She's the total package.

Jackson gives a strong supporting performance as the young Nick Fury, and Ben Mendelsohn is witty as Talos, an important Skrull. (The exact nature of his role should not be given away here, but his work most certainly deserves a mention.) The scene-stealer is Goose the cat; a brief scene of him at the end of the credits delivers what might be the MCU's biggest laugh to date.

Boden and Fleck achieve a nice balance between character substance and tongue-in-cheek space-combat excitement. Plus, Blockbuster Video jokes! If you thought there was no new life left to breathe into superhero movies, think again. Captain Marvel is a meaningful tale of feminine strength -- one enhanced by rousing action and clever humor.

out of four

Captain Marvel is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.