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Captain Marvel (2019)::rating::3.5::rating::3.5

Despite its sweeping sociocultural ambition, Captain Marvel largely succeeds as robust, straightforward entertainment.  A decent origin story, it benefits enormously from a skilled cast of well-placed actors and the reliable hum of the Marvel machine.  While the female-driven production machetes a new trail through what had once been a male-dominated wilderness, the movie itself truly hits the high notes when it calls back to the strengths of the MCU movies that preceded it:  Captain Marvel leans on a freewheeling sense of humor and an irresistible swagger, traits that carry the film whenever it threatens to sag under its own self-importance.

The story focuses on Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), and her gradual rise to glowing superhero glory.  At the start, Danvers lives as a recovering amnesiac on the Kree homeward of Hala.  She spars with her mentor (Jude Law), who prepares her for war with the Kree nemesis, a race of shapeshifting goblins known as the Skrulls.  The two embark on a mission to corner and collar a Skrull baddie (Ben Mendelshon), but the whole thing goes sour when Danvers gets captured.  She ends up stranded on Earth, circa 1995.  With the help of superspies Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), Danvers must confront her old life as a human and realize the true scope of her powers.

Once Danvers crash-lands in a Blockbuster video, Captain Marvel builds a crackling campfire of 90s nostalgia and spends the next ninety minutes basking in its soft orange glow.  Gotta say it:  Between Des’ree singing the silky “You Gotta Be” on the soundtrack and the audience giggling at all the outdated technology, I felt older than a wrinkly prospector panning for gold.  (“Dial-up modems?  Why, ain’t seen those ’round here since Ought-Two!”)  Yeah, I know these little references are meant to win over a key demographic, namely pop culture nerds reared in the Age of Tamagotchi.  Did it work on me?  You can bet your reruns of Blossom it did.

Captain Marvel’s light touch wouldn’t work nearly as well if weren’t cast to perfection.  As Danvers, Larson melds sarcasm, vulnerability, and simmering resolve to create a superhero who’s charismatic, yet still very human.  Jackson (with the help of de-aging CGI) plays a bouncier Nick Fury, with all the wounds and weariness still a few years in his MCU future.  Law delivers his lines with a mannered smirk and builds a nice, relaxed chemistry with Larson.   All in all, this solid superhero troop creates an infectiously fun vibe that should help this cinematic piece snap easily into Marvel’s larger puzzle.

Marvel only missteps when its message threatens to overwhelm the medium as whole.  As an exercise in female-empowerment, the movie hits a grand slam by being uncommonly strong escapism with a woman at its superhero center.  (Women also co-write and co-direct.)  For some reason, the filmmakers feel the need to continue hammering the point with unsubtle moments of macro-awareness in the dialogue and soundtrack.  It creates occasional currents of awkwardness in an otherwise cohesive movie.

In the scheme of it all, that’s a pretty minor quibble.  Mostly, Marvel flies with furious energy.  The action and special effects are top-notch.  (Although they still haven’t quite figured out that de-aging thing.  Gregg just looks…weird.)  Over twenty movies in, Marvel has the whole accessible, rollicking blockbuster thing down to a science.  With this installment, an important new character gets more than enough power for liftoff.

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