It takes a long time for “Captain Marvel” to focus its force fields. And for Brie Larson’s fearless pilot, Carol Danvers, to find her true identity, her authentic superpowers and a reason for us to want to watch her.
As the jumble shop of a plot starts to unfold, she thinks she’s a Kree warrior in training—the Kree are an advanced civilization on a far-off planet. When she’s sent on assignment to our humble globe—where the year is 1995—she hurtles down from outer space, crashes through the roof of a Blockbuster store, walks around for a bit and notes without comment a videotape of “The Right Stuff.” The movie promises to be special stuff; it’s the first Marvel production to be led by a female superhero without help from a superguy. Yet the film doesn’t give its star enough good stuff to fulfill her role’s potential. Her character can be impressive, wrapped in a shimmering aura of blue and white energy. What’s missing, though, is what helped make “Wonder Woman” such a great figure of female empowerment two years ago: unforced warmth, along with strength, and flashes of delight.
For a while, Carol flounders. She isn’t sure who she is—she’s beset by fugitive memories of being someone else in another life. She’s supposed to be fighting Skrulls—they’re vile, shapeshifting creatures that have infested our planet and threaten the entire galaxy. But their shapes shift bewilderingly, and their vileness comes into question along with everything else Carol thought she knew about herself and the world around her.
This smart, troubled woman is a plausible candidate for heroism. But there’s a basic dissonance between the depth of her plight and the shallow disorganization of the script. In sequence after sequence, “Captain Marvel” settles for extended stretches of conventional action. Some of it is spectacular; it’s a Marvel production, after all, and Marvel knows how to do things in a big way, or, in this case, in a way that looks bigger than it feels. And Larson does as well as the material allows, meaning that she’s bright, brisk, pleasingly wry and touchingly troubled until she is finally—I mean finally—transformed into the superpowered Captain Marvel.
At that point the movie should reward her, and us, with at least a moment of sheer joy, but it just doesn’t--although it does get some lift from a funny kittycat named Goose, and from the presence of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury—not the mature mastermind he’s played in previous Marvel movies, but a young Nick who becomes Carol’s buddy and her partner in anti-crime. Jackson is the beneficiary, by the way, of digital technology that has youthened his features quite remarkably. This could be the beginning of a beautiful new career.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.