Captain Marvel begins on an intentionally disorienting note, leaping straight into action without even a cursory attempt at establishing who or what we're watching. This proves to be a convenient way of getting the required Marvel-movie cosmic gobbledygook out of the way. Once the dust settles, you can start to piece together the beginnings of a plot.
Haunted by bad dreams and an unknown past, Vers (Brie Larson; the name rhymes with "fierce") is part of an elite military team led by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), cavorting through the outer reaches of the galaxy in pursuit of a shape-shifting race known as the Kree. Through one of those convenient wrong-turn-at Albuquerque plot twists, Vers winds up on Earth, crosses paths with SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, bathing in a CGI fountain of youth) and begins to uncover the secrets of her own past as plain-old-Earthgirl Carol Danvers.
While most of the recent Marvel films have been cobbled together to form a continuous and rather tedious storyline, Captain Marvel is free from continuity. It's set in 1995, for no apparent reason other than to let audiences chuckle over antiquities like Blockbuster Video, Radio Shack, Alta Vista and CD-ROMs. In some ways it seems to have been written solely to clear up a few mostly inessential plot points from earlier Marvel films, such as, "What happened to Nick Fury's eye?" and "How did the Avengers get their name?"
For those who take this sort of thing more seriously than it deserves, Captain Marvel is perhaps the most inconsequential film in the Marvel series, but that's not a bad thing. Running a brisk 124 minutes, it's also one of the shortest and possibly the lightest and energetically paced. It's a breezy, silly movie with predictably big visual effects, a few nods to Top Gun and a small underlay of Feminism Lite, with the sort of mild sentiments you might expect to find in My First 'Nevertheless She Persisted' Coloring Book. As it turns out, women can fly space ships, fight aliens and blow things up every bit as competently as their male counterparts, a point that may seem innocuous at face value, but that has proven startling enough to set the fanboy brigade into sputters of all-caps outrage.
In a way, Captain Marvel is a telling example of the incongruities of the contemporary comic-book movie. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose previous films have mostly been under-the-radar independent comedies, aren't required to do much more than maintain a certain level of chemistry among the cast in the rare breaks between laser fire, but they do it well. Larson and Jackson develop a good-natured camaraderie that has been absent from previous Marvel films, while other performers, including Law and Annette Bening, drop in mostly to add familiar faces to otherwise underwritten supporting characters. The narrative twists and leaps in ways that aren't particularly alarming, the visual effects are as convincing as they need to be and the overall tone is as lightweight as a Saturday-afternoon serial circa 1939. In short, despite its multi-million-dollar budget and occasionally belabored plot points, it's an unambitious but appealing genre film.
Given the levels of excess and pretentiousness that have come to define recent comic-book films, however, the mere simplicity of Captain Marvel is a welcome relief.