DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "Captain Marvel," starring Brie Larson as the female superhero, opens today. "Captain Marvel" premiered in a 1968 comic by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan. The movie features Samuel L. Jackson in his recurring "Avengers" role as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Assuming you don't count the ill-fated 2005 Jennifer Garner vehicle "Elektra," "Captain Marvel" is the first Marvel comic book movie adaptation anchored by a female superhero. I'm not sure whether to sigh at that sad statistic or applaud the studio for finally overcoming it.
It's hard not to have equally mixed feelings about the movie. This is a diverting entertainment with a tricky, mind-bending origin story, a sly sense of humor and a game lead performance by Oscar-winner Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel. But much of the telling feels bland and routine, a pleasant feature-length introduction to a character who feels more sketched in than fully realized. Who is Captain Marvel? Due to a combination of intense trauma and selective amnesia, she isn't entirely sure herself. She's the Jason Bourne of Marvel fantasy figures. And we're supposed to piece together her identity alongside her.
When we first meet Carol, she is known as Vers, a powerful warrior in a rubber green suit who can shoot powerful photon blasts from her fists. Her people, a mighty alien civilization known as the Kree, are at war with a race of green-skinned, shapeshifting beings called Skrulls. Carol is taken prisoner during a battle with the Skrulls, who try to infiltrate her memories. A dizzying stream of flashbacks involving a downed U.S. Air Force plane suggests there may be more to her past and her powers than meets the eye.
Eventually, Carol escapes the Skrulls and crash-lands on Earth in the year 1995, at which point the movie tumbles down a moderately amusing rabbit hole of '90s nostalgia. There are obligatory jokes about old technology - remember dial-up Internet and Blockbuster Video? - and a soundtrack loaded with Nirvana, TLC and No Doubt. It will, of course, be years before Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and all the rest join forces as the Avengers.
At one point, Carol runs into a young Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Thanks to the help of some expert digital de-aging effects, the illusion is pretty convincing. They tentatively join forces. But first, Carol interrogates Fury to make sure it's really him and not a Skrull in disguise.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPTAIN MARVEL")
BRIE LARSON: (As Carol Danvers) Where were you born?
SAMUEL L JACKSON: (As Nick Fury) Huntsville, Ala., but technically, I don't remember that part.
LARSON: (As Carol Danvers) Name of your first pet.
JACKSON: (As Nick Fury) Mr. Snoofers.
LARSON: (As Carol Danvers) Mr. Snoofers?
JACKSON: (As Nick Fury) That's what I said. Do I pass?
LARSON: (As Carol Danvers) Not yet. First job.
JACKSON: (As Nick Fury) Soldier, straight out of high school - left the ranks a full bird colonel.
LARSON: (As Carol Danvers) Then?
JACKSON: (As Nick Fury) Spy.
LARSON: (As Carol Danvers) Where?
JACKSON: (As Nick Fury) It was the Cold War. We were everywhere - Belfast, Bucharest, Belgrade, Budapest. I like the Bs. I can make them rhyme.
LARSON: (As Carol Danvers) Now?
JACKSON: (As Nick Fury) Been riding a desk for the past six years, trying to figure out where our future enemies are coming from - never occurred to me they would be coming from above.
LARSON: (As Carol Danvers) Name a detail so bizarre a Skrull could never fabricate it.
JACKSON: (As Nick Fury) If toast is cut diagonally, I can't eat it. You didn't need that, did you?
LARSON: (As Carol Danvers) No. No, I didn't, but I enjoyed it.
CHANG: Jackson isn't the only standout in the supporting cast. Annette Bening plays the Krees' godlike leader, aptly named the Supreme Intelligence. But she also turns up as a completely different character in flashbacks - an Air Force scientist who holds a crucial piece of Carol's identity. There's an adorable orange cat whose scene-stealing capabilities would be criminal to give away here.
The best performance comes from Ben Mendelsohn as a Skrull named Talos who, like any good shapeshifter, turns out to have a few surprises up his sleeve. Mendelsohn starred in a terrific 2015 film called "Mississippi Grind," whose directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, have made quite a leap here from their small-scaled indie work to the Marvel blockbuster assembly line. While the action scenes are mostly a generic blur, you can feel the filmmakers' character-driven sensibility at work in the quieter moments of Brie Larson's performance. She infuses those beats with a subtle luminosity, very different from the flames she wields in her fists.
Throughout the movie, Carol finds herself on the receiving end of various sexist insults. Her Kree mentor, played by Jude Law, tells her she needs to constrain her emotions in order to maximize her potential, which is odd because Carol never really seems in danger of losing control. You could say the same for Larson herself, a fearless advocate for greater diversity in Hollywood, which may explain why so many online trolls have attacked her movie sight unseen.
Carol is brave, virtuous and entirely worthy of our admiration. And in the end, she will prove all her male naysayers wrong and reveal herself as one of the most powerful forces to be reckoned with in the Marvel Universe. What she isn't, in the end, is a particularly distinctive personality. Neither, frankly, was Black Panther. But that hardly mattered. The kingdom of Wakanda was the real star of that show.
Captain Marvel is being sold as a similar representational milestone - the movie that will do for female audiences what Black Panther did for black audiences. But it's nowhere near as rich or singular in achievement. As filmmaking, it feels serviceable at best, something to tide audiences over before the apocalyptic showdown of "Avengers: Endgame," due to be released next month. As a closing title card informs us, Captain Marvel will return in that movie. She'll have more competition for our attention, but with any luck, she'll also have a lot more to do.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. On Monday's show, Barbara Brown Taylor, an ordained Episcopal priest who became a professor of religion, talks with us about how exposure to the world's religions affected her students, and the impact it had on her own faith. Most of the students hadn't had much exposure to other religions. Her new memoir is called "Holy Envy: Finding God In The Faith Of Others." Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.