Captain Marvel is a funny, sprightly and warm superhero film

Brie Larson brings amused intelligence to the Marvel franchise as Carol Danvers.

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When the hero of Captain Marvel falls out of the sky and through the roof of a Los Angeles branch of Blockbuster video, the scene serves a number of purposes. First and foremost, it’s a way of signalling immediately where in time we are without needing to stamp “1995” on the screen. But it also represents another sort of crash-landing: that of the indie writing-and-directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who have fallen into the lion’s den. This is a Marvel Studios production, distributed by Disney; it doesn’t get bigger than that. What a place for these new kids on the blockbuster, previously responsible for intimate dramas such as Mississippi Grind (Ryan Reynolds as a gambling addict) and Half Nelson (Ryan Gosling on crack). They’ve broken their pattern of only casting actors named Ryan by now directing Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, an ex-US Air Force pilot who is having dreams about her past that she can’t unscramble. Along the way she discovers that she is the superhero Captain Marvel, whose powers include using heated hands to boil a kettle, which is going to save a fortune on appliances in the long run.

That Blockbuster scene comes about 25 minutes into the film, and it’s the first indication that Boden and Fleck haven’t been swamped by the demands of staging explosions and fight scenes and CGI vistas. The story begins in Hala, the centre of the Kree civilisation. Urban sprawl, flying cars, enormous video screens – clearly the town-planners saw Blade Runner one too many times. Carol is being trained there in military combat by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who tells her: “Emotion is a dangerous thing for a warrior. Humour is a distraction.” For a superhero movie, of course, these qualities are indispensable, and the screenplay has lots of those bathetic, pomposity-pricking gags that are routinely sprinkled throughout Marvel movies: LOLs as a reprieve from biffs and pows.

So a stony-faced fighter (Djimon Hounsou) responds to an accusation of humourlessness by saying: “I laugh on the inside. I’m laughing now” – all without cracking a smile. And Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), the tough guy who brings together the Avengers superhero team, admits under intense interrogation that he can’t eat toast if it’s been cut on the diagonal. Humour is usually cast aside as the action escalates, but Captain Marvel keeps up the laughs, coming on more like the sprightly Guardians of the Galaxy than one of the leaden and exhausting Avengers behemoths. There’s evidence of a humanistic sensibility bubbling up throughout, resulting in a climax that withholds the customary bloodbath and destruction. Would you believe me if I said that a scene explaining the nuances in the conflict between the Kree and their shape-shifting enemies the Skrull plays like a crash course called “Understanding the Middle East Through Pop Culture Metaphor”? OK, it’s more like a five-minute YouTube tutorial, but it’s a start.

Vital to the success of Captain Marvel is Larson, whose amused intelligence warms the movie through like Carol’s hands heating a kettle. It’s a pity that much of what has been written about Captain Marvel in the run-up to release has centred on a virulent group of online agitators who have attempted to discredit the film by lowering its approval rating on the depressingly influential Rotten Tomatoes website.

The good news, though, is that Captain Marvel contains much to irk and inflame those dissenters whose well-being is imperilled by the prospect of women in positions of power or influence. The 1990s soundtrack has a strong female bias: Elastica, Garbage, TLC, Hole. And as Carol wanders those Blockbuster aisles, she passes a giant poster for Babe – the title alone seems to whistle at her – which she pointedly ignores. She blasts the head off a cardboard Arnold Schwarzenegger standee advertising True Lies, the movie where Jamie Lee Curtis performs a humiliating striptease in the name of comedy. Finally, she picks up a VHS copy of The Right Stuff and turns it over quizzically as if to say: “Male pilots? All of them? How quaint.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 08 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash