‘Captain Marvel’ Takes It Back to the 90s for Intergalactic MCU Romp

Captain Marvel” is all about its energy and humor. A heroine from another planet lands on Earth and battles shape-shifting aliens while deciphering her own memories. And there’s a cute cat named Goose. Of course this is a Marvel Cinematic Universe chapter, based on a Marvel Comics character, so it has a high budget and grander aims. But in terms of its look and vibe, it’s rather small when compared to the rest of the MCU’s sagas. Consider this an appetizer before “Avengers: Endgame” drops in April. It combines 90s nostalgia with mostly everything else we’ve come to expect from a Marvel offering.

Carol Danvers aka Vers (Brie Larson) is an emerging warrior in the Kree, a warrior alien civilization somewhere out there in the farthest reaches of space. Her trainer and mentor is Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who also instructs her on the Kree’s everlasting battle against a menacing alien race called the Skrulls, who can shapeshift to disguise their presence. While Vers has Kree abilities, including the power to shoot energy blasts from her clenched fists, she’s not an actual alien. She’s an Earthling but has no memory of what her life prior to ending up with the Kree was. While attempting to recover a spy, Vers gets into a fierce battle with the Skrulls which results in her crashing back on Earth in the year 1995. Walking around in the era of dial-up internet, grunge and pagers, Vers starts getting flashbacks to her time as an Air Force pilot, and visions of a mysterious former mentor (Annette Benning). It turns out Vers’s original name was Carol Danvers. She also crosses paths with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), agent for the government agency S.H.E.I.L.D. who is shaken by learning about the intergalactic conflicts going on. But time is running out because a Skrull named Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) is also on Earth, seeking a device called the Lightspeed Engine, which would help the Skrulls’s war aims. As Danvers recovers her memories, she also has to stop a cosmic apocalypse. It comes with the territory.

It’s the style of “Captain Marvel” that makes it an entertaining experience. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck deliver what is possibly the most regular superhero movie in the whole MCU canon, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even when it tries too hard to pack many flashbacks, space battles and double identities, it is enjoyable as a pretty straightforward comic book yarn. Boden and Fleck’s screenplay gets in its own way sometimes, struggling to make the story more complicated than it should be (there are moments where it’s hard to remember who is chasing after what). This is a prequel of sorts, set before the other MCU movies and giving Nick Fury a rowdy origin story. In that sense it works like an enjoyable detour before going back into the ongoing, gigantic saga of “Avengers” (the first end credits scene provides the story linkup). We even get to see how Fury lost an eye and got his iconic patch, though it’s not as grandiose (or heroic) an explanation as you might expect.

Like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Captain Marvel” thrives on its sense of humor combined with a killer soundtrack. Placing Carol Danvers in Los Angeles circa 1995 allows for a loving tribute to the decade and its sounds. Los Angelinos will certainly enjoy how the movie re-creates the city’s Metro trains and shopping centers from the decade with astounding detail. Older millennials may find their hearts glowing when Danvers crashes into a Blockbuster Video or when she finds herself having to search information on long gone search engines, suddenly interrupted by a lost dial-up connection. When in doubt, she uses a fold out map (remember those?). In a brilliantly nostalgic moment Danvers, Fury and Talos sit around waiting for a CD-ROM to load. Brawls, chases and showdowns are scored to “Just a Girl” by No Doubt and “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” by Garbage. The Kree believe in an A.I. “Supreme Intelligence,” which you can consult and it will take on the form of the person you most admire or respect in life. A scene where Danvers meets with the Supreme Intelligence is nicely set to a vinyl playing Nirvana’s “Come as You Are.” Even Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” gets a rousing revival.

The rest of “Captain Marvel” thrives more on its performances than on the plot, which eventually turns into the standard business of Danvers saving the world, fighting off the villains trying to get the Lightspeed Engine and changing her bland spacesuit for the more colorful Captain Marvel outfit. Ben Mendelsohn does Tanos brilliantly as a humorless Skrull, which precisely makes him funny. He has a fear of cats that makes the performance even more of a gas. The writing also knows how to make fun of its own genre, notice a chortle of a scene where Tanos is hammered with questions about what he can turn himself into. Djimon Hounsou uses the same technique in playing a Kree warrior, Korath, who says hilarious lines with a stone-cold look. Samuel L. Jackson, made young again through CGI trickery, brings his usual grit and suave, occasionally getting silly with the real star of the movie, Goose the cat, who hides a shocking alien secret. Brie Larson is ironically the most low-key and less engaging. She has the presence for an action hero, convincingly sparring and kicking butt, but she never seems truly moved or even astounded like an individual going through an incredible experience. She’s doing it too straight-faced.

Because Marvel is so adept at quality control, “Captain Marvel” still strikes all the right notes where it counts. In 3D the space dog fights are exciting, the Skrulls keep us guessing on who is real and who is being impersonated and when Danvers fires up her fists it truly is, for lack of a better word, cool. The plot also includes that classic story twist where the heroine discovers she’s been lied to by someone she trusted, but it’s done in a way where there is a surprisingly strong message about war and discrimination.

Marvel fans will obsess over the finer details, connecting the endless threads to the other MCU films, but general audiences can still expect “Captain Marvel” to merit sitting down with a tub of popcorn. Spaceships are blown up, aliens make threats and Brie Larson plows through the heavens with great hair. In other words, it’s a comic book in every sense. Yet its highest appeal might be to those who remember growing up with the Smashing Pumpkins.

Captain Marvel” opens March 8 in theaters nationwide.