Superheroes save the world on a regular basis, but their movies aren’t nearly as courageous: For every ingenious Black Panther that departs from the billion-dollar formula, you get ten timid time-wasters. Captain Marvel, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female-led installment, means a lot symbolically—especially to young girls who resonate with Gal Gadot’s confident portrayal of Wonder Woman. But you can’t help but wish the watershed moment arrived with a more richly imagined central character. Even within the MCU itself, you can locate fiercer, more complex women (Elizabeth Olsen’s tortured Scarlet Witch comes to mind), and while Room and Short Term 12 star Brie Larson is certainly capable of expressing wire-taut uncertainty, she’s a bit stranded in the rubber suit, playing a role that gives her scant opportunity to be human. It seems beneath her.
That disconnect is too bad since Captain Marvel, co-scripted by Mississippi Grind directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (plus an army of story writers), tries hard to floor you with its freshness. Sometimes that effort is too obvious, as it is with the film’s utterly unnecessary first 20 minutes: a spew of Trekkian world-building that introduces planet Hala, the Kree, the Supreme Intelligence, the evil Skrull (maybe take notes) and, only slightly less mystifying, Jude Law as a martial-arts master. Eventually our hero (Larson), an alien supersoldier, plunges through the roof of a Blockbuster Video into a very James Cameron–like