“You have no idea who I am. I don’t even know who I am,” the superhero tells a bad guy whose face she’s about to smash in “Captain Marvel,” which is largely about a woman figuring out what makes her tick and what she’s going to do with that information.
The wearing of flannel, the use of the Alta Vista search engine and much bopping to Garbage and Hole all place the story in the 1990s — 1995, to be exact — but confusion about identity is timeless. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson, a best actress Oscar winner for 2015's “Room”), also known as Ver and/or Carol Danvers, spends much of the movie trying to regain her memory so she can figure out how she ended up on the planet of Hala, and with superpowers to boot.
To do that, she ventures to Earth, where she rediscovers herself with the help of old friends and a pair of not-by-the-book S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Coulson and Fury (Clark Gregg and Samuel L. Jackson, respectively), who have not yet created the Avengers. Also, she sets out to defeat aliens who are trying to get their hands on a light-speed engine whose possessor will control the universe.
It’s a lot to have on one’s plate for someone who isn’t even sure who she is.
Unlike many a Marvel superhero movie, though, “Captain Marvel” doesn’t feel overstuffed, clocking in under two hours if you don’t count the credits, with the requisite pair of mid-credits extra scenes.
The powers-that-be at Marvel have been getting more creative in their choices of filmmakers, with Taiki Waititi for “Thor: Ragnarok” and, now, the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose previous films all have been low-budget, humanist dramas such as 2006's “Half Nelson” and 2014's “Sugar.” Those instincts serve them well in “Captain Marvel,” which is less bombastic, more humane and easier to relate to than the other Marvel movies.
Yes, we’re missing a charismatic villain and, yes, the final battle gets too explosion-y and long. But before that, “Captain Marvel” is a movie that takes time to help us understand its protagonist and gives its lead actor room to create a performance. Although she’s given as many punchlines as Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Larson tosses hers off, so Captain Marvel never comes off as smug or self-satisfied.
Lots of superheroes feel conflicted about using their powers, but Captain Marvel is different. She doesn’t hesitate to employ her photon blasts or superstrong fists, but the swirl of action around her is so baffling that she’s not sure whom to trust, or whom to help. (It doesn’t help that her mentor, played by Jude Law, sounds as if he swiped all his advice from an affirmation-of-the-day calendar. “I want you to be the best version of yourself,” he blathers. And, “Don’t let emotion override your judgment.”)
Captain Marvel is such a welcome and appealing addition to the Marvel universe that I wish she could be added, retroactively, to all of the extant “Avengers” movies (one of the extra scenes suggests I’m not the only one). My favorite Larson moment is her quietest: Captain Marvel is flailing in the sky, plummeting toward the ground, when she takes a deep, almost meditative, breath to settle herself. Who can’t benefit from taking a deep breath in a difficult moment?
That’s what’s best about “Captain Marvel.” The title character is a metaphor for every woman — heck, every person — who is trying to figure out how to harness her own power.