Brie Larson goes back to 1995 in superhero story that's not all there

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Academy Award-winner Brie Larson shoots through the sky like a human rocket and blasts powerful bursts of energy from her fists.

As a figure of female strength, she’s an undoubtedly empowering symbol.

But as the lead character in “Captain Marvel,” her superpowers can’t overcome being caught in a mid-level Marvel production. 

“Captain Marvel” combines the cool, irreverent spirit of “Iron Man,” the pop culture savvy of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the plodding plot of “Thor.” It gets caught up in the politics of war and leans heavily on routine messages of tolerance and understanding. We know Captain Marvel plays a role in the next “Avengers” movie, due next month, since her presence was teased at the end of “Infinity War.” Whether that necessitates the clunky backstory and universe expansion provided here is doubtful.

In a story that’s almost impossible to explain, let alone comprehend, Larson is Carol Danvers, sometimes referred to only as Vers (it has to do with a broken ID badge), a fighter pilot on Earth turned intergalactic warrior on planet Hala. Her memory has been wiped, and the pieces of it she can recall involve Annette Bening in a bomber jacket looking vaguely off into the distance.

Bening is the Supreme Intelligence, an A.I. being, who pops in and out of Carol’s memory and is shot against green screen beaches, or sometimes in cavernous rooms of light. (Bening’s presence is a stiff reminder of how superhero work is a requirement of nearly every actor in Hollywood these days.)

Jude Law is Yon-Rogg, Carol’s mentor and sparring partner, with whom she’s fighting a war against the Skrull, a race of shape-shifters led by Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos. In the midst of battle, Carol is sent hurtling toward Planet C53, which humans will recognize as Earth. She crash lands into a Los Angeles Blockbuster Video in 1995.

Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who made the snappy gambling flick “Mississippi Grind,” also with Mendelsohn) use the time period as a way to celebrate a smorgasbord of ’90s nostalgia; there are references to Nine Inch Nails, the Smashing Pumpkins, “True Lies” and “Mallrats,” with soundtrack cues from No Doubt, Hole, Nirvana, Elastica and Garbage.

Carol makes the acquaintance of a young Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson filtered through nearly seamless anti-aging technology; as a special effect, he’s stunning, and seemingly kicks opens the door to Hollywood agelessness. (He’s nearly as good a digital composite as “Alita: Battle Angel.”) We learn plenty about Fury’s backstory and the formation of S.H.I.E.L.D., which ties us into the bigger Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

There’s a cat, a family Carol bonds with on Earth and a glowing cube around which the universe’s fate revolves, or something. There are also numerous references to something called “Mar-vell,” which we all know is Marvel but which everyone dances around for some reason, an inside joke that feels too wink-winky even for the MCU. 

Larson is cocky and confident in the lead role, and she walks with the swagger of a rock star. She’s tough and cool, at one point shouting in an alien’s face just because the alien shouted at her first. She rocks. Mendelsohn, meanwhile, brings layers to Talos, fleshing him out with unexpected touches of humor and warmth.

In the grand scheme of the Marvel Universe, however, “Captain Marvel” feels like a supporting player, not a featured attraction. (If she were to go toe to toe with DC’s “Wonder Woman,” the smackdown wouldn’t favor Team Marvel.) 

The story doesn’t have an engine, and it relies on superhero tropes we’ve come to expect but which, after 10-plus years of Marvel movies, have lost their superpowers. How many more times can we see a character with the power to wipe out entire rooms of people with the flick of their wrist struggle against an enemy? And how many more Marvel plots are going to hinge on capturing a glowing blue thingy? It’s those factors that will always hold superhero movies back and confine them to their own realm.

Aside from the ’90s references, nothing here comes easy; the tone is wonky, the human element is lacking, the tie-ins to characters we already know is forced. (Lee Pace’s Ronan, from the original “Guardians of the Galaxy,” returns here, which will be lost on all but the most ardent Marvel superfans.) 

There’s no doubt Marvel will sell a lot of Brie Larson toys out of this, but the action figure and the imagery are more powerful than the movie bearing its name. Aside from the title, the marvel here is lacking.

'Captain Marvel'

GRADE: C

Rated PG-13: for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language

Running time: 124 minutes   

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