“Captain Marvel” is a superhero movie with the heart and soul of an indie film, and that works both for and against it. At times the movie seems shockingly underwhelming for the latest entry in the Marvel saga that now dominates popular entertainment. The fights are confusingly shot, the shoot-outs and car chases feel cheap, and the title hero, played by Brie Larson, is chill to the point of blasé.
At a certain point, though, you may notice that that relaxed posture extends to the movie as a whole. Captain Marvel is a woman and not much given to the chest-beating braggadocio of most of the Marvel men. She just wants to get the job done. So do her scientific mentor and her best friend, also women. In fact, without in the least playing like an agenda-driven blockbuster, “Captain Marvel” posits that female superheroes don’t have time for bullroar and might just be better at taking care of business.
The comics bros are going to hate it, in other words. But that’s all right, since they already do, sight unseen. The rest of us can go — man, woman, and child — and treasure the good parts.
If, like me, you’re confused about how and when the originally male Captain Marvel became a woman, don’t bother with the character’s Wikipedia page, since it’s written in the comics fan’s equivalent of Sanskrit. Suffice it to say that Marvel has been tinkering with Captain Marvel’s genesis and gender since the 1980s and recently merged the character with the long-running Ms. Marvel, a.k.a. Carol Danvers. (To add to the personality disorder, there’s also a completely separate DC Comics Captain Marvel, subject of the April 5 Warner Bros. release “Shazam!”)
Does any of this matter to the experience of “Captain Marvel,” the movie? Goodness, no. When the film opens, the title character believes herself to be Vers, a member of the alien Kree race and a trainee warrior under the stern tutelage of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) in the long fight against the slimy lizard guys the Skrull. (All the names in this corner of the canon are silly.) That battle eventually crash-lands Vers back on Planet C-53, which you and I call Earth. It’s 1995, and her memory is tickling with hints that she has been here before.
The time period has the odd effect of making “Captain Marvel” feel more old-fashioned than it should, with chases on foot and car pile-ups that don’t zoom with the expected big-screen razzmatazz. I swore I was watching a repeat of an old “Streets of San Francisco” episode at one point. The directors are Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, tackling their first franchise affair after a solid career making small, smart, powerful dramas (“Half Nelson” in 2006, “Sugar” in 2008, a terrific gambling flick no one saw called “Mississippi Grind” in 2015). They still haven’t figured out how to navigate an ocean liner instead of their usual handcrafted yachts.
As “Vers” spends time on her home planet, she recalls more of her past as an Air Force pilot, including a friendship with Maria “Photon” Rambeau (a tough, empathetic Lashana Lynch) and apprenticeship under Dr. Wendy Lawson, who’s played by Annette Bening as the Supreme Intelligence the movie needs. Maria has a feisty little daughter (Akira Akbar), and you may begin to sense an unforced vibe of collaborative sisterhood that makes ”Captain Marvel” move and walk and talk differently than most other spandex epics.
Oh, and there’s Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, still an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. but not yet leading the Avengers because they haven’t been invented yet. Apparently a lot of this film’s budget went into digitally rejuvenating Jackson’s face, as well as that of fellow agent Colson (Clark Gregg), back to their putative 1990s youths. The results live near the Uncanny Valley but not actually in it. More jarring is that Fury’s essentially the comic sidekick of “Captain Marvel,” and Jackson seems happy to unwind and snuggle with the kitty-cat that wanders in and out of the movie. (If you’ve seen enough of these things, of course, you’ll know to keep your eye on that cat.)
The villainous Skrull have an agenda of their own, and they can also shape-shift into a mirror image of anyone they see. This allows the great character actor Ben Mendelsohn — a highlight of the directors’ “Mississippi Grind” — to strut his stuff under heavy alien latex and with his own mug. After beginning as a standard, if tentative, Marvel outing, then losing its footing in the early scenes on Earth, “Captain Marvel” finally finds its groove in the back half, when Mendelsohn’s Skrull character, Talos, becomes an unlikely source of humor, with some line readings that are more amusingly nuanced than most Marvel movies dare.
This is also around the time that Larson comes into her own as Captain Marvel. The actress has always been more of an ironic watch-and-wait type than the sort who jumps headlong into the fray, and while “Room” (2015) won Larson an Oscar and made her a star, it’s atypical of her work. Here the hero observes, amasses information, and weighs her options before committing, and once you adjust to Larson’s rhythms, the performance feels subtle and fresh. Which, admittedly, may not be what the hordes are looking for in a superhero movie.
For all the noise and alien cultures and dogfights in space, “Captain Marvel” is an origin tale — a re-origin tale — of how Vers becomes Carol Danvers again on her way to becoming Captain Marvel. Without making a fuss, it’s a movie about regaining oneself and one’s values in a universe where the boys are busy fighting. It wasn’t until after the movie that I noticed that four out of the five screenwriters are women, maybe a first for this genre. Like the title character and the actress who plays her, they just want to take care of business.
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Written by Boden, Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dwore, Nicole Perlman, and Meg LeFauve. Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Annete Bening, Jude Law, Lashana Lynch, Ben Mendelsohn, Clark Gregg. At Boston theaters, suburbs; Jordan’s IMAX, Reading and Natick. 124 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language)