Those of us who've merely been keeping tabs on the cultural behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe might well require a briefing before going into Captain Marvel. Ms. Marvel, born Carol Danvers but commonly known as Vers, was the individual to whom Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury sent out an intergalactic SOS after the perhaps reversible mass slaughter at the end of last year's Avengers: Infinity War, a development that extended the Universe's broadly progressive arc: the suggestion was that a woman would come in and kick ass where all Fury's boys had failed. God forbid we should cut to that chase - recent movie history points to the fact money can be made from stringing out this kind of cinematic chewing gum, obliging us to attend next month's Avengers: Endgame for resolution - so we now find ourselves faced with an illustrated sidebar on how Carol (played by Room's Brie Larson) wound up in Nick Fury's Rolodex in the first place. An event-movie mountain can thus be formed from the molehill of a character passing on a calling card, inflating what might have been one or two expositionary lines or scenes at the start of Endgame into a much-trumpeted two-hour feature. That feature offers the usual fleeting distraction to offset the low stakes that follow from knowing the star is destined to return to us in six weeks' time; rarely can a heroine's indomitability have seemed so contractual.
The success of the Marvel movies - made all the more apparent by rivals DC's generally leaden trudges - lies in their ability to make superficial distinctions between their satellite projects, which is to say those second-rank blockbusters that exist solely to feed into the main Avengers throughline. We're essentially being sold the same crashes and bangs over and over again, but some shrewd cloaking technology has been put in place between them and the audience, so that Thor: Ragnarok can be floated and claimed as "the comedy one" and Black Panther as "the Afrofuturist one". Captain Marvel, which has sparked heated online dispute as "the feminist one", starts out looking more like straight science fiction, immediately setting up an unfavourable comparison with the at least patchily funny Guardians of the Galaxy ("the goofy sci-fi one"). There are several scenes in which the Captain can be seen charging around dingy spaceship corridors encountering men in rubber masks who gabble lines about oddly named constellations as if their very lives depended on it; you may feel more predisposed to this material if you survived a single episode of Babylon 5. It is not, in total, the most promising introduction: also tossed in are altogether clunky flashbacks to Carol's days as a plucky child and a plucky fighter pilot, in which men repeatedly tell her, in no uncertain terms, not to let her emotions get the better of her.
It is with some relief, then, that this supergirl falls to Earth, or to be more specific, Los Angeles as it was in the mid-1990s, at which point Captain Marvel reveals itself to be "the nostalgic one". After Carol crashlands in a Blockbuster Video - immediately asserting her dominance by taking out a promotional standee for Arnie's True Lies - there isn't a wall free from Bush and Smashing Pumpkins flyposters, there isn't a soundtrack cue that wasn't initially roadtested on Steve Lamacq's Evening Session, and there isn't a wrinkle to be seen on Sam Jackson's face, because his Fury has been airbrushed, in a feat of digital cosmetic surgery, to resemble the younger actor who might have graced that Blockbuster's copies of Pulp Fiction and Amos & Andrew. We can only wonder what will happen when pop culture finally digests the grunge and Britpop eras and moves on to expressing renewed appetite for the Noughties, a decade chiefly defined in the popular imagination by the fall of the Twin Towers and a bloodily protracted ground war. (This century has not, so far, been good to many of us.) In the meantime, we can amuse ourselves by attempting to pin down Captain Marvel's most clangily inserted Nineties callback. The AltaVista pages Carol consults at one point? The Nine Inch Nails tee she rather improbably sports while travelling cross-country? The Nerf gun someone pulls amid the climactic shootout?
It isn't just the production design; much of the action feels recycled in some way. When Carol blasts through the door Fury has spent several seconds trying to open manually, it gets a laugh, but it's the whip/gun gag from Raiders of the Lost Ark repurposed for indoor use. The record room that door opens onto itself looks a little Raiders-y, with a hint of the period-appropriate X-Files, too. An aerial dogfight through the California canyons is Star Wars brought low. Even the Captain's suit looks like knock-off Iron Man. Amid the briskly confident staging, one spies glimpses of an emergent crisis: with the proliferation of event movies - at least one a month, every year for a decade now - Hollywood is running out of authentically fresh, dazzling or jawdropping images, organic or otherwise. Calling in thrusting young talent - Ryan Coogler there, the Fleck/Boden pairing here - feels increasingly like a creative hail mary, and it's not doing that much to address the issue: all Fleck and Boden, a very capable pairing elsewhere, accomplish on these soundstages is to be a little more knowing about their recycling. That said, nothing could sell me on the idea that Annette Bening, as some form of supreme intelligence, would find herself frugging to Nirvana's "Come As You Are", the reach for a certain grrl-power attitude (Elastica, Garbage, Hole) is at once undermined by a fight set to the thoroughly corporate No Doubt, and Carol's rather nebulous route to self-affirmation requires several hackneyed, Screenwriting-101 betrayals to trick out this pen-portrait to feature length.
There are handfuls of fun, which would be the least anybody might ask of it. Larson, a skilful performer making a foursquare play for megastardom, gives good sceptical glare, and she demonstrates a forcefulness that may serve her well against Thanos: within the first half-hour, we've seen her crash into (and then beat up) a supposedly sweet old lady. She plays well off Jackson, who's spent this first wave of Marvel movies looking for someone to play against. (Hard to get much of a rhythm going in those post-credit stings.) There's one well-engineered crash landing, and one of the recent cinema's more memorable cats, which was almost enough in itself to convince the crowd I saw Captain Marvel with that their disposable income hadn't been entirely squandered. Of gamechanging narrative detail, however, there is but one thing - we learn how Nick Fury lost his eye - and one thing alone. It speaks volumes about the paucity of ideas and heft in American mainstream cinema that sentient adults should have been persuaded to take essentially flimsy, placeholding runarounds such as this seriously, whether as drama, feminism, or anything else. Climaxing with the only moderately stirring sight of the now-eyepatched Fury typing up a memo summarising the preceding assignment, Captain Marvel is, as is so often the case within this Universe, reasonable business, and that's really the best that needs saying for it.
Captain Marvel is now playing in cinemas nationwide.