The Marvel Cinematic Universe is nothing if not consistent. Since their films slot together like a jigsaw puzzle, it helps if everything looks and feels the same, if the values align, if the emotional beats vibrate at the same frequency.
The MCU is the chain restaurant of superhero franchises — satisfying but always the same. Every now and then the Disney-owned comic corporation offers a new flavor, bringing on an auteur like Ryan Coogler to imbue a film like "Black Panther" with real pathos steeped in African and African-American history and tradition.
For their latest installment, Marvel has gone for girl power, hiring its first female director, Anna Boden, and her writing/directing partner Ryan Fleck, to helm "Captain Marvel." It's the MCU's first film led by a female superhero, starring Brie Larson.
"Captain Marvel" is a plucky and pleasing, if predictable, excursion that burns brightly, if briefly. Fleck and Boden have crafted a superhero character study that is bit of a feminist "Lethal Weapon," a retro buddy cop charmer that drives home its female empowerment themes with needle drops of every popular hit by female-fronted '90s rock bands. If only it weren't also saddled with so much tremendously silly outer space alien mumbo jumbo.
Rubber masks, ray guns and spacesuits abound in the world of "Captain Marvel," especially when we first meet the powerful Vers (Larson), a member of an extraterrestrial race of noble warrior heroes known as the Kree. She has a Jedi master-type named Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), not that you'd have the foggiest idea that is his name. The Kree wage war and launch stealth missions against the lizardy green Skrull aliens. The Skrulls capture Vers in hopes of finding a mysterious energy core, and during her ensuing escape, she ends up crashing into a Blockbuster Video on the planet C-53, aka Earth, in the mid-'90s.
At first she's a little like the Norse god Thor, all space jargon and hubris, bashing and crashing throughout Los Angeles, making an unlikely ally and friend in Special Agent Nick Fury (a digitally-smoothed Samuel L. Jackson). She discovers through her hazy maze of memories that she is Carol Danvers, a hot shot Air Force pilot who disappeared in a test flight crash six years ago, leaving behind a best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch).
Carol's journey on Earth takes her back to herself, returning to her values, idiosyncrasies, the things that make her unique — flawed, brave, quirky and deeply human. While Yon-Rogg has been coaching her to keep her emotions controlled in battle, it's only when Carol unleashes the full extent of her fury that things really get interesting, learning to fully unleash all the potential she contains in her powerfully electro-charged fists. But most importantly, she rediscovers what's worth fighting for.
"Captain Marvel" hits every beat like clockwork, pulls every required emotional string, cues every favorite song, slides in all the quick burns and fan-serving asides. But it feels like formulaic, box-checking filmmaking. That's why oddball anomalies like Ben Mendelsohn's dry, sarcastic performance as Skrull leader Talos and an overly-affectionate orange cat named Goose steal the show — they're the only elements that are different, fun and exciting.
Academy-award winner Larson is every bit as tough, empowering and even slyly funny as expected, but what's unfortunately lacking is the unexpected. Even though "Captain Marvel" hits all the right notes, you can't help but feel like we've heard this one before, for better or for worse.