There’s cosmic significance in “Captain Marvel” — the first female-led installment of the seemingly endless Marvel Studios Avengers franchise — opening on International Women’s Day. As a story of a woman overcoming self-doubt and the forces that control her to discover latent powers that can literally save the world, it is just the kind of feminist myth we need when our male leaders seem so feckless and overcompensating.
But this busy, uneven origin story also feels like too little, too late. Audiences have already been thrilled to the sight of a super-she-ro in 2017’s “Wonder Woman.” What might have been a cathartic thrill a few years ago now takes the form of a question: What took you guys so long? “Captain Marvel” possesses the same irreverent banter that has characterized so many Avengers movies, which, since 2008’s “Iron Man,” have steadfastly avoided the self-importance of other comic book spectacles.
Here, however, the wit begins to feel too self-consciously offhand for its own good. Structurally, the film is a gnarly tangle of trippy flashbacks, sludgy action scenes, complicated exposition and some amusing references to 1990s pop culture. But the emotional pull of “Captain Marvel” lies not in its often befogged title character, but in its far more charismatic ancillary figures.
Brie Larson plays Captain Marvel, who, when the movie opens, hasn’t taken on that identity yet. Her name is Vers (pronounced “Veers”), and she is a member of the Kree civilization, which she is training to defend as a warrior. Endowed with hands that burn like glowing embers, she studies with Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), a Yoda-like mentor who utters such banal pronouncements as, “Control your impulses” and “I want you to be the best version of yourself.” Soon after “Captain Marvel” opens, Vers and Yon-Rogg are embarking on a mission to battle the Krees’ longtime enemies, the Skrulls. But Vers is being assaulted by strange memories, shards of half-remembered moments and indistinct impressions of obvious but also opaque meaning.
The first half-hour of “Captain Marvel” is a perfunctory jumble of mind games, shifting realities and an ambush sequence that looks like it was shot through pea soup. The film doesn’t lock in until Vers finds herself on Planet C-53, a.k.a. Earth, where she arrives by tumbling into a Blockbuster Video store. From there, the film becomes lighter and more legible, with Vers meeting a man named Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who calls himself an agent of SHIELD. They become unlikely allies, solving the mystery of Vers’s past and navigating a lively labyrinth of ’90s-era artifacts that include “Rock the Vote” posters, Internet cafes, the AltaVista search engine, cellphones that look like small footlockers and the agony of waiting for a CD-ROM to open on a slow computer.
Larson has a level, no-nonsense everydayness that feels right for her character, whose real identity we learn is a gifted pilot named Carol Danvers. Once she’s on Earth, she dons a grungy Nine Inch Nails T-shirt and flannel, which at one point Fury tells her to lose because she “looks like someone’s disaffected niece.” They develop an easygoing chemistry throughout “Captain Marvel,” in which Jackson and Clark Gregg — who plays a newbie agent under his tutelage — are smoothly de-aged through the miracle of digital technology.
The problem is everything is so low-key, so calculatingly underplayed, that the stakes are never convincingly heightened. Larson spends the first part of “Captain Marvel” almost in a narcotized haze, which is fitting. But once she comes into consciousness, she never finds the sweet spot between muted impassivity and the kind of compelling machisma her alter ego warrants.
The directors of “Captain Marvel,” Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, come from the indie world, where they’ve made affecting, well-crafted humanist portraits. When Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige announced their hiring, he used the term “emotional journey” a lot. They’re clearly at their best with the most human-scale elements of “Captain Marvel,” especially the dorky repartee and some amusing scenes involving Nick Fury and a cat named Goose. But the visual effects, while serviceable, are underwhelming, and the action sequences feel clunky and awkwardly choreographed.
As for the emotional journey, “Captain Marvel” is a strangely mixed bag. There’s a genuinely moving montage when a beaten-down Carol recalls all the times she was thwarted as a child, only to get back up again. But other than that throat-catching moment, most of the feeling in the movie belongs to supporting figures (as well as a sweet goodbye to the late comic book icon Stan Lee, in his final cameo). Annette Bening invests her character — appropriately known as the Supreme Intelligence — with authority and inherent wisdom. Ben Mendelsohn, who starred in Boden and Fleck’s terrific drama “Mississippi Grind,” brings heart and soul to a Skrull villain named Talos, and Lashana Lynch, as Carol’s best friend and fellow pilot Maria Rambeau, finds commanding pathos in how her character processes past loss and present-day bewilderment.
As shaky and unfocused as “Captain Marvel” often seems, it manages to reach its destination with confidence. In the end, Larson sticks the landing, albeit with something more muted than absolute triumph. The final takeaway is clear. Mission accomplished: More movies ahead.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sequences of sci-fi violence, action and brief suggestive language. 124 minutes.