★★★★

Captain Marvel crashes into the big screen with a flurry of explosions. The titular superheroine (Brie Larson) embodies the toughest bruiser imaginable as she fistfights, flies, and shoots her way through the stratosphere without so much as a glance over her shoulder to watch the carnage.

Sandwiched between the two epic intergalactic films that tie the entire Marvel Universe together, Captain Marvel incorporates the first female lead in a Marvel film, delivers another origin story, and attempts to serve as a prequel for the entire franchise. She has a lot on her plate.

Thanks to a flashback-heavy structure and an ongoing alien war with hazily-defined sides, Captain Marvel requires a healthy attention span along with plenty of focus. The additional element of being thrown into the 1990s is handled with minimal subtlety, as everywhere we turn there’s a Smashing Pumpkins poster or a Blockbuster store or a No Doubt song.

We meet the Captain—a woman of many names, she’s originally referred to as Vers, for reasons later explained—as she’s suiting up to fight alongside the essentially human, but blue-blooded alien race the Kree on a mission to exterminate green-skinned, shapeshifting creatures called Skrulls, whose planet-hopping habits have led to concern. Things don’t go as planned, Vers’ long-locked memories are probed by the opposition to uncover some hidden information, and she determines that she only knows half of her own story.

She gets some early advice from her Kree mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), to keep her potentially dangerous emotions in check, emotions which are visually manifested by an incandescent tag on the back of her neck and her ability to use her oft-glowing arms as powerful energy cannons. Upon her arrival—or “return,” as we quickly determine—to Earth, Vers quickly encounters Nick Fury (a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), and later her long-lost best friend from her Air Force days, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), who suggest that harnessing these repressed feelings is actually the key to her powers.

Captain Marvel struggles with two very tough cinematic challenges in addition to her numerous foes. First, this film falls between the two Infinity War movies, and with so many new characters mandatory for her to befriend and send along their way into what we already know to be a dangerous future, it draws focus away from the story of her provenance. Second, Marvel sometimes dips into “Superman territory,” where the protagonist is so invincible that the audience isn’t emotionally invested because there’s no way for the character to die (unless Thanos snaps his fingers). When the fully-realized Captain Marvel literally flies into outer space and gazes benevolently upon the Earth like the Starchild in 2001: A Space Odyssey, she is presented as nothing less than a god.

To spice up the mix, writing and directing partners Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) bring their indie film brand of mixing comedy and emotion to a genre that often struggles to balance the two. And while the post-credits tag lurches us after the events of Infinity War to set up Endgame, our time spent in the 90s with Captain Marvel is rewarding enough to feel like more than mere table-setting for the great conflagration.