‘Captain Marvel’ entertains even with shallow protagonist

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The last time the Marvel Cinematic Universe asked audiences, “Hey, remember the new guy?” It was four films and three years old, and we got “Captain America: The First Avenger,” which unleashed the Herculean charisma of Chris Evans as World War II hero Steve Rogers.

“Captain Marvel” is the now 11-year-old Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 21st film, and this time, it’s retroactively inserting another military veteran into its fictional history, with Brie Larson playing an alien soldier who crash-lands on Earth in the 1990s … or is she a human Air Force test pilot?

Shoe-horning new characters into the established backstory of any long-running TV or movie series — and treating them like they’ve always been there — is challenging enough. But “Captain Marvel” makes it even more complicated by turning its central character’s identity into an enigma.

The best and worst thing I can say about Larson’s performance is that it reminds me of Keanu Reeves in the first “Matrix” film.

Her search for the underlying truth that connects her confusing discoveries makes it easy to empathize with her, since we as viewers are seeking to make sense of this mystery right alongside her. But, like Reeves as Neo, Larson as “Vers” often comes across as a bit emotionally blank, especially in the early going of this story.

Fortunately, while Larson might be slightly flat, she’s surrounded by a colorful and engaging cast, including the terrific 1990s versions of familiar Marvel favorites Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), back when the two agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were a lot less world-weary or savvy about aliens and super-people.

Proven talents Jude Law, Annette Bening and my favorite underrated supporting actor of the moment, Ben Mendelsohn, all deliver entertaining if unambitious performances, with enough twists and turns that I don’t even feel comfortable revealing who their characters are, for fear of spoiling the plot. Goose the Cat (named after Tom Cruise’s sidekick in “Top Gun”) is definitely a scene-stealer.

For fans of the Marvel source material, there’s a treasure trove of Easter egg references here, including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameo glimpse of “Captain Marvel” comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick.

Yes, you will see how Fury lost his eye, which is amusing, albeit perhaps overly cute.

And for kids who grew up during the 1990s, prepare to have your childhoods pandered to relentlessly, with a sweet grunge-era soundtrack and what are probably a few too many references to how slow and antiquated both computers and the internet were back then, even though I still found them funny.

If it sounds like I’m reviewing this film like I’m going down a checklist, that’s because “Captain Marvel,” even more than any Marvel film, exists primarily to set the stage for the films to follow: in this case “Avengers: Endgame,” which is being released next month.

It’s all good, but it’s not great. As much as Neo in “The Matrix” gave boys a Chosen One character whose coolness they could aspire to, “Captain Marvel” gives girls a heroine whose lifetime of struggles they’ll likely be able to relate to, even if she’s nowhere near as inspiring as Gal Gadot’s astonishingly triumphant “Wonder Woman.”

After the ways in which “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Black Panther” seemed to dispense with the market-tested Marvel formula, the most disappointing aspect of “Captain Marvel” is how it reverts to the fast-food standard that critics of Marvel have called out, but even then, it remains solidly okay.

The real trick will be how the Avengers manage to incorporate a somewhat overpowered character with a still-vague personality into their endearingly naturalistic family dynamic.

As always with Marvel films, there are mid-credits and end-credits scenes.

Because this is the first film released since the passing of Marvel Comics founding father Stan Lee, there is much more than a guest appearance in his honor this time, and those tributes are easily the best part of the film.

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