Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel ★★

For a film that’s almost completely incoherent for most of its first act — and seldom finds its footing after that — “Captain Marvel” is rather clear about its one big idea. Jude Law, playing an alien military commander named Yon-Rogg, mansplains it to his promising female protege as they spar during the opening scene. “There’s nothing more dangerous to a warrior than emotion,” he barks at Vers (Brie Larson). “You have to let go of the part of yourself that makes you vulnerable.” He’s Morpheus, she’s Neo, and this is the dojo fight from “The Matrix” if it were less visceral and more explicitly gendered.

But “Captain Marvel,” despite expectations and appearances, is not a groundbreaking science-fiction saga from the 1990s. On the contrary, it’s the 21st installment of the 21st century’s most popular mega-franchise, and somehow the first to center on a heroine (a fact that makes the film’s arrival a sadly overdue cause for celebration, like a kid blowing out their birthday candles on the 21st try). The context behind Yon-Rogg’s axioms couldn’t be clearer, nor the message more pointed: Women are always being told that they’re too “emotional” to lead, but Vers’ convoluted journey will lead her to see that emotions can be a superpower unto themselves, and that her vulnerability is also her greatest strength. If only Vers’ movie didn’t treat that sentiment like a self-fulfilling prophecy; if only it earned the beautiful idea that it lays out at the start.