Marvel Studios has been the most dependable blockbuster brand of the past decade (and counting). Captain Marvel, the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is the studio’s first film to be led solely by a female protagonist. The historical significance of this moment is not lost on directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and yet they aim even higher. Captain Marvel goes further, with thematically-ambitious science fiction that inspires us to be better, faster.

Set in the mid-1990s, Captain Marvel feels right at home with the action movies of that decade. It’s got thrilling car chases and 90s needle drops to remind moviegoers of simpler, but still effective cinematic thrills. It also has slow upload speeds to let those who were around in the internet’s prehistoric period laugh off former frustrations. Much of this was to be expected based on the setting of the story, but Captain Marvel surprises with honest-to-goodness sci-fi that keeps pace with The Twilight Zone and Star Trek.

The story begins on Hala, home of the Kree. They have been on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. plenty, but they were also on the big screen in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) wakes up after a dream she does not know is a memory. She also does not know that her name is Carol Danvers. She will not discover that until later in the film. For now, she’s Vers and a member of Starforce, an elite team of Kree soldiers led by a commander (Jude Law) whose name is a bit of a spoiler. I’ll leave it out of this review, though one can easily find it on a Funko Pop!, or Hasbro action figure.

Starforce goes on an unsuccessful mission that results in Vers being captured by Skrulls, a race of shapeshifters with whom the Kree have been at war for generations. The end result of Vers’ capture and inevitable escape is her crashing through the roof of a Blockbuster Video with almost no idea (yet) that she’s actually landed on the planet where she was born.

What follows is a journey of self-discovery, played perfectly by Larson. Carol Danvers works her way through what she’s been told and what she fuzzily remembers in hopes of finding out who she is and what she’s truly capable of. The thematic emphasis on identity is obvious but no less effective. What’s clear throughout her memories is that Carol/Vers has been held down by gender-biased doubters who’ve wanted to see her fail, but do it with a smile.

Larson’s performance shows that vulnerability comes from strength, not in the absence of it. Her Carol Danvers is flawed. She makes mistakes but owns them. She falls but gets back up. She always gets back up. She is the kind of hero everyone can get behind.

Danvers’ trip down memory lane is aided by a two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Jackson is still the Fury we know, only this time he’s the Fury who doesn’t know everything. Carol Danvers is his first superhero and the invading Skrulls are his first aliens. It’s a lot to process for a guy who’s been riding a desk since the Cold War ended, but he eventually finds his greatest joy in a feline companion named Goose. There is, of course, more to Goose than Fury thinks.

In hot pursuit of Danvers and Fury are several Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). There are several other places to watch Mendelsohn play an antagonist, but it has never been this much fun and that’s really saying something. To say Goose steals the show in Captain Marvel is to give insufficient credit to Mendelsohn for all of Talos’ superb Skrullin.’

The love story in Captain Marvel is one of female friendship. Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) was Carol Danvers’ best friend up until (and even after) the latter was believed to be dead. Both were pilots in the Air Force when Carol literally disappeared off the face of the earth. Lynch is outstanding in the role of a single mother who had her world torn apart and then put it back together in time to see her friend return with glowing hands and tales of an alien war. The bond between Maria and Carol is the beating heart of this film.

Friendship and identity, among others, are powerful themes at play in Captain Marvel. There is another major one working just below the surface, but still clearly visible. In the vein of science fiction classics, Captain Marvel serves as an allegory with social commentary that has always been relevant, but feels particularly vital at this moment in our history. Saying exactly what it is would ruin a surprise, so I’ll save the specifics for my inevitable spoiler review podcasts and YouTube videos.

Visually, Captain Marvel transitions between cosmic action and grounded, Earth-based adventure with ease. It looks spectacular regardless of the setting, particularly in Dolby Vision, as it was presented at the world premiere. Dolby Cinema, which also includes the unparalleled quality of Dolby Atmos sound, remains the best way to experience these films.

Marvel Studios’ unprecedented streak of success stories continues with Captain Marvel. All Marvel movies tell their own stories with their own unique tonal range, but this latest installment really stands out. It has its own approach to the elements audiences expect from the MCU, like humor, while also being unafraid to be a little weird sometimes. Directors Boden and Fleck have delivered a timeless and timely superhero story sure to inspire moviegoers all over the world.