Most of us tune in to superhero movie to watch a good guy beat the snot out of a bad guy — but as franchises like Marvel embed themselves further into the zeitgeist, we’ve got to ask ourselves something: how many times have they delivered action that was well and truly memorable?
Marvel’s Cinematic Universe prides itself on spectacle, but in 15 years and twice as many films, real, remarkable action remains as elusive as ever. Aside from the odd gem, like the Captain America sequels or Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, high-quality, high-octane fight sequences feel more like afterthoughts. The MCU prioritizes CGI mush over grounded thrills, meaning that most hand-to-hand combat we do get to see often devolves into lazy slugfests before the credits roll.
Comprehensible choreography and tight editing has become a luxury few Marvel projects can afford. She-Hulk even nixed an effects-heavy third act battle from its series finale, a glib attempt at critiquing the very franchise it calls home. But it doesn’t offer a solution to the endless cycle of muddy, boring visuals, nor does any project that’s come out since.
But that’s exactly what makes the MCU’s latest effort such a breath of fresh air. The Marvels may be the 33rd feature in a creatively-stagnant franchise, but director Nia DaCosta, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and fight coordinator Liang Yang work hard to capture its trio of heroes in some of Marvel’s best action yet. It becomes a highlight of the film, especially when combined with its downright wacky premise.
Spoilers for The Marvels follow!
The Marvels is a bit like Freaky Friday by way of Jumper. Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) find themselves switching places whenever they attempt to use their light-based powers. Though the film doesn’t take the time to really explain the mechanics that make this possible, the “how” or “why” of it all quickly gives way to some surprisingly-tactical fight scenes, some of the best the MCU has featured in a long time.
Larson’s Captain Marvel has oft been touted as the Most Powerful Avenger, but we’ve barely gotten the chance to see her in action since she was introduced in 2019. The Marvels doesn’t waste much time in that regard: since she can’t really use her powers without teleporting, Carol has no choice but to use the other skills at her disposal — and DaCosta & Co. capture that with some serious confidence and clarity.
In The Marvels’ first action scene, Carol, Monica, and Kamala each face off with a group of Kree zealots in Kamala’s family home. Carol is especially ruthless: she may not appreciate being called “the Annihilator,” but she’s certainly earned the moniker. Her comeback is not unlike Captain America’s (Chris Evans) second solo outing in The Winter Soldier. While Captain America: The First Avenger is undoubtedly one of the MCU’s stronger entries, it’s fairly tame in the action department. Cap comes back swinging in the sequel, however, demonstrating his newfound chops in the blistering sequence that opens the film. That scene went a long way in establishing the character as a true power player, and The Marvels’ own fight sequences do the same for Captain Marvel.
Carol isn’t the only one getting her licks in, either. Each of The Marvels’ leads get the chance to dole out some damage, especially when they finally get a handle on their switching affliction and face off with the film’s main villain, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton). They pull zero punches in The Marvels’ final fight, a sequence that would likely make Black Widow proud.
“We get to add to that history that [Marvel is] starting to really dig into now, like women beating the s**t out of each other,” DaCosta told IGN, “which is really exciting for me, because I love fight scenes. I was very excited to do it.”
DaCosta is notably “proud” of the action on display in The Marvels, and she’s got every right to be. The film may have its flaws in story and structure, but it makes up for that where it can. It’s been a long time since an MCU film’s had this much fun with its action. The Marvels may spent a lot of its time in space, but its latent physicality brings it back down to earth when it needs it the most.