The Marvels Makes the Most Out of the Mess It’s Inherited
Marvel’s latest is a superhero movie with an identity crisis.
The Marvels comes at a strange time for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The four-year gap since Captain Marvel, the fun but forgettable origin story for Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers, feels like an eternity. And for MCU fans, it has been, with the studio releasing 11 new movies and eight shows while superhero pandemonium gave way to superhero fatigue (those box office numbers don’t lie). But along the way, there have been a few undeniable bright spots, and, for its first 40 minutes or so, The Marvels looks like one of those bright spots. But the disarmingly funny and occasionally exciting team-up movie eventually succumbs to the many problems it’s inherited.
Nia DaCosta takes the helm for The Marvels, which picks up after Carol has been on her vaguely defined deep-space mission for many years. In that time, she’s become the idol of Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), a Jersey City teen who boasts her own superpowers thanks to a bangle she’s inherited from her grandmother and some latent Mutant powers. But Carol’s long absence has strained her relationship with another former little girl who idolized her, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), now a full-fledged captain with superpowers of her own working at Nick Fury’s S.A.B.E.R. The trio are unexpectedly brought together by a space-time anomaly that causes them to switch places whenever they use their powers (it has something to do with quantum entanglement). Forced together by these unusual circumstances, the trio — charmingly dubbed The Marvels by an overjoyed Kamala — team up to stop Kree warrior Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton, the film’s most glaring weak point, and a disappointingly hamfisted villain), who blames Captain Marvel for her home planet’s downfall and plans to rip the galaxy in half to restore the Kree to their former glory.
A merciful one hour 45 minutes long, The Marvels moves at such a brisk, hyperactive pace that you barely notice the plot is a mess. DaCosta wisely embraces the chaos, feeding into the confusion that Carol, Kamala, and Monica feel when they inexplicably switch places and get zapped across the galaxy. The Marvels brings back the lightness of the first Captain Marvel, with jokes and physical gags flying at a mile a minute. (Fresh off the instantly forgotten Secret Invasion, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is the most jovial he’s been in years.) Even DaCosta’s camera seems excited, with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt illuminating every corner of the screen and shooting both dialogue scenes and action scenes with equal kineticism.
The film peaks with its first body-switching sequence, which Carol and Monica unexpectedly trigger when they separately touch the strange cosmic anomaly. Monica and Kamala are pulled into Carol’s battle against Kree warriors, and what ensues is one of the most creative and engaging MCU fight scenes in years. The camera whips from setting to setting as if trying to catch up with the trio, as Monica is zapped to an alien planet, Kamala is zapped into deep space, and Carol is zapped into a Jersey City bedroom that is basically an altar to Captain Marvel. Kamala’s confusion, coupled with terror and excitement at what she believes is an Avengers test, is what makes it all work so well. Vellani delivers a joyous, relentlessly charming performance that makes her the clear MVP of the movie (and a potential bright spot in the MCU’s murky future).
Kamala Khan is the delightful grounding force of The Marvels, and Vellani’s every scene (paired with her equally scene-stealing family played by Muneeba Khan, Yusuf Khan, and Aamir Khan reprising their roles from Ms. Marvel) is such a joy to watch that at times she feels like the film’s de facto protagonist. The movie works best as a sequel to Ms. Marvel — DaCosta even pays homage to the schoolbook stylings of the Disney+ show with an adorable animated sequence that lures you into thinking this might be the most innovative Marvel movie yet. (Unfortunately, this motif is almost immediately abandoned.)
But the chaos that The Marvels so gamely embraced at first soon starts to overtake the film, until it gets buried in a quagmire of confusing cosmic lore and half-baked subplots. The issues plaguing The Marvels are not entirely the fault of DaCosta, who manages to bring much more character to the movie than Captain Marvel’s directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. It’s the script co-penned by DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, and Elissa Karasik, which has a remarkably shallow, scattered plot for the amount of heavy lifting it has to do. A thin plot is not the death knell for a movie by any means, but it does force The Marvels down a steep nosedive once the initial charms wear off.
The sparkling chemistry between the lead trio, who work overtime to make up for the undercooked plot and form an engaging dynamic within an astonishingly short amount of time, does not make up for the fact that The Marvels is not a fully formed movie. Instead, it’s a finale for three separate shows, including one that we never saw.
While The Marvels does a fine job catching us up on Monica and Kamala’s journeys after WandaVision and Ms. Marvel, respectively, the character that suffers the most is, ironically, Carol. Her offscreen adventures are explained piecemeal through clunky exposition scenes and hurried flashbacks, which leads to Larson feeling a little lost within her own sequel. When Carol’s previous indiscretions turn out to drive the emotional and narrative crux of the movie, The Marvels quickly falls apart. Carol’s whole storyline feels like a remnant of an original script, perhaps one that initially formed the sequel to Captain Marvel before the film became an outlet through which two other characters and four other storylines (a handful of which are fun and wacky, but have no bearing on the overall narrative) could be introduced and resolved.
Carol is effectively backburnered in her own movie, which is sadly part and parcel of her standing within the MCU in general, in which her Avengers appearances amounted to little more than cameos. And while it may not seem like an issue for a movie billed as an ensemble, it becomes a problem when its biggest emotional beats are told to us, rather than shown. What is the emotional core of the movie when Carol is almost a non-character? How are we supposed to feel the loss of a character we barely remember but whose offscreen death weighs so heavily on Carol and Monica? DaCosta is a talented director when it comes to character drama, but the film doesn’t give these charged moments enough time to linger, and we breeze past anything that might give us an emotional anchor in favor of more wacky antics and lore.
The Marvels, for better or worse, embodies Marvel’s current identity crisis. There’s a nugget of the truly innovative movie within it, which plays out mostly uninterrupted for the first half. But it’s when The Marvels becomes beholden to the overall MCU that its ramshackle script starts to fall apart. DaCosta and her lead actors tackle the film with a wacky spirit that we haven’t seen in years. But a handful of genuinely inspired choices and spirit can only take you so far.