The Marvels is fun and engaging at times, with surprisingly detailed and delightful dynamics between its three leads: legendary superhero Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), the niece she inadvertently abandoned, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and a teenage fangirl who hopes to follow in her footsteps, Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani). However, once it crosses the threshold most recent Marvel movies seem to reach—an inevitable point-of-no-return, after which things fall apart—character becomes a secondary, at times tertiary concern. Visually un-interesting action fills the frame. Every setup peters out, only to be followed by unrelated payoffs out of the blue. The movie’s handful of real-world political and cultural influences (even those it reflects through funhouse mirrors) similarly fall by the wayside. Diehard fans and casual audiences alike deserve better.
The question of whether the Marvel Cinematic Universe is buckling under its weight is understandably on people’s lips, between a recent exposé detailing Marvel Studios’ troubles, the dwindling box-office expectations of recent entries, and the fact that The Marvels isn’t just a sequel to the 2019 film Captain Marvel, but to at least two different streaming shows, WandaVision and Ms. Marvel, potentially alienating casual viewers. That last point may be true when it comes to urging people to buy tickets, but it’s something the movie is keenly aware of, and perhaps even over-corrects. Right up front, there are flashbacks upon flashbacks, and numerous expository conversations about the “who” and “why” of it all; there may as well have been a “previously on” segment, like a TV show. It’s something on which the movie spends an excess of screentime, going to great lengths to lay out each character’s backstory (including in a quirky animated sequence) without much emotional involvement, even though a plot device half-way through—which requires the trio to share visions and memories—does a far superior job of effective expanding on these threads and their meaningful connections.
In the meantime, the film is mostly adept at establishing its plot mechanics, and the complications stemming from forcing these three specific characters together. In a far-flung corner of the galaxy, Carol, a 30-year veteran of outer-space superheroics (who hasn’t aged for reasons unexplained; probably her magical origins), is contacted by her comrade Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) back on Earth—or rather, on a space station just above it—when a hyper-space “jump point” near the atmosphere malfunctions. Don’t sweat the details; there are explanations for all these things across various other films and shows, but they’re easy enough to accept as part of a sci-fi adventure premise.
Carol and Monica (now an astronaut working for Fury) happen to touch the two opposite ends of this weird wormhole in space—whose emergence is tied to Kamala’s mysterious superpowered bangle, an heirloom from her grandmother—thus entangling the trio’s powers and causing them to suddenly switch places whenever they use their respective magical abilities. The ensuing shenanigans are a hoot. Any cross-cutting between the three leads tends to kill momentum, since the film is rarely able to track who’s where and doing what at a given time, as though whatever isn’t immediately on screen ceases to exist. However, some of the ensuing shenanigans are a hoot, like when Kamala’s matter-of-fact parents, Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff) and Yusuf (Mohan Kapur), and her sarcastic brother Aamir (Saagar Shaikh) have to deal with surprise superheroes and villains waltzing through their living room in Jersey City, while Kamala and Monica are forced into alien battles just as suddenly. But once the characters start to get a handle on all this body-swapping, the result is a whole lot less entertaining, with action choreographed far too neatly for an impromptu battle, a camera that captures most of it in close-up, and edits that serve to obscure impact and geography. The fight is, and ought to be, confusing by nature to the three leads, but its depiction isn’t controlled chaos so much as it is simply chaotic—a problem that runs throughout the movie’s 105 minutes.
For about its first half, The Marvels balances character and plot momentum with aplomb. Its villain, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton, who transcends her scheming stock type with a menacing grin and metal-infused teeth), follows in the footsteps of her fellow Kree extremists (Lee Pace’s Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy; Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg in this film’s predecessor), and though her motives remain semi-obscured at first, she uses her own newfound powers to threaten a colony of green-skinned, pointy-eared Skrulls, a persecuted alien species introduced in Captain Marvel. They were already framed as stateless refugees in 2019, but recent real-world events in Gaza—and the Skrulls’ leader having a vaguely Arab accent, albeit one put on by Scottish actor Gary Lewis—only serve to magnify the fact that these movies do, in fact, have a real and volatile political core. They rarely start out as empty spectacle, even if they often end up this way.
Dar-Benn’s attack on the Skrull refugees is an inflection point for the movie, not only establishing the villain’s might (and the threat she poses to other planets), but setting up a volatile connection between Kamala and Carol. While the young Pakistani American starts out as a fawning fangirl—Iman Vellani is a breath of fresh air—her idealism clashes with Carol’s pragmatism (some might say pessimism) when it comes to how many refugees can realistically be saved—the kind of Trolley Problem that has run throughout several Avengers films. It makes for rigorous dramatic tension at first; coupled with the fact that Monica was a kid when Carol left Earth, never to return, the seasoned superhero now has to deal with the disappointed gaze of two little girls.
But that’s where this story ends. Before long, that gaze ceases to matter. While the trio establishes a fun physical repertoire through a lively training montage (involving juggling and jump-rope tricks as they magically swap places), the dynamics between them are never mined for real story beats, except the occasional pause between lines of dialogue. They have little bearing on how Carol, Kamala and Monica move through the story, let alone their action scenes, which—in true Marvel fashion, with VFX artists and 2nd Unit Directors taking the lead—feel designed and executed entirely separately from story or character concerns (or even the trio’s individual power-sets, which eventually blend together). Even the film’s director, Candyman helmer Nia DaCosta, called The Marvels as “a Kevin Feige production, it’s his movie,” referring to Marvel’s head honcho. And as such, its signature flourishes belong not to DaCosta, but to the studio, whose penchant for tension-sapping banter, weightless action and half-formed ideas are all on full display.
Some of the humor certainly works, notably when Khan’s family is forced to take shelter on Fury’s space station. It’s the perfect clash between real-world normalcy and the series’ grandiose, larger-than-life premise, thanks to the Khans’ “South Asian immigrant parent” idiosyncrasies—Muneeba’s highly critical observations; Yusuf’s penchant for business jargon—even though they end up playing more like the flattened stereotypes they appeared to be at the start of the Ms. Marvel series, without the loving layers to them unearthed by the final episodes. Still, it’s refreshing to hear this much Urdu spoken in a major Hollywood production, and arguably important to see specifically Muslim phrases (like “Subhan Allah”) and Islamic prayer be casual, unremarkable facets of the movie’s comedic fabric, especially given the recent resurgence in Western Islamophobia.
On the other hand, the movie also drops the ball when it comes to its other imaginative conceptions of culture and spectacle. The Marvels comes shockingly close to taking on the form of a Disney musical when the trio is forced to seek the help of a handsome alien prince (Park Seo-joon) whose kingdom’s primary language is song-and-dance, leading to a brief Broadway-style musical sequence, for which Carol is prepared, but the others are not. However, before the movie can find something fun to do with this premise, like forcing Kamala and Monica outside their comfort zone, it finds a lame excuse to drop the gimmick entirely so it can transition to its exhausting action climax (to say nothing of the connections it fails to draw between this alien culture and Kamala’s love for Bollywood, as seen in her own series).
In tandem with an unfolding mystery aboard the space station (which turns out to be a deus ex machina allowing for an easy fix to several narrative problems), The Marvels sends its lead trio into a surprisingly truncated final battle without much emotional resolution, or much care for the character mechanics it previously established. If anything, these dynamics are quickly swept under the rug via off-screen dialogue seemingly ADR’d in post-production, in a lightning quick exchange so sloppily conceived that it seems to imbue the lead characters with the complete opposite perspectives and approaches that defined them during the pivotal Skrull rescue.
It's a mess that only grows messier by the end, with a drab eyesore of a final act in which character decisions and catharses are completely untethered from anything which came before. It’s as though they’d been copied and pasted over from an entirely different draft, with the express intent of setting up future movies in Marvel’s slowly expanding multiverse, rather than effectively bringing this one to a close. The “Marvels” of the title may refer to the leading trio, but from the outside, it reads like a self-reflexive label for Marvel Studios itself, a Hollywood juggernaut finding it increasingly difficult to regain its former glory. Ironically, the core of its storytelling problems are exemplified by this title trouble too: characters with real identities being subsumed and overshadowed by the studio machine.
Published on November 9, 2023