If nothing else, I’ve gotta say it’s nice reviewing a Marvel movie that isn’t critic-proof. As I’ve said before, The Marvels comes at a time when the MCU and its position in the mainstream zeitgeist are in flux. Now that the Infinity Saga, the Blip, and its immediate aftermath are all played out, we’re slowly but surely reckoning with the fact that the Marvel films have become normalized. It’s no longer feasible to continue treating each Marvel film as a huge cultural event, much less an Endgame-level smash, even though everyone from the C-suite at Disney to the last fuckwit talking head on YouTube has come to depend on that status quo.
Furthermore, The Marvels comes fresh off a SAG-AFTRA strike that made promotion borderline impossible in the weeks and months when press appearances would’ve done the most good. This is likely why October box office grosses across the board would’ve been historically bad if it wasn’t for Taylor Swift. I need hardly add that Disney’s big centennial year has been catastrophic, with a string of costly box-office flops. One of my correspondents went so far as to suggest that Disney deliberately tanked The Marvels, so they could declare the losses as a tax write-off.
It’s the best explanation I have for why The Marvels is underperforming, because it’s not a bad movie at all.
Don’t worry if you’re not up to speed with the MCU. Enough time in-universe has passed in between entries that even those up to speed are no longer up to speed. Luckily, the first act makes efficient use of snappy dialogue and flashback montages to fill us in.
- Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (Brie Larson) has been so busy zipping around the cosmos that she hasn’t found the time to immediately end every other movie in the canon. As it turns out, the bulk of her work has focused on mitigating the Kree-Skrull War and the collateral damage thereof. Moreover, it turns out that her actions in Captain Marvel indirectly caused the Kree-Skrull War to escalate in a catastrophic way, and she’s too proud to go back home to Earth for any length of time until she’s cleaned up her mess.
- Cpt. Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) knew Carol as a kid, and she’s still upset with Carol for leaving Earth without a trace 30 years ago. Ever since getting her own light-based powers (see: “Wandavision”), Monica’s been hard at work on S.A.B.E.R., a new international peacekeeping agency headed up by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Motherfucking Jackson). Together, Monica and Fury have maintained an impressive new space station to keep an eye on threats both terrestrial and interplanetary.
- Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) recently obtained her own light-based powers, with some assistance from a mysterious bangle passed down as a family heirloom (see: “Ms. Marvel”). She’s a teenage Captain Marvel fangirl still coming into her own as a superheroine, juggling her powers, her Muslim heritage, and her uptight family.
Into all of this comes Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), the latest supreme leader of the Kree, who uncovers a bangle identical to that of Kamala’s. Without going into too much detail about her big evil plan (more on that later), the upshot is that it indirectly and accidentally results in Carol, Monica, and Kamala getting entangled. So now the three of them swap places with each other when they use their powers at the same time. Does the explanation make any sense? Put it this way.
Monica: “I walked through a witch hex, so now I can become intangible and absorb massive amounts of energy.”
Carol: “Huh. That’s cool. Anyway, there’s a teenager I’ve never met who can turn light into solid matter, and I’m standing in her house right now because we instantly traded places across half the galaxy, what are we doing about that?”
This is the MCU, stranger things happen every day of the week. The important thing is that we’ve got a novel conceit for a superhero crossover like nothing we’ve never seen in any superpowered team-up to date. The teleportation element adds a whole new dimension to multiple fight scenes happening at once, and I raise a glass to editors Catrin Hedstrom and Evan Schiff for cutting everything together in a way that stays coherent without compromising energy. Perhaps more importantly, the conceit gives our main characters a compelling and innovative reason to train together, coordinate, communicate, and grow closer as a team.
Perhaps most importantly, a crucial element of this premise is that our leads have to be judicious in their choice of when to use or not use their powers. It adds some neat variety to the fight scenes, as our heroes have to find other ways of beating bad guys and solving problems aside from throwing pixels around. This even makes for phenomenal character development, most especially in the case of Kamala: Tell a bright young budding teenage superheroine that she can’t use her powers — not even to save peoples’ lives — and see what happens. Especially when that message is coming from someone Kamala idolizes as much as Captain Marvel.
Carol has spent so much time brooding in the vacuum of space, zipping from one war zone to the next, she’s lost sight of the individuals who look up to her and depend on her. Carol herself may object to anyone holding her up as an omnipotent role model, and she’s spent much more time with her reputation as the reason why the Kree homeworld has gone to shit. But both sides are equally true and valid sides of her brand image and she has to deal with them both.
Carol Danvers is the experienced paragon who comes to rediscover her human side. Monica Rambeau is the comedic “straight man” who comes to embrace her status as a superhero. And Kamala is the excitable wannabe who eventually gets lifted up to join the pantheon of her idols. The three of them inform each other superbly well, and it’s astonishing how well these actors play off each other.
And what of our villain? Well, I’m sorry to say that Ashton is such a vacuum of charisma that she comes off looking and sounding like a lower-tier MCU villain. But what Dar-Benn lacks in screen presence or personality, she more than makes up for with her big evil scheme and motivation thereof.
The Kree homeworld of Hala has become such an uninhabitable dump that Dar-Benn is opening up wormholes to drain entire planets of their most vital resources and pour them into Hala. (Not like gold or oil or anything like that, I’m talking about stuff like breathable air and potable water.) Predictably, it turns out that tearing open wormholes and keeping them open indefinitely is really fucking bad for the entire space/time continuum.
Basically put, Dar-Benn is so tightly focused on her mission, so blinded by her own arrogance and spite, she’s made herself willfully blind to the consequences of what she’s doing with her power. In this way, she works well enough as a thematic dark mirror against Carol Danvers, taking Captain Marvel’s mindset and methodology to the furthest possible extreme.
To wit: At the climax, we learn that Captain Marvel could’ve fixed literally everything all along with only five minutes and barely any inconvenience. Why didn’t she come up with such a blindingly obvious solution in the first place? Well, a less charitable viewer might chalk it up as a failing of the plot, and I will grant that the runtime could’ve afforded another two minutes to smooth out the plot in some places. Even so, I prefer to consider this another example to show just how badly Carol Danvers has lost herself.
That’s not even getting started on all the other fun stuff packed into this movie. We’ve got a new species of alien that communicates entirely in song, opening it up to some delightful musical numbers. We’ve got Kamala’s family (played by Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, and Saagar Shaikh) to provide just enough comic relief without wearing out their welcome. Don’t even get me started on that diabolically brilliant Flerken sequence, I was rolling on the floor laughing all through it.
There’s character development, there’s pathos to go with the empowering themes, and there’s comic relief that’s genuinely entertaining. We’ve got a central premise that deepens the interplay between leads and powers the action set pieces in an exciting and innovative way. The MCU callbacks are rewarding and the setups for future installments are mind-blowing (seriously, stick around for the mid-credits stinger), but none of that is delivered in a way that distracts or detracts from the story being told. It’s uplifting, it’s energetic, and it’s all-around fun.
Gentle readers, The Marvels is everything we ever asked or expected a Marvel Studios production to be. I seriously can’t think of any good reason why this movie is bombing so hard when it’s not even close to the worst thing we’ve seen from the MCU. I couldn’t even finish “Secret Invasion” and I had a great time with this one.
Seriously, don’t wait to catch up on “Wandavision”, “Ms. Marvel”, the Infinity Saga, or anything else in the canon to date. See the damn movie and catch up with the rest later on, if you feel so inclined. This is absolutely recommended.