This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Hollywood has reached a consensus: the Marvel Cinematic Universe has landed in a precarious place right now. Its last several films — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 excepted — have all landed with lukewarm critical reception, to say nothing of the increasingly superfluous-feeling Disney+ shows, which come one after the other with little fanfare. Add to that internal scrambling to maintain audience interest and domestic abuse scandals surrounding the franchise's newly-anointed star, and it's easy for audiences to start looking for an offramp.
Enter The Marvels, which has the unenviable task of carrying the torch for a franchise whose social capital wanes by the day. It's a sequel to a hugely successful film (albeit mobbed by vocal fanboys who lamented that Marvel's latest star was, gasp, a woman) that nonetheless makes her co-lead alongside not one, but two other characters from Disney+ shows. That the film does not feel like homework feels like a miracle, thanks to crisp, efficient direction from Candyman director Nia DaCosta and the effortless chemistry of its leads. But all that effort still hampers what feels like a mid-tier comic book picture saddled, Atlas-like, with the responsibility of the entire MCU infrastructure.
Freaky Flerkin Friday
In perhaps a fitting metaphor for the ever-entangled nature of the MCU, The Marvels comes by its mini-teamup structure with a genuinely inventive gimmick. In the years after the events of Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) left Earth to take revenge on the Kree for stealing her life and lying to her. That decision has unintended consequences, though, as a vengeful Kree radical named Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) vows to restore her home planet to glory with the discovery of a magical bangle that can open up wormholes to planets with resources she can steal for her own planet. It's not just any bangle, though: it's the matching twin to the one that's given Jersey City's teen superhero (and Captain Marvel fangirl) Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) her hard-light powers. Thanks to some serendipitously-timed investigations and the similar nature of their powers, Carol, Kamala, and Carol's estranged niece Monica Rambeau (Tayonah Parris) find their powers entangled; when they use their powers at the same time, their bodies switch places, no matter how far apart in the universe they may be.
This gimmick is maybe The Marvels‘ greatest strength, DaCosta using the Freaky-Friday-meets-Guardians-of-the-Galaxy conceit to inventive ends. The first act thrums with a frenzied, excitable energy as the three women zap from one end of the galaxy to the other, from outer space to thousands of feet in the air. And later, as the three actually team up, they start figuring out how to use it to their advantage, leading to some genuinely unique action beats unseen before on screen — a rarity for a series that's thirty films and Thanos-knows-how-many TV series in.
Higher, Further, Faster-Paced
Unlike the gargantuan runtimes of even the most insubstantial MCU projects, The Marvels blissfully gets in and out in less than two hours; it has a brisk pace, which marks a nice switch for the series. Unfortunately, that fast clip also forces DaCosta to throw a lot at the screen to focus on without spending enough time to dig into the potential of each idea. This is especially apparent in anything not involving the central trio: Ashton's Dar-Benn is as thinly drawn an MCU villain as any, a snarling baddie with barely enough screentime to make her animus at Carol for ruining her planet register on any significant level. Her campaign to hop from planet to planet, stealing resources, sets up interesting conflicts for the characters — who to save, what do they owe the people they've neglected — that get brushed off a scene later when it's time to move on to the next setpiece. (Perhaps most egregious is a subplot on Earth's orbiting S.A.B.E.R. station, as a frazzled Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) handles a “Trouble with Tribbles”-esque B-plot that seems to do little but steal precious minutes of the story away from the women. (At least he has Kamala's overprotective family from Ms. Marvel in tow, which gives Zenobia Shroff's judgmental mother plenty of room to relatably tut-tut at all the space madness around her.)
When The Marvels turns its eye towards its titular trio, the movie sings. While it's a shame that Larsen, the singular star of her own movie, has to share 2/3rds of the spotlight with her co-stars, her version of Carol comes off looser and more likable this time around. Parris is perhaps the least-served of the three, but she holds her own as the film's emotional center, a constant reminder of Carol's tendency to leave people behind due to the nature of her role as a cosmic savior. If one star shines brightest, though, it's Vellani, a natural performer who handles the breathless-fangirl comic relief and the heavier moments with infectious charm. At its core, The Marvels exmaines what happens when a young superhero meets her idol, has her illusions shattered, and has to reshape her identity accordingly; when the script lets these moments breathe, The Marvels feels more cohesive.
It's a shame that the film can't just focus on the genuinely interesting dynamics of its cast — in the rare moments of Carol, Monica, and Kamala hanging out on Carol's spaceship, just getting to know each other or catching up, it's a lot of fun. And granted, the Caffeine Free Diet Guardians-style adventure leads to some beautifully absurd moments, like a water planet filled with people who only speak in musical (Parasite star Park Seo-jun has a welcome bit part as a charming space prince) or a sequence involving a… unique solution to a looming space disaster. Then it's off to the next scene with barely a chance to register what's happened, and suddenly Marvels feels like the rare MCU film that could have benefited from the bandwidth of a six-episode Disney+ show.
The Marvels isn't the franchise-dooming disaster that social media scuttlebutt (and the film's lackluster marketing) have alluded to, but it will not save Kevin Feige's billion-dollar baby anytime soon. It's a frustrating motion picture, an otherwise light and charming space adventure with a trio of leads with considerable chemistry clashing against a rushed pace and inconsistent tone. Still, if Feige et al. should take any lesson from The Marvels, it's this: Stop depending on Disney+ shows to fill in the story gaps, help your artists make your pictures look good and flow nicely, and dear God make Iman Vellani a star.
The Marvels blasts into theaters on November 10th. We’ve got the latest on movies in theaters now.