It seems these days I start out every MCU review with some comments about how we’re in an era where “the death of Marvel” is prominently in the zeitgeist. And sure, a damning article from Variety and some online chatter, along with some lukewarm or worse receptions for certain projects here and there would have you think such a thing is imminent. Perhaps it’s true. Or perhaps it’s audience or critical cynicism at its worst.
Maybe it’s a bandwagon thing where it’s just not cool to enjoy Marvel anymore? It’s all subjective honestly. But for me, that’s never been the case. Perhaps, as a fan since early on, I see every Marvel project with rose-colored lenses. But I still try to go into each project with a blank slate. And frankly, after seeing The Marvels, I feel justified in saying rumors of Marvel Studios’ demise are, in my humble opinion, greatly exaggerated.
Is The Marvels a perfect film? No. Does it go silly in some places? Sure. But frankly I had fun with it. And that’s enough for me. We, as critics, have a tendency to pick and choose what deserves heavier scrutiny and what doesn’t. John Wick movies have barely any plot but we praise them. I recall just this summer, several people boasted about how The Flash was a masterpiece, when I found it was seriously a mess of cringe. And just the same, you’ll hear many condemning The Marvels for being a mess, when in all honesty, for me it’s a significantly better film than DC’s big summer tentpole (I will take any second of this over watching two Ezra Millers try to eat rotten broccoli any day). So what makes a messy but fun film acceptable in some cases, and others not?
The Marvels catches up with three characters we’ve seen recently. Carol Danvers has been stationed in space since Endgame, alone, waiting for distress signals or calls for odd jobs from Fury. Kamala Khan has settled into her role as the teenage defender of Jersey City. And Monica Rambeau is up at S.A.B.E.R with Nick Fury, exploring the far reaches of space, as we last left her at the end of WandaVision. When a Kree foe called Dar-Benn unexpectedly begins utilizing cosmic energy to manipulate jump points in space to populate the dying planet of Hala, the three heroes become cosmically entangled, and must overcome their challenges — both emotional and quantum-based — to stop her from destroying planets all over the galaxy.
For me, yes, The Marvels is messy. But at the end of the day, I found the characters and their chemistry endearing. I found the performances to be strong. I thought the action was well shot and a lot of fun. And I found myself excited again, just thinking about events to come in the MCU, in a way I hadn’t in a long time. If a movie was able to do that for me, that’s enough; even in the face of story and editing issues. Because at the end of the day, it’s the characters and whether I give a damn about them or not, that made the movie worthwhile for me. And that, thankfully, happens to be this movie’s greatest strength.
Remember, this is a movie called The Marvels. Anything less than a movie focused exclusively on them and their relationship would be a colossal failure. And the movie absolutely doesn’t disappoint. Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, and Iman Vellani have amazing chemistry together. We see a sisterly bond forming between them, and their winning performances allow us to believe they could easily become the best of friends in no time. Vellani, in particular, serves up the most scene stealing moments in the film – but anyone who saw and appreciated Ms. Marvel could tell you how charming and endearing she is.
The emotional arcs between all of them are incredibly important too. It was absolutely crucial for this film to address why Carol has been MIA from Earth all these years, and even more so for her and Monica to hash out the tension between them. The movie allows us to breathe and gives us a moment to show the pain and the heartache these two have endured from the grief of losing Maria Rambeau. It never once ignores this, informing us who Carol and Monica are at this juncture and why there’s hope for this relationship to be repaired. And Larson and Parris hit these notes perfectly. There’s tension between them, but also history. And we see the love and care they have for one another conflicting with the disappointment at Carol’s failures. And this is captured in the warmth of Larson’s and Parris’ performance, juxtaposed with remorseful deliveries and internal conflict they bring to their respective roles.
Then there’s Kamala meeting her hero for the very first time, and reconciling that with the fact that there’s a bit more to who Carol is as a person than cool “twinsie” moments and superpowers. Carol being Captain Marvel means making choices one may not agree with, which in turn inspires Kamala to make choices she thinks are right — even if Carol doesn’t agree. Kamala learning from both Carol and Monica about who Carol is allows her to humanize Carol, rather than simply putting her on a pedestal. And addressing the reality of this makes Kamala Khan an even better character than if she hadn’t gotten that chance. In fact it allows her to be the lynchpin keeping this team together through her heart and earnestness.
I’d call this a star making performance for Vellani, if her own show, Ms. Marvel didn’t already make her a star. I know ratings for Ms. Marvel didn’t exactly light up Disney+. But at least here in front of a likely larger audience, she’ll be able to showcase the energy, comedic timing, and heart that made her a true star in her own series and got us to fall in love with her. Vellani’s performance here very much evokes memories of Holland’s performance as Peter Parker interacting with larger than life heroes, but with one exception: she’s a lot more capable as an actor! There is an innately endearing and charismatic quality to Vellani as an actress, allowing her to skate the line between lovable and obnoxious without ever crossing it. And that’s just because she’s knowingly that talented.
The three characters evolve beautifully throughout the runtime of this movie, and by the end we see them all in appropriate places that set them up for the next chapter in the Avengers saga. And given the limited time we got with Monica during WandaVision, I think it’s safe to say what they do with her in this film sets her up to truly be a hero worth rooting for by the end of the movie. Carol also becomes a lot more likable in this chapter than she ever was in previous installments in the MCU. And Kamala stays her lovable, sweet, geeky self, while evolving greater as a hero, finally accepted and encouraged by her parents. By the end of the movie, all felt right with all of them.
Stepping into the director’s chair this time around, Nia DaCosta (Little Woods, Candyman) approaches the material with a light and enjoyable touch. The movie stands as one of the shortest in the MCU, clocking in at 105 minutes, meaning it flies by in a breeze. There’s such a sense of joy and fun in the tone of this film, which is a pretty stark contrast to, in some ways, the more sluggish pace of the first film. The energy DaCosta puts into the film may feel erratic at times, jumping from one scene to another without much exposition or explanation until the 1/3 mark into the film. But that’s clearly intentional and encouraged given the situation its three main characters find themselves in is a chaotic one.
The downside to this, however, is you have a film that feels like it’s all over the place. There are scenes in the last two-thirds of the film that seemed to have turned off many in the critic community, but that I personally didn’t mind; specifically one about a musical planet, and another involving Flerkens. However it also makes the first third of the film difficult to follow, because, as an audience member, you’re watching events unfold without much explanation. The show-not-tell method here hurts The Marvels a bit because we don’t get answers as to what’s happening and why the villain is doing what they’re doing until the middle of the movie. Personally, that choice worked for me without issue, but I can understand why audiences may feel lost jumping in expecting answers from the get go.
The other drawback to the movie is the plotline is pretty thin. Granted there’s nothing wrong with movies being fun without having complex stories behind them (once more I cite John Wick as an example). But Dar-Benn stealing resources from different planets while The Marvels switch places with one another isn’t exactly brilliant material. But one should see this from the perspective that the story is merely a device to bring this trio of powerful women together, so they can kick ass and confront their own personal issues. And in that sense, you didn’t need anything super complex to succeed where the film does with these objectives.
On a technical level, the movie looks and sounds great. Laura Karpman, who provided the original music/score for Ms. Marvel returns in great form to give The Marvels score an epic, yet playful soundtrack. The visual effects, which have been a controversial topic for the MCU following Endgame, look, for the most part, much better than we’ve seen on recent projects like Thor: Love and Thunder and She-Hulk. And the costume design is very impressive – particularly in a scene on the musical planet of Aladna. The cinematography is also nothing to write home about, but you have to give credit to that team (and the stunt team) for being able to capture the body-switching fights gracefully.
This is important because the action in The Marvels rocks! From the moment these three characters start switching places with one another, inserting three different fights (one for each character) in the midst of all the chaos makes for a really fun and terrific way to show the audience what’s going on with these characters. We have each one of them picking up a fight that’s started by another one of them, at various points. And that’s both exhilarating to watch and important in how it visually demonstrates the power set of each of the ladies and their fighting styles. The fight scenes are fun, but also informative, and that’s excellent.
Look, why expect this to be Killers of the Flower Moon or a self-serious cliched slog like The Creator? This is a straight up lighthearted popcorn movie meant to focus on the dynamic between three terrific characters and their relationships with one another. And in terms of action, humor, and fun the movie does its job, and does it well, being swift and enjoyable without ever overstaying its welcome. Sure the plot and the villain aren’t the best, and yes, it’s quite a bit all over the place. But I had fun watching these fine actresses breathe life into these powerful characters, build and repair bonds with one another, and engage in innovative action sequences that felt fresh and new. If by the end of the movie, I could stand up and say to myself, ‘I love these characters, and I want to see more of them in the future,’ I think I’d call that a rousing success. Coupled with some really amazing surprises, that I won’t be spoiling at all, I am happy to say the MCU has turned out another charmer for me. That’s right folks, Marvel Studios is not dead. In fact, if The Marvels is any indication, it has only just begun to fight.
Overall Score: B+