Long-delayed and awaited with trepidation by MCU fans, ‘The Marvels’ is far from the strongest entry in the franchise’s 33-film library. But it’s not unwatchably bad as rumored, either. There is some crisp action and moments that are inarguably funny and sweet, while other sequences will make one cringe and wonder who thought they were a good idea. Yet it does benefit from some solid performances, especially Iman Vellani in her big screen debut as Ms. Marvel – except that many more casual viewers may not even know who she is.
Story and Direction
As ‘The Marvels’ opens, we are barraged with a bunch of material designed to catch us up, including a more or less complete recap of 2019’s ‘Captain Marvel.’ In addition to it being more than four years since that movie came out, ‘The Marvels’ tries to introduce us to two characters we’ve never seen on the big screen before: Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) and the grown-up version of Captain Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris). Both made their debuts via Marvel shows on Disney+ — ‘Ms. Marvel’ and ‘WandaVision’ respectively (Monica was a little girl in ‘Captain Marvel’) – and it’s a heavy lift to bank so much of this movie on audiences knowing who they are.
That’s because the emotional core of ‘The Marvels’ is supposed to be the relationship between these three superheroes, and while our three leads do share some excellent chemistry, it’s hard to feel emotionally invested in the way they come together, since we barely know two of them unless we’ve been tuning into their shows. The plot doesn’t offer them much room to develop either, especially Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel.
Instability in the space-time continuum – caused by the film’s villain, the Kree revolutionary Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), punching portals in said continuum – leads Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Ms. Marvel, and Monica to all begin switching places with each other every time they use their light-based powers, thanks to “quantum entanglement” (where’s Hank Pym when you need him?). Tracing the problem back to Dar-Benn with the help of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his space-based S.A.B.E.R. squad, the three women learn that Dar-Benn is channeling her power through an ancient armband – the companion to a similar artifact around Kamala’s forearm.
Fueled by a hatred for Captain Marvel that’s rooted in the latter’s past, Dar-Benn hatches a plan that will allow her to take her revenge while also restoring vitality to her depleted Kree home world of Hala – unless the Marvels can stop her.
There have been numerous reports of trouble behind the scenes on ‘The Marvels,’ and watching the film does give one the sensation of watching a product that was patched together as best as possible and finally just let out into the world. It’s not bad exactly: it moves relatively quickly – almost too fast at points – and some of its best moments have a sense of fun that’s been lacking in some more ponderous MCU efforts. The title trio also have their moments, with Iman Vellani – who made such a sparkling screen debut on ‘Ms. Marvel’ – a standout and finding her footing after some early unsteadiness.
But the plot seems murky and half-formulated at times, with people and places coming and going and narrative threads either dropped abruptly or just fading away, victims of the surgery that may have whipped this into presentable form. There are also sequences that just don’t work, most notably a sojourn to a planet where all communication is done via song, an ill-conceived stab at a mini-musical that is just embarrassing.
With the exception of some in-your-face action scenes (including a climactic battle between the Marvels and the villain that does not, for once, involve massive objects falling out of the sky onto buildings), Nia DaCosta’s direction of ‘The Marvels’ feels anonymous, lacking the mood of her previous films ‘Little Woods’ and ‘Candyman.’ Again, it’s mostly the camaraderie of the three leads that makes individual scenes work and keeps ‘The Marvels’ entertaining despite its deep flaws.
The Title Trio’s Performances
As we’ve already been saying, Iman Vellani mostly makes good on the promise of her debut in ‘Ms. Marvel.’ Her initial scenes here are a little shaky, as she overemotes and screams, but she settles in and finds her groove, and is a delight from that point out. She is the audience point-of-view character: a Captain Marvel superfan (in other words, an MCU fan) who can’t believe the things she’s seeing and participating in alongside her idol. It’s a warm, sweet, and charming performance.
Teyonah Parris’ no-nonsense Monica Rambeau is the other standout, also giving an empathetic performance while conveying a strong sense of the powerful woman behind the light blasts. As for Brie Larson, we’ve always felt that she was possibly miscast as Carol Danvers; we still feel that way. While she has moments that are quite effective, there are times when we’re not sure what she’s doing: a blank, wide-eyed expression frequently comes over her face. In the end, while she interacts well with her partners, Larson just doesn’t have – and perhaps never had – the gravitas that this powerful being requires.
As for the rest of the cast, British actor Zawe Ashton has a wicked grin and blazing eyes as Dar-Benn (in the comics, a male villain so obscure that he was killed after appearing in two books), but she doesn’t get to do a whole lot except fight and hold out her hammer (which is bigger than Mjolnir). Samuel L. Jackson collects his check as a somewhat cutesier Nick Fury, while Zenobia Shroff is as excellent here as she was in ‘Ms. Marvel’ as Kamala’s mom Muneeba.
Editing, Production Design and Music
The editing on “The Marvels” must have been a challenge for its two editors, Evan Schiff and Catrin Hedström. On one hand, some of the action sequences – especially the hand-to-hand combat between the Marvels, Dar-Benn, and her Kree minions, as the three heroes constantly swap places – are kinetic and surprisingly intimate, getting right up close into the action. But other parts of the film feel cut to the very bone, if not beyond, with the plot feeling less like a coherent narrative and more like just a choppy string of events. Plot points and characters get hustled on and offscreen like Oscar winners on a particularly overlong show.
Cara Brower’s production design is equally bifurcated, with some of the space-based imagery looking like it jumped off a sci-fi magazine cover, while a lot of the story takes place on Carol’s cramped ship and anonymous hallways in both Dar-Benn’s vessel and Nick Fury’s orbital headquarters. Aside from the cosmic stuff and some colorful costumes in the otherwise ill-advised Aladna sequence, there isn’t much that jumps out as compared to other Marvel movies. The visual effects, such a thorn in Marvel’s side these past few years, are…okay. Some of the imagery crackles and looks sharp, while other scenes (particularly an attack on a Skrull refugee camp) look cheaper and flimsier by comparison.
Finally, Laura Karpman’s music has grandeur but lacks identity. Like other aspects of this movie, it harkens back to a different generation of franchise films and doesn’t have much in the way of a singular theme or motif to make it leap out to the forefront. Like much in “The Marvels,” it seems generic.
What Does ‘The Marvels’ Mean For The MCU’s Future?
Without getting into spoilers, there are seeds planted by ‘The Marvels’ – especially in the tag before the credits roll and a rather mind-blowing mid-credits scene – that are sure to get fans fired up and speculating wildly about what’s next. As well they should: both scenes herald interesting new developments in the MCU. Beyond that, however, it’s difficult to say what comes next for Captain Marvel herself and her place in the Marvel firmament.
Brie Larson has made her disillusionment with the vicious toxicity surrounding the role very apparent (and good for Marvel for ignoring all that nonsense and giving this movie four female leads), and with “The Marvels” being for most of its length a fairly self-contained story, it’s hard to see what a third “Captain Marvel” would look like. On the other hand, would Larson be willing to play a supporting, mentor-like role to a very different team of Avengers? Like many members of the MCU’s current roster, Carol Danvers’ future doesn’t have a clear path in front of it.
‘The Marvels’ is by no means the catastrophe that online rumors and industry buzz have made it out to be. It’s got some terrific attributes, including the presence of Iman Vellani, the chemistry between the three leads, its unrepentant “girl power” message, compact pacing and a sense of fun. But a lot of it feels patched together, some of the humor falls flat, and it demands a lot of viewers who may not be up on all the Marvel shows on Disney+. Whether it represents the MCU managing to maintain a certain amount of quality control during a tough time or a new lower standard for the studio is not yet clear.
‘The Marvels’ receives 6 out of 10 stars.
What is the plot of ‘The Marvels’?
Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), known in the universe as Captain Marvel, suddenly finds herself switching places physically with her superpowered niece Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and an equally powerful teen named Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani). They trace the anomaly back to a villainous Kree leader (Zawe Ashton) who harbors a deep hatred for Carol and nefarious plans for worlds throughout the cosmos.