The first ten years of Marvel Studios were a giant experiment in bringing together individual stories for one cohesive saga that would eventually lead to a major cinematic event. And while that paid off for those eagerly awaiting The Infinity Saga’s grand conclusion, the same cannot be said for The Multiverse Saga. So, while it’s been challenging to get a read on how Phase 4 and Phase 5 connect, The Marvels feels more like a tonal course correction for the MCU that also serves as an expansion of a terrific trio of female superheroes, all of whom are just ready to prove what they are worth and why they belong.
The biggest issue with the stories of the Multiverse Saga was that the individual films or limited series were mere table settings for the next chapter rather than an elaborate setup for the highly anticipated cinematic ensemble. There were returning heroes and newly crowned ones as well. Unfortunately, their stories didn’t amount to much, and their payoffs had minimal entertainment value because it felt like they weren’t going anywhere or leading up to anything.
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With The Marvels, director Nia DaCosta doesn’t have to create an origins story. She can focus solely on telling the stories of the trio of light energy manipulation heroes. It’s interesting to see how this is a more character-driven story while still having those narrative elements that would allow for an expansion of the MCU in ways that fit into their interpretation of the multiverse. And because The Marvels is the shortest of all the released Marvel Studios theatrical features, DaCosta digs into the mythology that matters without having to shoehorn in unnecessary crossovers and Easter Eggs.
The Marvels opens with Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), a general of the Kree empire, who has taken it upon herself to restore her home planet of Hala to its former glory after a liberated Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) destroyed the Supreme Intelligence. After discovering the whereabouts of an ancient bangle, Dar-Benn pairs its energy with that of an Accuser hammer to open wormholes across the galaxy and begins to target specific planets that Captain Marvel has had a history with so that she can steal their planetary and celestial resources so that Hala can have breathable air, water to drink, and a sun to provide light and warmth.
However, using the Bangle’s powers accidentally sets off a chain of events that could destroy spacetime. As such, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) investigates those strange anomalies created by Dar-Benn. Without fully knowing what kind of effect it would have, she touches it. This accidentally triggers an entanglement of those with light-energy-based powers, specifically herself, Captain Marvel, and Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani). Whenever they use their abilities simultaneously, they switch places with each other. This obviously can be problematic for everyone, as one person could end up in a terrible situation fighting off an enemy. At the same time, another could be placed in the Khan family living room. Now, the new trio of heroes must figure out how to work in concert before Dar-Benn’s misguided goodwill mission and act of vengeance destroys the entire universe.
The Marvels strips away any unnecessary storytelling and build-up that would lead to an epic fight and focuses solely on telling a solid character-driven story. Since this is Marvel Studios’ first female ensemble, its success relies on the cast being able to have chemistry with each other. And DaCosta can draw that out in so many ways. She is playful with the body-swapping by having each character trade places with another at the most inconvenient times. Suppose Monica is investigating those anomalies in space and touches them. In that case, she instantly switches places with Kamala, who is wearing Monica’s suit and is now adrift in space. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Monica has to explain what’s happening to Kamala’s parents (Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur) and brother (Saagar Shaikhn). And it’s all fun and games until the Khans find themselves getting involved and, for better or worse, aiding Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
By cutting down on drawing out the story with that extra fluff and billowy action, we can get something that actually cares about the characters. There are still a few cameos here, but they are far more organic to the story than other attempts. DaCosta wants us to know what each character is going through and how some of their decisions ultimately hurt others more than they would like to admit. For Monica, Carol was never there for her when she needed it the most. With Carol, she is burdened with the traumas of being manipulated and controlled against her will when she was a warrior for the Kree Empire. So she tries to reclaim her past and the memories stolen from her through Kree interrogation devices. Finally, Kamala is eager to prove herself as a valuable teammate and worthy hero. The twinsies moment between herself and Carol is so pure and innocent, just like any fan girl who gets to meet their hero for the first time. Although, she quickly learns that heroism means you can’t save everyone.
And so, the cast chemistry and inventive action sequences make up for a shaky plot. Dar-Venn’s motivation though both noble and evil, is generic. There isn’t much to the character other than her serving the same Kree Empire, just as Carol did before she liberated herself. So Ashton does the best she can with an underwritten villain. Though her powerset disrupts Carol, Kamala, and Monica, it makes for some exciting action sequences, but nothing that would make her stand out entirely. And the world-building leaves much to be desired. Though it’s clear that Carol has traveled through many galaxies and helped planets, many planets we visit are merely layovers for the audience that provide nothing more than an action set piece. For instance, Aladan is a place where people can only communicate through song and dance. This would have been a fun place to revisit, especially since it is led by the handsome Prince Yan (Park Seo-joon), who is inexplicably married to Carol, but since the film doesn’t follow up with what happened to the planet or explain its importance within the grand scheme of things, we aren’t left to care about it. And the rest of the planets are treated with the same courtesy.
So the film has to rely on the trio’s chemistry to do the heavy lifting. DaCosta is certainly playful with having the trio build trust with each other as they adjust to their predicament. They jump rope, balance books on their heads, and work on their hand and eye coordination as they teleport and swap places whenever they use their powers. They are certainly having a lot of fun with this. It’s almost as if they were part of a sorority exclusive to those with a similar powerset. This leads to a carefully choreographed action set piece that can be difficult to keep track of at first but is fun to watch executed once they know how to work together.
Vellani is the glue that keeps everything together. The film worked better with her. The actor brings brightness and joy to Marvel’s latest. Audiences will instantly connect with her magnetic charm and irresistible personality because she is like anyone who stands before someone they’ve idolized or been a fan of. Larson is fine and not burdened with trying to prove a female superhero’s place within the MCU. In fact, The Marvels reveals a lot more about the character ever since she went off-world. And while Parris’ Monica Rambeau has a denser backstory, most will understand the challenges of working with someone you’ve been estranged from. The tension between Monica and Carol is palpable. After all, the two are connected by the grief of losing Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). And DaCosta allows that strained and tangled relationship to be repaired organically.
Whatever their conflicts, there is still a bond between the two that cannot be broken. So even though having prior knowledge of these characters would be beneficial to understanding each of the relationships and powersets, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are required to watch their respective limited series. That goes without saying for anything Marvel-related. DaCosta, who co-wrote the screenplay with Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik, makes it easier to understand by providing some quick flashbacks and expositional conversations.
And this is all done under a two-hour time frame. Running at an hour and 45 minutes, The Marvels is a fast-paced flick that breathes new life into the MCU. Though some aspects of the story could use a little polishing, it knows what it needs to do to expand upon the individual heroes’ stories while also building to the next chapter of the MCU with easter eggs. And believe me, there are some extra cool cameos that are worth your time.