The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s mission statement currently feels a bit fuzzy. There have been some clear highlights since Avengers: Endgame, but the influx of various television shows and a lot of disparate ideas doubling as decent-ish standalone features has led to many calling the powerhouse franchise into question as of late. Fortunately, The Marvels aligns with what I generally want from one of these films. Especially at this point, rather than belabor certain areas with too much moodiness, here’s a light and breezy superhero flick that actually feels like we’re seeing comic book panels come to life. Set around a core trio who are a lot of fun together, this movie indeed goes higher, further, and faster than 2019’s Captain Marvel and is all the better for it.
Of course, just mentioning Captain Marvel may not be enough. While The Marvels does carry on the story of Brie Larson’s fighter pilot-turned-superpowered Avenger, Carol Danvers, we are also seeing the continued journeys of Teyonah Parris’ Monica Rambeau and Iman Vellani’s Kamala Khan. To be fair, we met Monica as a child in Captain Marvel, but the WandaVision series explored who she grew up to be. On the other hand, Kamala had the Ms. Marvel series to establish the Jersey City teen as a fangirl for Captain Marvel, who possesses cosmic powers of her own. Here’s the thing about all this though – it doesn’t matter.
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Yes, in the realm of modern times, where a franchise as well known as this one invites the audience to play along and keep up with all the extra details, it’s fun to see how these connections play out. However, the film does all the heavy lifting for the viewer. Given a few flashbacks and clear enough references, it plays so much like a comic book that adds an asterisk on certain word balloons, indicating a footnote explaining the option of looking at another issue to further understand certain things. In the meantime, The Marvels tells a story that is as easy to follow as one would expect for a series that caters to children as much as it does the adults and comic book fans awaiting the latest entry in their “funny books movies.” Basically – don’t be fooled into thinking you need to do homework.
The plot provides an interesting hook – while investigating some space stuff, Carol, Monica, and Kamala’s powers become entangled, causing them to swap places whenever they are all using their powers. Why is this happening? An alien revolutionary, Dar-Benn (Mr. Malcolm’s List’s Zawe Ashton), has a grudge against one of the Marvels and a wish to restore her homeland, which involves obtaining an ancient relic that also connects to one of the Marvels. What does it mean for our heroes? Well, Dar-Benn must be stopped, and the residents of various planets need to be protected from her dangerous actions.
Based on how the events play out in this 105-minute movie, it feels like we were given a very fat-free version of the story originally crafted for this film. Certain aspects of the plot, such as the plight of the Kree alien race, seem reduced as far as possible, which comes at an interesting time, given how synonymous these shape-shifters are with refugees forced to flee their lands due to terrorist activity. Another sequence in the film involves an alien race who communicate through song (and dancing generally accompanies this), but I couldn’t tell you much of what that amounts to, as they’re all gone the second these characters, including South Korean star Park Seo-joon, are out of sight.
Does any of this suggest trouble behind the scenes? Frankly, I don’t know or care, as the product speaks for itself. This is a fun movie, and for any comments I could toss at the messy nature of the script, I could speak to other entries in the MCU (let alone other franchises) that have similar issues but don’t play as well or come out looking nearly as bright and colorful. Director/co-writer Nia DaCosta (Candyman) has a lot of familiarity with these comic book worlds, and The Marvels feels like a film relying on the love of the material to help pave the way for its likable momentum.
This film is very fast on its feet, which is a benefit compared to the previous film’s choice to get bogged down in a backstory that did little to surprise audiences. Yes, that film introduced some fun elements (namely Ben Mendelsohn’s Kree character, Talos, who is absent from this film* – Secret Wars provides context for that), but it did little else to really stand out in the grand scheme of things. While The Marvels may not be doing anything revolutionary with its story (and the villain is lackluster, despite serving as a more serious take on Dark Helmet and President Skroob’s plan in Spaceballs), it gets by thanks to its characters, their interactions, and other fun qualities.
Most notable among these characters is Vellani, whose take on Kamala adds something vital to the MCU – a genuine sense of wonder. Yes, these Marvel movies generally play as action-sci-fi-comedies, and their usual sense of humor often amounts to ways they can take the air out of the tires of things deemed too silly to take seriously. However, occasionally, some of these films play far more earnestly, and The Marvels wants to walk that line. With Kamala, there’s a younger character in the mix, with an admiration for the heroes around her, which plays as a nice balance to the sterner Carol and pragmatic Monica.
With that in mind, seeing these characters banter with each other is fun, and if the movie were longer, having more time with them together would easily be a stronger addition to this film as opposed to more focus on the plot or its villain. That said, the efforts to show off how they function in action, with their constant swapping, makes for several creative set pieces. Additionally, after a previous film that featured some poorly placed needle drops, The Marvels makes sure to correct that issue, hinting at the weirder sensibilities DaCosta was able to bring to this feature (see also: the use of Goose, the cat/flerken).
The fun doesn’t stop there either, as Samuel L. Jackson seems to be enjoying himself quite a bit in one of his looser takes on the always-in-control Nick Fury. Based on where the story goes, this also extends to the winning work from Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, and Saagar Shaikh as Kamala’s parents and older brother. As much as some may hope to get more of the grander story involving Kang and the multiverse, this film gets the joy of hanging out with superheroes and the civilians around them.
In the scheme of things, I hope more of these upcoming MCU films function like The Marvels. Despite some story-based flaws, this movie has a good enough head on its shoulders to deliver at the capable level I should hope for from such a notable blockbuster franchise. It also knows how to work as its own thing, providing the fun character work one wants from these films, with enough going on to impress with its use of the various superpower-related elements. Being light on a deeper consideration of some of the ideas at play is not the worst result for a film nestled so firmly within a machine, and one can also consider what’s most important for entries like these. As it stands, having a good time with a movie focused on a fun team of supers with glowy hands delivered what works for Earth-616.