Amid too much Marvel formula — plus some glorious Flerken fun — Brie Larson, Iman Vellani and Teyonah Parris make a winning trio in the MCU's 33rd film.
November 09, 2023
More Marvels, less Marvel: that could've, would've, should've been the path to making The Marvels more marvellous as it teams up Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson, Fast X), Ms Marvel's Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani in her big-screen debut) and WandaVision's Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris, They Cloned Tyrone). Unsurprisingly for a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie that goes heavy on the first word in the ever-sprawling franchise's moniker, this 33rd cinematic instalment in the series has a glaring Marvel problem. Thankfully, as it proves fun enough, likeable enough and sweet, but also overly saddled with the routine and familiar, it never has any Captain Marvel, Ms Marvel or Monica Rambeau issues. When there's too much Marvel-ness — too much been-there-done-that formula, too hefty a focus on smashing pixels together over spending time with people and too strong a sense that this is merely another chapter in the saga's assembly line, and also dutifully setting up what's next — The Marvels struggles, even as the shortest MCU feature yet. When the main trio get the luxury of being together, just seeing them revel in and react to each other's company is a delight. When there's also singing, dancing, a hearty sense of humour and/or Flerkens involved, the film soars.
Perhaps befitting a movie with three lead characters, this is a Goldilocks attempt at a picture that tries as overtly as a fairy-tale figure to get its balance just right. Filmmaker Nia DaCosta (Candyman) and her co-scribes Megan McDonnell (also WandaVision) and Elissa Karasik (Loki) can't quite find and keep their midpoint, however, due to all of the weight and demands that come after 15 years of the MCU, those 32 prior flicks, plus nine seasons of eight Disney+ TV shows since 2021 — and the many nods and references required in those directions. Marvel has cottoned on to how clunky this can be, and how exhausting to watch; the company is marketing streaming series Echo under the banner 'Marvel Spotlight' to signal that viewers can enjoy the story as a standalone experience without needing to have done copious amounts of MCU homework. If only The Marvels had been allowed to spin its tale the same way, even with Carol, Kamala and Monica's established histories across the franchise, and permitted to lean further into what makes it stand out from the rest of the Marvel crowd.
One thing that audiences haven't seen elsewhere in the MCU: a wonderfully ridiculous sequence that riffs on herding cats, embraces those felines-with-tentacles that are Flerkens, makes an obvious-but-apt Andrew Lloyd Webber needle drop work and is up there among the most gloriously silly things that Marvel has ever put on-screen. Here's another: a planet where communicating via song, like life is one big Broadway musical, is the native language. And, the most crucial: a trio of female superheroes taking centre stage (2019's Captain Marvel, the 21st MCU flick, was the first to solely put a woman in the spotlight, while 2021's Black Widow is the only one since until now). The Marvels flits between two responses to the latter, though: not caring because it has the typical Marvel wheels to spin, then only caring about Carol, Kamala and Monica's camaraderie. Naturally, the second option is the entertaining and engaging winner.
As anyone who has seen Ms Marvel will know going in and everyone else can glean swiftly (at 105 minutes, bloat doesn't blight The Marvels), Jersey City teen Kamala is the world's biggest Captain Marvel superfan. Having her own superhero powers hasn't curbed that Carol-worshipping enthusiasm. She's dreaming about joining forces with her idol when not just their respective light-based powers get entangled, but Monica's as well, causing the three women to switch places suddenly whenever they bust out their supernatural skills simultaneously. The reason for this body-swap comedy-esque occurrence: Kree warrior Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton, The Handmaid's Tale), who is on a mission to save her home planet and seek revenge by destroying worlds. So, after awkward first meetings (Carol and Kamala) and reunions (Carol and Monica, the daughter of her 80s-era best friend Maria, as seen in Captain Marvel), The Marvels' three protagonists are a team on their own existence-in-peril space quest — with Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, Secret Invasion) running point, and Kamala's mother Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff, 7 Days), father Yusef (Mohan Kapur, School of Lies) and brother Aamir (Saagar Shaikh, Liza on Demand) worrying by his side.
Regardless of whether Beastie Boys' 'Intergalactic' is on montage soundtrack duties just as the film's trailers teased, there's both spark and pace to Carol, Kamala and Monica's intermingled chaos — including when utter bedlam results, when they're training to work in sync and when they're fighting like a well-oiled machine. There's sincere chemistry, too, as bounces in comedic and dramatic moments equally. The Marvels screams to be a hangout movie, where seeing these characters spending time with each other, and getting everyone investing in their relationships, is more important than whatever the plot throws their way (especially when the storyline is so rote). That'd be Kamala's ultimate fantasy, and the infectiously charismatic Vellani plays it that way to excited perfection. That said, the MCU isn't in the business of making films about friendship, connection and kinship without facing villains and saving the universe.
Long fond of layering different genres over its standard template — such as espionage with Black Widow, horror with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, heist capers with the first two Ant-Man movies, coming-of-age with the Spider-Man entries and martial arts with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, to name just a few examples — Marvel is currently happy to fashion its output in the mould of other sagas. Where fellow 2023 release Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania wanted to be Star Wars, keeping things in the Disney family, there's more than a sliver of Star Trek to The Marvels as it navigates its planet-hopping, civilisation-rescuing narrative. Accordingly, the generic air that regularly pulses through the movie isn't just limited to cycling through MCU staples. Unconvincing CGI doesn't help, nor does the rushed feeling that seeps into the editing to keep the film to its concise length.
The first Black woman to direct a Marvel feature, DaCosta clearly has corporate-enforced boxes to tick. Luckily, she also knows The Marvels' biggest assets: Larson, Vellani and Parris; their on-screen alter egos simply sharing space and time (while sometimes toying with it); and joyous mayhem. It mightn't be present everywhere else, but there's balance in how the feature's leads complement each other — how intimately DaCosta dives into their evolving bonds as well, with help from Sean Bobbitt's (Judas and the Black Messiah) perspective-shifting cinematography — and in what Vellani's abundant eagerness, Parris' warmth and smarts, and Larson's gradual cracking of Carol's hard-forged emotional facade bring out in each other. There's heart, liveliness and something rare in the MCU here, as caught in jump-rope sessions, hugs and reaction shots, but then all of the usual MCU elements come crashing in. The Marvels needs its own place-swapping gadgets to jettison out the overused blueprint. Instead, it makes the most of what it can, but leaves viewers pondering one of Marvel's favourite questions: what if?
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