Marvel is back! Marvel is back to making aggressively okay stuff, which is much better than giving us movies and shows that seem like punishment homework. Believe it or not, Kevin Feige and co. used to be pretty amazing at this. They made some good movies, some movies that were passable, and then they rewarded people with something grand, thereby making the whole journey feel satisfying. That cyclical process concluded with Endgame, and the ratio of decent to watchable to bad “content” became skewed as soon as the franchise ventured into the small screen. Two out of seven of their Phase Four movies were fine, and four out of eleven of their Phase Four TV stuff was great. So, you see what I am talking about? Phase Five started off on a shaky note with the abysmal Quantumania and Secret Invasion. And although they have a very long way to go, Loki Season 2 and The Marvels have done their job of trying to stabilize the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Nia DaCosta’s The Marvels, which she has co-written with Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik, opens with Supremor Dar-Benn searching for a pair of magical bangles so that she can open portals in various corners of the galaxy, extract resources from there, and replenish her dying planet, Hala. The extraction and use of this bangle activates the bangle that Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) is wearing. Elsewhere in the galaxy, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) gets a hint of this anomaly and goes out to inspect it. At the same time, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) goes near a jump point that’s malfunctioning. Due to some kind of energy surge, Kamala, Carol, and Monica get entangled, which basically means that they use their powers at the same time, they swap places. That’s an inconvenience because Dar-Benn is wreaking havoc all throughout the universe, and if this trio doesn’t get their act together, then the results are going to be catastrophic. In addition to that, if Dar-Benn finds out that the bangle in Kamala’s possession can make her more powerful than she already is, it’ll be quite difficult for anyone to stop her.
There’s a lot going on in The Marvels. There’s drama between Kamala, Carol, and Monica because Kamala idolizes Carol, and Monica hates Carol for not being around as much as she promised, especially when her mother, Maria, was suffering from cancer. There’s the body-swapping shenanigans. And then, of course, there’s the regular old “save the galaxy and save the planet” stuff. DaCosta, McDonnell, and Karasik have to deal with a lot of exposition in a very short amount of time to bring the characters and the audience up to speed, and most of that is extremely wonky. When the writers are playing around with the central trio, it’s fun because conflict and adjustment always lead to entertainment. But that doesn’t last very long because of the plot. Kamala and Carol literally allow hundreds of people to die “for the greater good,” and that’s brushed under the rug so that the girls can bond. That can be indicative of Marvel’s habit of rationing trauma. What’s trauma rationing? It’s the case where characters are made to go through something life-changing, and instead of dealing with its repercussions in the movie in which they have experienced something traumatic like other movies (which don’t have the luxury of waiting for a sequel to happen) usually do, the franchise hangs onto that sentiment so that it can be explored in a sequel. It’s a cheap way of stretching a character’s arc over the course of multiple installments. So, if you see Kamala or Carol suddenly being weighed down by the memory of letting Skrulls and Aladnans die in a sequel, don’t be surprised.
Monica and Carol’s dynamic is glossed over pretty quickly. Monica has this deep-seated resentment towards Carol, which is totally fair, and Carol doesn’t really have a good justification for being absent for such a long time. And that gap is neither bridged through adversity nor a meaningful conversation. It’s resolved in the blink of an eye. Talking about “adversity,” Dar-Benn never feels as dangerous as she should be. Everything that Dar-Benn is doing is understandable, but she doesn’t challenge the central trio well enough to galvanize them. They simply get along, even though the plot promises conflict and friction. Given how Nia has shown her ability to pull off body horror in Candyman, and you can see those blue-purple veins popping up on Dar-Benn’s hands as she uses her body to save Hala, it feels like The Marvels didn’t capitalize on the tremendous potential to get gnarly. The body swapping is extremely fun, especially in that first fight sequence, which is choreographed and edited to perfection. All the oddball elements are great, e.g., the musical planet of Aladna and transporting scientists through Flerkens. The visuals are competent most of the time. The music is noticeably generic. However, much like the portrayal of Dar-Benn, everything seems to be restricted by an invisible force that isn’t allowing the artists to truly let loose. Based on Nia’s comments, it can be a case of studio intervention, and if that’s true, it’s high time that Marvel forgets about pleasing everyone and lets their storytellers do something that’s hyper specific enough to define the genre it exists in.
The film’s biggest strength is its titular trio: Teyonah, Iman, and Brie. You should listen to them spewing line after line of exposition with the right dosage of whimsy, sarcasm, and charm. I have always said that exposition isn’t inherently a problem. Mission: Impossible and Christopher Nolan’s filmography are chock full of exposition. But it’s the rate at which it’s delivered, and the manner in which the actors blurt it all out that separates boring expository scenes from bearable expository scenes, and Iman, Teyonah, and Brie clearly know that. Iman’s energy is infectious, and the way she matches the energy of her colleagues is too adorable. Teyonah is incredible, especially when she starts mocking Brie for her “marriage.” Brie is so much better in this film than she has been in all of her previous appearances as Captain Marvel. I’m not looking for an Oscar-worthy performance. I’m looking for a performance that, at the very least, feels relatable and enjoyable. That’s exactly what she is doing here. That’s what she does when she is not in the MCU. I have no clue why it took so much time for the MCU to let Brie do her thing, but I’m glad they have finally realized that they shouldn’t force her to be a stone-cold quip machine. Samuel L. Jackson is sassy as hell after being boring in Secret Invasion. Zawe Ashton is underutilized. The rest of the cast is fine. Mohan Kapur’s presence in this film is troubling, much like Jonathan Majors’ presence in Loki and Bill Murray’s presence in Quantumania.
The Marvels is an aggressively fine movie. It’s not groundbreaking. It’s not awful. It’s just there, existing in the MCU’s ever-expanding tapestry (which used to sound like a good thing). Can you see the $200 that it has allegedly spent? No, absolutely not. If you take a gander through Barbie, Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Evil Dead Rise, John Wick 4, or even Guardians of the Galaxy 3, you’ll definitely see every cent that has been spent on a singular frame of the film. The Marvels overall look and feel are indistinguishable from their small-screen Marvel counterparts. Does that mean the shows’ visuals are on par with blockbuster-level movies? No! It means that the MCU and Disney are not interested in giving the audience a worthwhile theatrical experience because there’s nothing special about what they’re making for the big screen and what they’re making for the small screen. It’s all the same, and if it’s all the same, why should I urge you to spend your well-earned money when you can watch these supposed blockbusters on a streaming platform you’ve already subscribed to? So, more than anything else in the world, Feige and co. have to worry about the label “just fine.” It’s been nearly two decades now, and if the brand is synonymous with the words “safe” and “four quadrant,” then what’s even the point? Marvel should let their directors, writers, actors, etc., tell the stories they want to tell instead of making them tell stories that the suits think will sell.