By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, just years ago heralded as an indestructible juggernaut at the box office and among fans and critics, has hit somewhat of a rough patch in recent months. After Phase 5 kicked off with the (undeservedly, in our opinion) derided Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Secret Invasion debuted on Disney+ to underwhelming and middling reception. Despite a warm reaction to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (whose writer/director James Gunn has since taken over DC films), a mixed year for the MCU was topped off by significant rhetoric among fans, pundits, and Disney brass regarding the over-saturation of Marvel projects and the need to scale down and streamline their ambitious multimedia approach. Amidst this difficult period emerges The Marvels, an energetic continuation of an array of MCU stories with the hopes of sparking renewed enthusiasm in the popular franchise. But how does the 33rd (!) MCU film ultimately pan out? Conventionally, albeit entertainingly.
The Marvels serves as a successor to Captain Marvel and the Disney+ series WandaVision, Secret Invasion, and Ms. Marvel. The film from director and co-writer Nia DaCosta, who most recently helmed the excellent Candyman reboot, follows Captain Marvel herself Carol Danvers (played once again by Academy Award winner Brie Larson), who teams up with Monica Rambeau (played by Teyonah Parris) and Kamala Khan / Ms. Marvel (played by Iman Vellani) after a villain with links to her past creates a situation in which the trio of superheroes switch places everytime one of them uses their powers.
Clocking in at just 105 minutes with credits, The Marvels is the shortest MCU film to date, a stark contrast to the many bloated superhero epics that overstay their welcome. DaCosta’s film propels forward at a breakneck pace, which is especially evidenced in a brisk, energetic, and disjointed first act. While this pacing makes for an experience that seldom bores, it also renders a film that has difficulty finding its footing. Due to this, a relatively streamlined plot comes across as far more convoluted and tangled than it needs to be. Excessive exposition at times and not enough at other times, coupled with the sheer number of projects The Marvels is serving as a sequel to, means the film’s commendable energy is contested by overwhelming disjointedness.
Harboring these issues with pacing and plotting, The Marvels plays out like a conventional superhero flick. The unique style brought to MCU installments by the likes of Taika Waititi, James Gunn, and Ryan Coogler is largely missing here, with the exception of some particularly well-crafted action sequences throughout. What results is a film that undoubtedly entertains, but does little to distinguish itself from a myriad of other superhero films.
Where The Marvels is able to successfully distinguish itself is through the switching element of its main characters. Early in the film, a series of mind-boggling events leads the leading trio of superheroes to switch places every time one uses their superpowers. For instance, Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel is fighting a barrage of Kree soldiers when she uses her powers and suddenly finds herself in the living room of Kamala Khan. Kamala, meanwhile, has taken her hero Captain Marvel’s place aboard a ship fighting the Kree. This entanglement not only serves as the film’s primary point of uniqueness, but it also adds a kinetic energy to the proceedings that is difficult to take your eyes off of. This is emphasized in the film’s best action sequence in which Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and Monica Rambeau keep switching places with one another as they fight enemies on a far away planet, space station, and in the Kahn living room simultaneously.
This fantastic action sequence also marks the start of another of The Marvels’ best elements – the chemistry between the three leads. Unlike Captain Marvel, which was very much focused primarily on its titular character, The Marvels has a broader scope with its balancing of three leads. Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, and Iman Vellani effortlessly trade lines throughout and prove that there can be other exciting superhero teams in the MCU outside of The Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Not all of the humor lands among this trio, but the chemistry is most certainly there and Vellani’s energy is palpable.
Unfortunately, while Vellani’s Kamala Khan is a standout in the film, Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel lags behind as she is the least interesting and compelling of the leading trio. Captain Marvel (2019) wasn’t the best showcase for Larson’s acting chops and introduced Carol Danvers as a serviceable, albeit flat superhero. And The Marvels does little to change this impression. The film attempts to play around with some intriguing themes of loneliness and accountability with the character, all of which feel like half-baked ideas to give a mediocre character more depth. This is a shame, ultimately, as Larson is a fantastic actress (look no further than her performances in Room and Short Term 12). But especially within the presence of the magnetic Iman Vellani’s Kamala Khan, Larson’s Captain Marvel pales in comparison.
Similarly paling in comparison is The Marvels’ depiction of Nick Fury. The character that Samuel L. Jackson has played in the MCU since the franchise’s very first film in 2008 was recently given new depth in Secret Invasion. Although the Disney+ series certainly erred in a number of ways and failed to live up to the potential of its source material, it did excel in making Nick Fury a more thoughtful and well-rounded figure. This character development is thrown aside in The Marvels, however, as Jackson returns to the old Nick Fury delivering mediocre one-liners to generate stock laughs from the audience. Jackson always adds something to the films he’s in, but his depiction as Nick Fury in The Marvels is nothing new.
Moderate success, meanwhile, is found with the film’s villain Dar-Benn. Zawe Ashton, known for her roles in Velvet Buzzsaw and Fresh Meat, plays a Kree warrior whose attempts to heal her planet ravaged by civil war put her at odds with Captain Marvel and company. Ashton brings a presence to every scene she is in and manages to bring a menacing energy to the film. In the end, however, Dar-Benn is little more than a run-of-the-mill superhero villain and is a far cry from some of the best Marvel baddies.
Another potential sore point with The Marvels is its role in serving as a sequel to so many other Marvel stories. With the forgetful Captain Marvel (2019) releasing over four years ago and the movie requiring knowledge of a variety of Disney+ shows, it’s possible that The Marvels may be somewhat unapproachable to some. The underappreciated Ms. Marvel series, for instance, is really necessary viewing ahead of The Marvels, as is WandaVision given the sizable role of Monica Rambeau. The serialized nature of MCU storytelling has always been one of its most compelling elements, but it can become unwieldy when projects struggle to stand on their own two feet. And, in some ways, that’s the case with The Marvels.
The MCU’s fifth phase continues with a conventional installment elevated by a neat premise and kinetic chemistry among its trio of leading stars. Disjointed plotting and a forgettable villain detract from an energetic Marvel outing that requires quite an extensive knowledge of previous MCU stories. While Iman Vellani shines as the enthusiastic and instantly likable Kamala Khan, Brie Larson’s stoic Captain Marvel lacks substantive depth and remains uninteresting. The Marvels is unlikely to convince naysayers that the MCU has returned from its relative slump as Phase 5 continues to find its footing.