At last, fifteen years into this cinematic universe experiment, it seems that Marvel has finally run its course. Or maybe it is just the absurd burnout audiences – including myself – have been experiencing with the superhero genre. As someone who has never truly disliked an MCU movie, I admit that I have been actively avoiding the genre this year.
The Marvels sits in a rather unique position in the MCU filmography. It is the first entry in the franchise in which two of the three leads come from the studio’s Disney+ TV show offerings. This resulted in a substantial part of the conversation being about having to “do homework” before the movie comes out, and for that, there is a considerable amount of uncertainty riding against the movie.
Priorities in the MCU
Thankfully, The Marvels turned out to be just fine. The MCU has an overall consistent track record for their movies – there isn’t really an installment that sticks out for being god awful. That being said, the problems are still clear as day, as we watch a gargantuan franchise once again get in the way of itself, where the executives prioritize a checklist of items before they consider giving the director 100% creative control. Director Nia DeCosta joins other recently helmed directors like Sam Raimi (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) and Chloé Zhao (Eternals), giving The Marvels as much personality and grounded humanity as possible, while jumping around to address all the required plot points and puzzle pieces to move the MCU forward.
For those like myself who are unfamiliar with WandaVision and Ms. Marvel, The Marvels assures the audience that everyone can get on the same page. Plenty of early character interactions in the first act are in service of straightforward exposition. We get to learn a bit about Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), just enough to understand their origins and where they are now. As our hero Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) interacts with an unstable wormhole, she finds herself bound to the other two female heroes through a bizarre phenomenon – every time one of them uses their powers, they would swap places.
With the essential “gimmick” in the plot being three characters swapping places constantly, the first act of The Marvels can seem inevitably chaotic and frantic. With the first action set piece revolving around three fight scenes going on in three different locations, the film struggles to find that perfect balance between feeling stylistic and feeling busy. Thankfully, the film finds its footing once the three female leads meet one another.
The film’s greatest strength is easily the comradery and sisterhood among Larson, Parris, and Vellani. Both of the “secondary” leads are tied to Carol Danvers in some way or another, with Monica being the daughter of Carol’s best friend Maria from the first film (Lashana Lynch) to Kamala becoming a hero because of Captain Marvel as her idol. The interaction between Kamala and Carol is as precious as you would think. Imagine Peter Parker’s admiration of Tony Stark, but replace all the tongue-in-cheek dry humor with a genuine enthusiasm and sincerity – the only proper comparison I can think of is the lovable Po from Kung Fu Panda.
By focusing on the characters, The Marvels brings a more grounded sensibility to the story. It’s refreshing to see how most of the conflicts in the film came from character decisions or self-placed guilt. Even the villain (Zawe Ashton), as rushed as her character is, has an interesting backstory and motivation that ties her to Carol.
Messy Plot vs. Being Weird and Out There
Where the film easily fumbles is the inconsistent plotting. Though I have to give props to The Marvels being one of the shortest films in the franchise, it can’t make up for the rushed storytelling and tonal inconsistencies from one scene to the next. Once again, it can come off as a film burdened to address a checklist of items, as it’s so clearly bound to a cinematic universe bigger than itself.
Without a doubt, it is a shaky bumpy ride that is held together only because we love our female trio that much. DeCosta tries to incorporate a bit of fun and style into the film – there’s a specific scene with singing that felt like it was pulled straight out of a Guardians of the Galaxy silliness, and there’s one howling sequence involving cats and an absurdly funny needle drop – that I wish the entire film would commit to the weirdness a bit more. It certainly struggles between “having fun” and “getting serious about the plot again,” and the main reason why the film works is because the “having fun” part felt genuine.
The film straight up addresses some people’s worries about just how much of Ms. Marvel will be in the film by immediately bringing back the animation sequences from Kamala’s daydreams. Even her family members are included here, along with the brilliant decision of having them interact with Nick Fury. Samuel L. Jackson is once again having fun here, something I loved from the first Captain Marvel.
The Marvels: Light Harmless Fun
At this moment in time, where the MCU is clearly at a creative crossroads on what to do, it’s difficult and polarizing on where to place a film like The Marvels. As a person oversaturated by superhero movies, this isn’t essential viewing, but as someone who thinks it’s perfectly okay to enjoy a messy movie, it’s fun and charming in the right places.
DeCosta brings a much-appreciated grounded approach to the story, while demonstrating a great sense of humor and ability to direct action. Meanwhile, Larson, Parris, and Vellani are simply dynamite together, and if there is one thing and one thing only The Marvels has now made me excited about, it’s the possibility of Marvel one day doing a musical.
The Marvels was released in theaters in the United States on November 10, 2023.
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Kevin L. Lee is an Asian-American critic, producer, screenwriter and director based in New York City. A champion of the creative process, Kevin has consulted, written, and produced several short films from development to principal photography to festival premiere. He has over 10 years of marketing and writing experience in film criticism and journalism, ranging from blockbusters to foreign indie films, and has developed a reputation of being “an omnivore of cinema.” He recently finished his MFA in film producing at Columbia University and is currently working in film and TV development for production companies.