Marvel Studios’ latest superhero is an epic team-up of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani).
After a less than ideal year for spandex titles across the board, including Marvel’s lambasted Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania (I regret my too generous review), enter writer/director Nia DaCosta‘s female-centric superhero film.
The Marvels has the unenviable job of entering a marketplace that is either hostile or ambivalent to supe fare, which is unfortunate given that the finished film, despite being a bit slight and clunkily incorporating storylines from multiple other Marvel titles, still shines as fun escapism.
The film gets off to rocky start as DaCosta, as well as co-writers Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik, awkwardly struggles to catch audiences up on at least three different Marvel properties while also introducing a new villain and galaxy-threatening plot. Having seen Captain Marvel, WandaVision, and Ms Marvel, this was a helpful reminder; to new audiences – or folks who didn’t watch the two serialized TV shows – this is likely confusing and/or overwhelming exposition.
Once the film settles into the action, however, it’s not that complicated. In short: Kree leader Dar-Been (Zawe Ashton) is “punching” holes in the space travel system in order to suck up natural resources from other worlds. She aims to repair her own homeworld of Hala, which has been depleted of air, sun, and water (part of her tumultuous backstory with Captain Marvel).
The weapon Dar-Been uncovers early in the film happens to be the other half of Ms. Marvel’s bracelet and all three of our heroines’ powers are tied in some capacity to light energy. When the celestial powers get upended, the three women begin swapping places physically whenever they use their powers and they hesitantly team-up to Dar-Been down.
Clocking in at a brief hundred minutes and change, The Marvels is quick, breezy, and often quite fun. All three actresses have played these roles before, and there’s a lived-in quality to the performances even when they’re coming from different worlds. The chemistry is admittedly a little off between Larson and Parris early on due to their own backstory (the characters haven’t seen each other in thirty years) and that awkwardness extends to getting the band together portion of the film.
Once the trio is jetting off to other worlds, however, the movie more or less kicks into high gear and doesn’t look back. Yes, there’s a slight subplot involving Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Kamala’s family, mom Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff) dad Yusuf (Mohan Kapur), and older brother Aamir (Saagar Shaikh) aboard a space research station that often feels superfluous, but the last act pay-off is pretty darn fun. Fans of the Ms. Marvel show will have no difficulty with this portion of the film.
It’s also a joy to see three incredibly powerful female superheroes come together for a standalone adventure. The three have good chemistry, particularly as the film progresses and they accept their designation as the titular group, and the film’s feminism feels more subtle than the original Captain Marvel. That movie, like Wonder Woman, occasionally felt weighed down by the responsibility of representing *all* woman; The Marvels doesn’t have that same compulsory “girl power” vibe, or at least not addressed with as heavy a hand. The almost-entirely female-fronted film undoubtedly features a progressive commentary about gender and race, but the film folds it in, rather than loudly proclaiming it on a soapbox.
Larson occasionally struggles to balance the seriousness of Captain Marvel’s arc with the zaniness of some of the film’s wackier moments, while Parris is saddled with mediating Kamala’s idolatry of Captain Marvel with her own abandonment issues with her famous aunt.
Both actresses have good moments, though the true star is Vellani: Kamala’s enthusiasm for adventure is infectious; her naivety about the gravity of life and death situations is appropriate for a teen; and she’s still an instrumental part of the team/narrative. In short: all of Vellani’s best qualities from her Disney+ series remain intact in her jump to the big screen.
One character who isn’t treated well by the busy plot and short run time is Dar-Been. Ashton’s villain is the film’s main casualty: while there’s a kernel of a fascinating and even empathetic villain, the reality is that the character comes off flat and generic. Little is asked of Ashton except to stand around and clash her staff with her bracelet.
Captain Marvel ‘s arc as “the Annihilator” is also rushed, which is disappointing considering how intriguing it would have been to examine the implications of a well-intentioned act inadvertently triggering an incredibly destructive result. Alas The Marvels is more content to pay the idea lip service than actually explore it.
Still, it’s hard to fault a film that dares to include not only a journey to an aquatic planet who denizens can only communicate in song, but also features a climactic sequence that is simultaneously adorable and terrifying body horror. Even the montage of the three women learning to body swap, which is scored to Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” and features jump rope (among other activities) works. When The Marvels can relax and just do its own thing, it’s a entertaining, breezy romp. This won’t work for audiences who dismissed the three previous texts, who have a problem with female superheroes, or worship at the “dark and gritty” altar of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series.
The Marvels is content to be short and slight, as well as colourful, silly and fun. What more can you ask for? 3.5/5
The Marvels is now playing in theaters