“The Marvels is as shoddily constructed as any entry in this stubbornly deathless series.”
- Fun premise
- Kamala Khan is a delight
- It's disastrously paced
- It comes with too much homework
- Must we with the cameos?
Marvel movies have always been product, but they used to be extremely well-oiled product: splashy, gleaming multiplex entertainment that hit its marks with the precision of a Stark Industries missile. That’s not so much the case anymore. Earlier this year, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania exhibited a shocking short circuit in the quality-control apparatus of the franchise machine, with special effects that looked (and apparently were) downright unfinished. And now comes The Marvels, a colorfully synergistic team-building exercise of a blockbuster that just about falls apart right in front of you as you watch it. It’s as shoddily constructed as any entry in this stubbornly deathless series.
There’s no making it through The Marvels without wondering if you’ve missed something. Partially, that’s the usual matter of relentless serialization, compounded here by a plot with links to television. Whereas previous Marvel movies counted on a certain offhand familiarity with the events of, well, other movies, The Marvels picks up threads from the Disney+ series WandaVision, Ms. Marvel, and Secret Invasion. But even those current on the small-screen side of the MCU may get lost at some point during the film’s rushed, chaotic flurry of incident and exposition. The Marvels is an equal-opportunity confuser.
You’ve heard of a movie starting in media res? This one seems to exist entirely in media res. Nobody gets a proper introduction. Not the old characters, not the new ones. Chief among the former is Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), aka Captain Marvel, the former Air Force pilot with more superpowers than personality traits. Like Jason Bourne, Carol doesn’t quite remember who she was — a very convenient excuse for the lack of character development in her 2019 origin story and this quasi-sequel. To recover some of those lost memories, she straps on an alien headband, allowing director Nia DaCosta (Candyman) to deliver a quick “previously on” reiteration of the events of Captain Marvel.
Out in space, Carol comes in contact with an astrophysical anomaly, and suddenly finds herself teleported around the galaxy, swapping positions on the interstellar map with two other superheroes. One of them, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), she knew as a child who called her “aunt.” Monica now has light-based powers of her own, acquired during the closing stretch of WandaVision. Rounding out their three-card monte is Jersey City teenager Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), who has graduated from the small-scale coming-of-age dramedy of her starring vehicle, Ms. Marvel, to a co-starring role in an IMAX-scaled team-up. As a Captain Marvel superfan, Kamala is as excited as she is scared to find herself suddenly drafted into the star wars of her hero.
Three characters randomly trading places across the universe is a fun idea, rife with comic and action-cinema potential. But The Marvels never gets the timing of this game of musical chairs right, to say nothing of the inconsistency of its rules. At 105 minutes, this is the shortest Marvel movie yet, and if that sounds like a breath of fresh air after the increasingly bloated runtimes of the studio’s other superhero spectacles, you’ve yet to muddle your way through the baffling pace of the film’s opening half-hour, which bears the unmistakable mark of excised scenes and crucial information lopped off in postproduction. Watching from the sidelines, Kamala’s sitcom family becomes a Greek chorus, giving voice to the audience’s likely bewilderment.
We first see the big bad, an embittered colonizer named Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), chipping away at lunar rock, searching for one of those magical doohickeys on which the fate of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so often rests (there are a few of them in The Marvels). Ashton sneers with suitable aplomb, but she’s playing a rather stock villain, and the movie introduces her so unceremoniously that any viewer not current on their MCU homework might falsely assume that she’s from one of those Disney+ shows. Dar-Benn, who hails from the same warrior race Carol vanquished in Captain Marvel, eventually forces the shape-shifting Skrulls (remember them?) from their home world, threatening to annihilate those who stay. Any resemblance to current global events is entirely accidental, as a Disney PR representative would presumably be quick to insist.
The heart of the movie should be the growing round-robin bond forged by these cosmically tethered superheroes. There are germs of conflict. Can Monica forgive her surrogate aunt for abandoning her on Earth to blaze righteously across the universe for decades? Can Carol live up to the fangirlish image Kamala has of her idol? Whenever The Marvels slows to focus on interpersonal drama, it flickers with the promise of past Marvel group outings like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. But there’s just precious little time for the three to get to know each other — or for audiences without a streaming subscription to get to know them. It doesn’t help, either, that Captain Marvel remains more of an action figure than a person, a hero pose in search of a character.
Confronted with the hectic blur of activity, it’s best to cling to stray bursts of fun: some Weird Science shenanigans involving Carol’s ravenous, extraterrestrial cat; a too-short detour to an all-singing world that’s like a Bollywood musical in miniature; the faint Star Trek vibe evinced by all the planet hopping. And Vellani remains a delight as Kamala, an adorkable bundle of adolescent excitement who doubles as a stand-in for all the die-hards in the dark.
Unfortunately, the good stuff in The Marvels has been hacked and slashed within an inch of its life. And it’s competing with the worn-out formula of the Marvel model — including, of course, lots of obligatory cameos, from a supporting character literally beamed into the action for a quick narrative fix to the pandering, cheaply noncommittal appearances of the post-credits scene. If The Marvels was a comic book instead of a film loosely based on a comic book, every single panel would contain one of those asterisk boxes pointing readers to a back issue. And you’d probably wish you were reading one of them instead.
The Marvels opens in theaters everywhere Friday, November 10. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.
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