Written by Tom Augustine.
The advertising leading up to the release of the latest Marvel blockbuster, Candyman and Little Woods director Nia DaCosta’s The Marvels, has worked hard to link the film’s central hero (and arguably the leading light of the post-Iron Man and Captain America MCU) Captain Marvel to the triumphs of the Avengers, both the team and the trilogy. As played by Brie Larson, Captain Marvel’s interaction with that team was relatively slight, her contributions largely relegated to Avengers: Endgame alone. The campaign carries the whiff of desperation, as the long plagued sequel to Captain Marvel, the film, finally arrives this week on a wave of bleak box office prognosticating and reports of extensive reshooting and re-editing, and seems very eager to hearken back to the MCU’s glory days. The Marvels is, unfortunately, one of the first big-screen fruits of the woeful campaign to mix together the already convoluted MCU films with the disastrous television efforts that have resulted in series like Wandavision, Hawkeye, Secret Invasion and Ms Marvel (whose Iman Vellani is one of The Marvel’s headliners). One is expected, in watching this film, to have some cursory understanding of all those series. I’ve seen my fair share, and even with a reasonable working knowledge, I found myself scratching my head at some of the many callbacks and references that abound in The Marvels’ fleet 105-minute runtime (making it the shortest MCU effort ever).
It is not a burden that The Marvels wears well. Rarely has the weight of franchise expectations been such a blight on a film that tries exceptionally hard to be fun, lighthearted and satisfying. Indeed, for all its multiverse-traversing busyness, the film feels astonishingly inconsequential, perhaps a reflection of said merciless runtime shaving. The Marvel effort that I was most reminded of was not The Avengers, or even Captain Marvel, but the early Ant-Man films (before the quagmire of Quantumania), largely for its amiable, none-of-this-really-matters sensibility – not necessarily the takeaway I’d imagine the honchos at Marvel wanted for the MCU equivalent of Superman. Strangely, for all its truncation and lumpiness, The Marvels is far from the worst of the post-Endgame films. That dubious honour would go to Thor: Love and Thunder, a film of such blatant half-assery that its undue smugness left a stink that has plagued every effort since. Director Nia DaCosta is one of many young, emerging filmmakers roped into the franchise machine after a small indie hit, and before their sensibilities have really emerged – think Black Widow’s Cate Shortland, or Shang-Chi’s Destin Daniel-Crettin – and her abilities are largely stifled beneath corporate expectation, but a few glimmers of a director with a good handle on action and a decent understanding that these films need to be fun to watch shines through. A cynic (like me) might read the MCU’s hiring of early-days filmmakers into the mega-budget big leagues as an obvious attempt to stifle their artistic instincts, to utilise their inexperience to keep them in line while also coasting on some small fume of independent sensibility. That The Marvels is at all enjoyable is a testament to DaCosta, but also, naggingly, to the Marvel machine – it works best in autopilot, and that’s what we get here.
Arriving on the back of negative buzz and rumours of gruelling reshoots, the latest outing for current Marvel Studios centrepiece Captain Marvel is an uncharacteristically slight, lowkey offering that bears the scars of ruthless re-editing. The film coasts by, thanks to the amiable chemistry of its cast, ironically making it one of the more successful works of Marvel’s woeful post-Endgame output.
In the film, Captain Marvel finds herself cosmically intertwined with two other heroes that share similar, light-based powers to her – Vellani’s Ms Marvel and Teyonah Parris’ Captain Rambeau, the daughter of Captain Marvel’s one-time air force buddy Maria Rambeau. Due to some complex mumbo-jumbo involving Ms Marvel’s power-giving bangle, which turns out to be one of two ‘Quantum Bracelets’ (yes, that’s what they’re going with) the three women find themselves switching places anytime they use their powers. This brings them into conflict with Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), a Kree warrior out to revive her homeland by using the bracelets to steal the ‘atmospheres’ of other solar systems. Also in the mix is Samuel L Jackson’s MCU stalwart Nick Fury, who is just kind of there, and Ms Marvel’s Pakistani-American family, who bring a dash of humour and warmth to proceedings.
As Captain Marvel, a woman suddenly transformed into a being of nearly unlimited power, Brie Larson has never seemed entirely at home in the role, struggling to balance a character that is essentially a God with a sense of Girl-Power adjacent spunkiness. The Marvels is, surprisingly, Larson’s best outing as the character, an off-shoot of the immediate and apparent chemistry between the film’s three leads. Here, Larson’s character finds a kind of makeshift team, and that sense of unity is the film’s strongest undercurrent, hinting at but not leaning too heavily on Captain Marvel’s galaxy-spanning loneliness, and the joy of finding like-powered friends. Parris, too, capitalises on her brief scenes in Wandavision, her scientific prowess requiring her to deliver screeds of exposition with confidence. Parris is up to the challenge, and bodes well for her future in the Universe. Best, however, is Vellani as young Ms Marvel, an everyday teenager thrust into circumstances beyond her control or understanding. The team at Marvel clearly know what a find they have in Vellani, whose good natured sweetness and charisma positively keeps The Marvels afloat, even in its most editorially savaged moments. The viewer is constantly looking for Vellani’s face on the screen, a natural human anchor amidst all the (poorly) CGI’d slush that flows around these actors. It’s no wonder that The Marvels’ best scenes are ones that find the three just hanging out, talking and playing with their powers.
At this point, the many, many grievances a critic might have with the MCU are well-documented – the series’ laziness, its bland homogeneity, its empty posturing as serious cinema, to say nothing of the multiplex-choking, creativity-stifling reach they have had on the cinema landscape in general. To watch an MCU film at this point is to accept this element as part of the series’ ultimate modus operandi. As the series becomes ever more unwieldy, and its initial spark of newness fades to embers, many will surely wonder what becomes of these many story threads after the glitter fades. The Marvels is too haphazardly pasted together, too burdened with expectation, to offer a way forward (in spite of a groan-worthy end-credits sequence). At its core, The Marvels also doesn’t seem to want to offer a way forward. It’s just another Marvel instalment, forgotten almost as soon as one is out the door of the cinema. It’s the film’s best asset and greatest weakness, all at once.
The Marvels in cinemas now.
Movie title: The Marvels (dir. Nia DaCosta)
Date published: November 9, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, Elissa Karasik
Director(s): Nia DaCosta
Actor(s): Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy