The feeling of a new Marvel film can be the equivalent of “let’s see how this goes” and “hope it’s not too bad” more than the high expectations and excitement of yesteryear. Can you believe Captain Marvel was released in 2019? Why does it feel like it was a million years ago? Well, the pandemic hit in 2020, and there have been countless Marvel and television shows after the release of Captain Marvel. And while it’s only been four years since the first introduction of Carol Danvers, it feels like it’s been an exhausting feat getting to the latest sequel of sorts, The Marvels directed by Nia DaCosta.
The Marvels follows Danvers (Brie Larson), who has reclaimed her identity from the tyrannical Kree and taken revenge on the Supreme Intelligence. The unintended consequences of her actions find Danvers dealing with a destabilized universe. A Kree revolutionary, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), is on the hunt for revenge and wants to reclaim what was taken from them by Danvers for her people of Hala, who are left with poisoned air and draining resources.
Dar-Benn finds an “ancient artifact” bangle, a twin to the Jersey City super-fan Kamala Khan’s (Iman Vellani) bangle that, when combined with her Kree hammer gives her the ability to create jump points in connection with destroying and sucking out other planet resources and diverting them to her home planet of Hala. When she finds and uses the bangle with her hammer, she activates a link between Khan, Danvers, and Danvers’ estranged niece, S.A.B.E.R. astronaut Captain Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris).
The question that pops up when watching Marvel films now is how to take them in in a post-Endgame Marvel world. The latest Marvel films have felt scattered and meandering with no sense of purpose like The Infinity War Saga had, and it’s been a real issue. The Marvels tries to go back to basics. There’s no fancy pop soundtrack or needle drops at every turn like the Guardians and Thor franchises. The lack of a catchy soundtrack feels like a statement in turning over a new leaf and not relying on previous Marvel laurels. The Marvels aims to give the audience more thoughtful, emotional jump points grounded in characters not fancy soundtracks.
The Marvels, at times, feels like it gets back to the magic of those Marvel films we loved like Captain America: The First Avenger, Ant-Man and Black Panther, with one quintessential element – a charming cast – the chemistry between the three leads, Larson, Vellani, and Parris, is undeniable, fun, effortless and exciting to watch. Call me skeptical going in, but it’s hard not to fall for the charm of Vellani juxtaposed with the stoicism of Larson and emotional depth of Parris. Vellani, in particular, is so gut-wrenchingly charming, balancing the line in her over-the-top love of Danvers while also having her own moments of growth when faced with real-life consequences of choosing who lives or dies, and seeing her idol make these choices differently than she thought she would. What happens when you actually meet your hero? The film touches on this for a brief moment when Khan is faced with the reality of what the real-life stakes are – she’s not in Jersey City anymore. It would have been nice to linger with this question more but the film has to wrap it up quickly, so there were moments that could have been deeper between the three leads that are not fleshed out. But they all managed to use what they were given and play against each other with their own individual strengths – it was a testament to the direction and tone of the film. The film is playful and doesn’t take itself seriously which is refreshing and also feels true to this rag-tag group of gals of different ages and decades. It almost feels like you’re hanging out with your girl pals with an added mix of a villainous gal.
The swapping that happens when Dar-Benn activates her bangle which inadvertently creates a link between Khan, Danvers and Rambeau. Everytime they use their powers they are teleported or switched to the other’s location. There’s a fun montage of them figuring out how to control the “switching” and use it to their advantage – a cool take on a “fighting montage or how-to use your powers” in a group setting. The switching choreography of the three Marvels action sequences was stunning and seamless. It’s quick-paced yet not disorienting and feels so smooth when transitioning between Danvers, Khan, and Rambeau. Some of the edits left me wondering, “How did they do that?” It felt interesting and different to the usual combat fare from these superhero films and unique to The Marvels. The VFX work in this film is nothing short of spectacular, from the landscape shots of the worlds, the power effects, and, of course, Goose the cat and the additional kitties. Not being a cat person, it was a surprise how much Goose’s brain-shaped eggs that led to a massive population of cute CGI kitties – were not only cute, but functional in helping get the crew back to safety. The Marvels may not have a ‘cat’chy soundtrack but they sure have charming slurpy tentacle sucking people kitties. It felt nice to know that the powers that be made sure the VFX were on par, unlike the VFX work of some of the Marvel television shows (looking at you, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law).
Marvel also has a villain problem. What do you do when the audience has seen all different versions of villains after 20+ films? What is compelling enough? Ashton brought her A-game and has my favorite trait of a villain – the gray area of having a legitimate reason for her villainous act or the Killmonger effect. Danvers is coined the Annihilator by the planet of Hala after she destroyed their power source and set their planet in disarray. Dar-Benn is just trying to make it right for her people, just like Killmonger was trying to help his people in Black Panther. But unlike Killmonger, Dar-Benn’s backstory was not fully fleshed out enough to be thoughtful and feels one note at the end. There was a missed opportunity to not only dig deeper into the consequences of superheroes doing the right thing, but also being human and making a mistake on the job. The mistake that costs planets and leads those affected down a dangerous path to avenge their people – that’s powerful stuff.
With the fun, playful tone of the film comes one continuing problem with these recent Marvel films,the countless interconnected television shows. If you missed Ms. Marvel and any of the other shows, you may miss some plot references in this film, but won’t be too thrown off if you’ve seen the majority of the Marvel films and Captain Marvel. The Marvels definitely pulled from the first film, so it was nice to only be slightly lost.
The big elephant in the film is the Disney-fied influence that is hard to miss. While surely it’s been happening in the television shows in some regard, it was very apparent in an oddly placed mini-musical planet where Danvers has a secret relationship. The whole planet sings but you notice the costume design. It felt like actors wearing costumes and not a lived-in world and pulled you out into the fourth wall. It reminded me of Brandy and Whitney Houston’s Cinderella set pieces. While that film is fun in its own way, it shouldn’t be a reference popping up while watching a Marvel film. It all felt misplaced and something from a Disney TV movie.
The Marvels is lucky that the leads are so charming because it makes you overlook some fluff in the narrative and the continued meandering since The Avengers: Endgame ended. All the films leading up to that point were for a purpose – finding an infinity stone, discovering Thanos, and connecting individual quests together in that saga. It all felt cohesive. And now? It feels like there’s no purpose, and another question could be asked simultaneously: does there have to be? These are superhero films, after all. They should be fun, and The Marvels is fun, silly, and light-hearted. Maybe the Infinity Saga was just a magical blend that may never happen again, or maybe it’ll happen when it happens. In the meantime, I’ll cling to the magic of these three charming Marvels that made me excited to be a Marvel fan again.
Walt Disney/Marvel Studios will release The Marvels only in theaters on November 10.
Photo: Laura Radford/Marvel Studios