The Friendly Film Fan Reviews the Latest in Superhero Cinema.
The MCU has had a rough go of things lately; while critics’ opinions of the franchise have always ebbed and flowed, its overall reception has waned a considerable amount since the start of Phase 4 (Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3 and a few of its streaming endeavors notwithstanding). Now, The Marvels arrives as the third MCU project to be released this year, and the one by which people are measuring the perceived successes or failures of the franchise as a whole, for some reason. There’s been not insignificant amounts of conversation surrounding its somewhat rocky production history, box office hopes, critic scores, and space in the wider sphere of who should get to write about it, how they should write about it, or why. In short, a lot seems to be riding on this one, mostly unfairly.
For context, it's been over four years since we last saw Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) briefly return to help the Avengers defeat Thanos, many years after she had jetted off to space at the end of her own solo film to deal with the Supreme Intelligence and set things right in the Kree/Skrull war. Since “the snap” was undone, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) has come back to find her mom has passed on in her absence (she’s also gained superpowers – see WandaVision), and we’ve been introduced to Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) in her own solo series. The crux of this film’s plot involves the three of these characters coming together to stop Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) – a vengeful Kree with a grudge against Captain Marvel – from targeting various planets across the universe which Carol Danvers had once called home. As if that isn’t enough to deal with, the three are also constantly switching places due to their light-based powers becoming entangled.
What works about The Marvels may not be much, but it works well enough to keep the movie afloat for most of its noticeably short runtime. For the most part, there’s an appropriately measured sense of levity here, the three leads well-suited to each other’s energies, even if those energies can’t always match the moment they’re in due to poor writing or editing choices. While Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris are doing what they can without the dialogue to support their performance skills, the standout is unquestionably Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan – a.k.a. Ms. Marvel – whose endearing charisma powers this film through its weaker moments. It’s her that manages to keep the viewer glued to the screen whenever she and the other co-leads are together. There’s also at least one genuinely fun action sequence, right after our protagonists first find themselves switching places. The way the camera moves through this sequence practically in sync with the characters’ movements lends an energy to it that the MCU has been lacking in its last few outings (again, GotG: Vol. 3 notwithstanding). And yes, despite some issues I had with the execution, the mid-credits scene is an actually exciting tease of what’s to come, rather than a block of text or a cheeky joke.
Unfortunately, what doesn’t work about The Marvels is a much longer list, even if that list doesn’t quite weigh the film down as much as one might imagine. After a short introduction to Dar-Benn at the film’s start (along with some pretty noticeable green screen), we get going with the main plot pretty much right away, but it’s all cut together in a way that makes it feel choppy or cobbled together from different pieces, rather than feeling like one moment is flowing naturally into the next, which flows into the next, and so on. It doesn’t feel so much like a story is being told as pieces of a concept and plot mechanics are being introduced, and the execution of those introductions doesn’t mesh with the jarring tone-shifts going on in almost every other scene. Even some of the more absurd ideas present in the film are fun in concept, but lack appropriate execution. Whether it’s one sequence involving a lot of cats or another where an entire planet’s language is only song, the film can’t weave them into darker surrounding scenes without it feeling jarring or out of place.
There are, of course, other things that don’t work: a lot of the dialogue is pretty bad, much of it is used in place of characters showing who they are (or it comes from the wrong character entirely), the score doesn’t strike a proper balance in more dire scenes, most interpersonal conflict between characters is immediately resolved in the name of moving the plot forward rather than being explored more richly, Dar-Benn is one the MCU’s worst-rendered villains to date, and while some choices regarding the ending make sense, they don’t square with the logic of previous franchise entries or even this film’s own story. Perhaps the biggest offender, though, in this long list of things that don’t work is this pressing question: what is this movie about? The film itself doesn’t seem to have an answer.
It briefly addresses the idea of interventionism and how interfering in conflicts that are not one’s own can bring about terrible consequences for those involved, but it almost immediately drops this idea to, once again, keep the plot moving forward. It also flirts with the idea that Carol would continuously try to fix things on her own despite having two people there with her because she feels responsible for the mess in front of her, but it never actually executes on that concept either. Every time the film gets close to having a theme, a message to tie it all together, it abandons the opportunity in favor of keeping the plot moving as quickly as it can, leaving the film feeling fine on the surface, but ultimately hollow.
In the end, box office success or lack thereof, The Marvels would likely have a tough time sticking in the minds of moviegoers if it weren’t for the brand recognition and the iconography of its titular characters in other mediums. It’s not as if the film doesn’t work, but what does work seems as though it’s part of a separate story, tonally speaking, and while the chemistry and performances of the three leads are enough to get viewers through most of the runtime, they won’t get through it all without feeling at least a few speed bumps.
I’m giving “The Marvels” a 5.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.