Directed by Nia DaCosta | Written by DaCosta, Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik | 105 min | ▲▲▲△△ | In Cinemas
Wow, the cultural commentary around the MCU right now and this film in particular has been deafening, hasn’t it? It makes it hard to appreciate the new movie on its own without weighing in on whether we’re seeing either the end of Marvel Studios glory days. So, I guess I’m gonna bite into it — lemme get that out of the way before I share my thoughts on the film.
I’ve been talking about the problems with the MCU for a few years now.
Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame concluded an astonishing, unprecedented run of success, almost two dozen connected movies about superheroes, a franchise that changed Hollywood. But maybe they did their job too well. Everything following has seem like a bit of a letdown in comparison.
It’s fair to say the subsequent films didn’t grab audiences in a similar way, I think with the exception of Spider-Man: No Way Home, they’ve been a mixed bag, both critically and commercially. Marvel also launched a number of streaming series on Disney+. I’ve actually enjoyed those more than many of the recent films — WandaVision, Loki, Hawkeye, She-Hunk: Attorney At Law, to name just a few, were terrific.
But I think it has been tough for audiences to keep up with the continuity, to watch all the shows and the movies — they’re more disconnected from the material. After the emotional high points of those last Avengers movies, I can understand that — even as this is the foundation of what they’ve built, rewarding the faithful with a lattice of narrative.
The simplest possibility for a diminishing box office might be this explanation: tastes are changing and people are getting tired of superheroes.
What Kevin Feige and Marvel accomplished has been incredible, but nobody else has been able to reproduce that specific magic trick — arguably DC has a more well-known roster of characters, and they’ve failed — and there was never any guarantee that Marvel, even with all their success, could sustain it indefinitely. Hollywood will work a genre trend for as long as people want to see it — wrestling pictures, westerns, and John Grisham courtroom thrillers used to be all the rage until audiences had enough.
All this said, this year’s MCU movies have been a lot of fun.
I enjoyed Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania as a dazzling popcorn movie, and Guardians Of The Galaxy: Volume 3, was both affecting and a satisfying fantasy blockbuster. The weakest parts of both were when they stretched to include elements of the broader narrative that felt shoehorned into the plot. I think there’s an elegant way to make these movies feel like they’re serving the larger universe, and too often it seems calculated.
One of the recent problems is in the brand new narrative, which simply isn’t as well constructed as the last one. We’re nowhere near as invested in the new villain, The One Who Remains aka Kang The Conquerer — Jonathan Majors’ off-screen legal issues are another problem — as we were with Loki or Thanos.
Maybe the biggest issue is coherence. I’ve read many of the comics, seen all the previous movies and watched all the series and even I was confused at the start of The Marvels.
Where did we leave things in the relationships between the interstellar peoples The Kree and The Skrulls? What’s Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) doing living alone in space, wearing Crocs and hanging with Goose, the alien cat who isn’t a cat? I felt a bit adrift, not unlike Carol.
Before seeing The Marvels, it might be helpful for audiences to get a refresh on the Captain Marvel movie and Ms Marvel, the series starring Canadian Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan. (She’s the Muslim teen living in Jersey City who idolizes Captain Marvel and has similar, light-based powers. It’s a good time.)
Also on board The Marvels is Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), a child in the Captain Marvel movie (which was set in the 1990s) and now agent of SABER, the interstellar version of SHIELD, working with Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, who’s gotten very laid back about everything). It turns out the three women’s powers have been connected by a hyper-space transportation system and Kamala’s bangle, the mysterious wristband that provides her powers.
Naturally, the bangle is part of a pair, worn by Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), a Kree warrior on a mission to save her homeworld from environmental catastrophe and destroy Captain Marvel along the way. Turns out Carol might be responsible for this catastrophe and doesn’t feel good about it.
This is actually a solid character note for Carol Danvers, and explains some of her behaviour from previous movies. The connection between the three women and their powers — they switch places when they use them simultaneously — is wildly implausible, even by the way of Marvel internal logic where the fantastic is commonplace, but that’s not a real concern when things are moving so fast.
The pacing is nuts. The atypical shorter running time, less than two hours, for a Marvel movie is welcome, but the opening act arrives at a gallop and takes a good half an hour before we get a chance to breathe. The third act is worse — we rush from calamity to CGI-heavy battle, a sadly typical third act issue in a Marvel movie, and it all feels like a lot of noise. When one character sacrifices themselves it barely seems to matter to those left behind.
What works are the three leads, bringing their best through the middle of the movie. Larson is solid, owning her regret over mistakes made. Parris is likeable — introduced as an adult in the excellent WandaVision show, she’s a helpful sceptic, a scientist not interested in being a superhero. Vellani is the movie’s MVP — her brand of teen enthusiasm we’ve only seen in the MCU from Tom Holland, but it’s just as infectious here. She’s the glue holding the whole movie together because she’s the one we care about the most, and her family (Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, and Saagar Shaikh) all get plenty of moments, too.
That second act allows for a great sequence on Carol’s ship where the three characters get to know each other and figure out how to make their connected powers complimentary. We also get a visit to a planet where everyone communicates in song — I’d be in favour of spending a whole movie on the musical planet.
This is the stuff that Guardians Of The Galaxy and even the Thor movies did so well — cosmic tales with self-contained goofiness and broad visual imagination that made them so rewatchable. Later on we get a scene of Goose and many other cats (with a perfectly chosen needle drop) that’s also a delight, even if the CGI felines don’t really convince.
The Marvels is a long way from perfect, but the stuff that works is a joy. If you’re a hardcore Marvel fan you might appreciate it even more than others in the audience due to how much it requires having seen the earlier material. The Marvel wizards are certainly not stepping away from the deep interconnectedness of all these stories. If anything, they’re doubling down.
Some ideas for how the MCU can rebuild its flagging brand:
The TV series have the flexibility to offer different, creative takes on the Marvel mythos. When they were over on Netflix (shows like Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, etc) they didn’t need to intersect directly with the movies to be satisfyingly set in the same world. Maybe that’s a way forward with the Disney+ shows, to limit audience confusion.
With the movies, what made them work so well in the past is that they were genuine events. They need to find that kind of excitement again if they’re going to survive. I liked a lot of The Marvels, but I don’t think this is the solution.