Much has been said about the erosion of the Marvel Studios cinematic enterprise. Most recently, Variety published a feature depicting a media giant in crisis. Assessing blame is an entertaining sport, and that report undoubtedly sparked greater debate concerning the extent of Marvel’s troubles, but sooner or later, we will enter a moment when the conversation shifts. The question now is: “Is Marvel in trouble?” (Yes, they’ve pumped out so much mediocre guck to repopulate their toy chest that they’ve undeniably diluted their brand equity). In the future, perhaps nearer than some optimistic fans expect, a different, more ominous question may lumber into the picture: “Can Marvel be saved?” At what point will the pieces written about the Marvel Cinematic Universe primarily consist of obituaries and autopsies? For now, it’s only possible to speculate, but it should be observed that if Disney indeed hopes to reverse the MCU’s recent trajectory, they’ll need to do better than releases like The Marvels.
A sequel to 2019’s Captain Marvel, we meet the titular hero (Brie Larson), AKA Carol Danvers, as she investigates anomalous activity in the cosmos. Somewhere else in space, Captain Marvel’s estranged family friend Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) is doing the same on behalf of Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) latest defense agency, S.A.B.E.R. Meanwhile, in humble Jersey City, young Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) daydreams and doodles about meeting her idol, Captain Marvel, when the special bangle on her arm starts glowing strange colors. It turns out that the film’s big bad, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), has found the other bangle — actually an artifact called a Quantum Band — and uses it to create unstable, traversable wormholes. Monica and Carol touch a wormhole simultaneously, resulting in the three leads getting their powers linked and switching places whenever they activate them. After some hijinks, the entangled trio joins forces to defeat the new threat.
Once upon a time, the main criticism of these movies was how formulaic even the best entries felt. The likeable heroes, the less likeable foil villains, the diet of quips, the desaturated gray aesthetic, the whiz-bang plot packed with set pieces, the breezy, amiable tone; however staid these elements have been for some, they are also the creative backbone of a multibillion-dollar juggernaut. They didn’t need to achieve anything aesthetically revolutionary. You could go to the theater or fire up your TV and know broadly what to expect while indulging in whatever novelty the creators cooked up. At peak form, a new MCU installment possessed an ease, a seamlessness, a confidence in its undeniable solidity. That era might be gone for good.
The Marvels isn’t a slog, but it is conspicuously strained — there’s a self-consciousness now that’s almost distracting. The Marvels desperately wants to be funny but also poignant, grand but not too grand, more grounded while also wacky and bizarre, but somehow ultimately restrained and simple. It does achieve some of these ambitions more reliably than others, but it’s obvious in these ambitions that everyone involved is so desperate for a smash hit to supply some good juju to this declining empire that the engines are overheated. Some jokes work; others clearly aim at tickling audiences of specific generational cohorts. The action can be excitingly kinetic at times, yet the film’s reliance on the balletic camera movement emphasizes the choreography’s artificiality. The more tense dramatic moments are undermined by their brevity and lack of organic resolution because the clothesline plot demands the characters snap back into focus for the next item on the agenda. Everything that makes an MCU movie what we know it to be is present, except now we’re receiving ersatz versions of these key ingredients. The narrative stakes are not the source of tension here — it’s the film’s insistent “Is this good enough?” vibe that is.
This critic was also left with a curious question: what is this movie about? Sure, The Marvels’ logline could be offered as a response, but thematically, what is this movie really doing? As this is a team-up flick in conception, is the point something about the importance of companionship and facing challenges together? Concerning the promising but underwritten main antagonist, could the film be considered to be about the unintended consequences of a hero’s actions? Is it about embracing one’s identity as a hero and all that journey entails? That this is an open question with several plausible answers is a problem, a byproduct of The Marvels‘ lack of substance, of a core driving focus. Partially, that’s due to the fact that two members of the main trio, Carol and Monica, are written as characters with limited interiority, little explored about their wants and needs beyond what they explicitly state in expository dumps. They never convincingly display any sort of growth, instead remaining predominately reactive to whatever new wrinkle a given situation throws at them. Kamala, while also not really having any meaningful arc beyond “listen better and don’t fangirl as hard,” at least benefits from having her relatives around to contextualize and invigorate her with an additional, relatable dynamic. That, combined with the effervescent energy Vellani brings to the role, easily situates her as the standout of the three (Vellani being a Marvel superfan in real life could contribute to the fact that out of the three, she comes off as the most natural and passionate). But this failure to build depth and purpose into either its storytelling or characters renders The Marvels a flashy but hollow experience, less a satisfying event movie than a determined corporate attempt at damage control.
DIRECTOR: Nia DaCosta; CAST: Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani, Samuel L. Jackson; DISTRIBUTOR: Walt Disney Pictures; IN THEATERS: November 10; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 45 min.