The Marvels (2023)
Director: Nia DaCosta
Screenwriters: Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, Elissa Karasik
Starring: Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani, Zawe Ashton, Gary Lewis, Park Seo-joon, Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, Saagar Shaikh, Samuel L. Jackson
Previously on the MCU…
In Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers became the most powerful woman alive when she absorbed the cosmic energy of an exploding alien reactor. In ‘Wandavision’, astronaut Monica Rambeau gained the power to manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum when she passed through a barrier of chaos magic. In ‘Ms Marvel’, teenage superhero fangirl Kamala Khan’s inert extra-dimensional mutant powers were unlocked by a magical bangle passed down through her family. Now…
When three superheroes with light-based powers mysteriously start switching places across the universe, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) must team up to find the root cause of their conundrum and stop fanatical Kree warlord Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) from doing untold damage to the universe.
The debate about whether it’s a good move for buzzworthy indie directors to make the leap to superhero blockbusters so early in their careers continues. Cop Car’s Jon Watts managed to keep some of his directorial voice intact when he swung into the MCU with Spider-Man: Homecoming, ditto Taika Waititi taking up Thor’s hammer straight after Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but other filmmakers like Cate Shortland (going from Berlin Syndrome to Black Widow) and Chloé Zhao (following Nomadland with Eternals) have struggled to make their superhero movies stand out. Nia DaCosta (previously behind the Candyman reboot) seems to find herself somewhere in the middle of that scale, bringing plenty of personality to her story but perhaps having to temper her darker impulses to fit the studio brief.
The sheer charm of the central trio’s dynamic makes you forgive the film a lot of sins. This is what you’re watching for, to see this unconventional surrogate family unit – an absentee aunt, a grieving daughter and an over-enthusiastic younger sister who just wants to be included – puzzle out their predicament and support each other through their trials. The problem is that exactly what Captain Marvel has been doing since her movie debut, referenced in brief flashbacks and confronted directly at this film’s close, sounds a lot more interesting than the film we are actually watching. Rather than grappling with the responsibility of what to do with your near-unlimited power, seeing her make what will prove to be disastrous decisions that impact the lives of billions of extra-terrestrials, more often than not we’re hurtling around the universe searching for space trinkets for undefined reasons.
There are some admittedly eye-catching sci-fi vistas on display, with glittering futuristic cities and spectacularly collapsing planetary bodies aplenty. There is also, disappointingly, still the odd uninspiring brawl that amounts to repetitive punching with added fireworks, usually in pretty featureless added-in-post environs.
The action highlight is unquestionably the bravura fight sequence in the first act that is given its lifeblood and rhythm by sterling work from editors Catrin Hedström and Evan Schiff, hilariously inopportunely zipping the three Marvels in and out of their brawl taking place at three different points in the galaxy every time they use their powers. This unexpectedly not only puts the Khan family and their Jersey City home in the firing line but also keeps the powered trio physically apart and unable to effectively coordinate a little while longer.
You can’t really accuse DaCosta and co for playing it safe, mostly because of how prominently they feature multiple Flerkens (chaotic alien cats that can consume just about anything with their disguised tendrilled maws). The film also finds room for not one but two musical, or at least musical-inspired sequences to break up its more generic action. The more self-aware of these scenes that references an infamous piece of bad pop culture is the better and most memorable of the two by far and will doubtless be doing the rounds on social media as soon as The Marvels is released digitally.
This is one of the funnier Marvel movies, but most of the humour comes from the performances (especially Vellani’s insatiable excitement levels) rather than what was written on the page. The script could have used another pass for sure, and it contains very little that might be considered quotable. The warm interplay of Kamala and her protective family, the undoubted heart and highlight of her solo show, is always welcome, plus it’s amusing that they gave her parents (Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur, both great value) more to do in this than Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury.
The Marvels has probably the most boring villain since we completely lost Christopher Eccleston behind his prosthetics to play Malekith. Zawe Ashton’s Dar-Benn is literally carrying around her Kree uber-bastard predecessor Ronan the Accuser’s hammer and making foreboding pronouncements, sneering through metal-capped teeth completely straight-faced without the luxury of a Star-Lord dancing to puncture her pomposity. We know she’s after a pair of magical MacGuffins and she wants to destroy a sizeable portion of the universe (which is bad) in order to save her own dying world (which is goodish), but she has no other personality or nuance to make her feel like anything more than a driver of plot.
You do wonder how much this movie was whittled down in the edit and whether DaCosta would have wanted to delve further into Carol’s costly mistakes and dwell on the dark implications of godlike power a little more in addition to delivering a fun space romp driven by sparky interplay between three gifted female performers. As it is, The Marvels is a decent enough time at the movies that doesn’t quite come together as a satisfying whole. Fans won’t need to be told to stick around during the credits for a couple of pleasant surprises.