Film: The Marvels

The media would have you think The Marvels (2023) is an epic bomb. Hmm, if only the rest of us could fail to the tune of $200 million internationally. But while The Marvels is a box-office disappointment by the MCU’s outrageous standards, the headlines make it sound like it’s the film’s fault. Is it? I’m not so sure; but I have a suspicion that like Black Widow—released during the pandemic, just as this one was released during the Hollywood strikes, with ineffectual publicity—it’s taking heavier lumps than a male-led film with similar returns would have gotten.

Not that the film is blameless. The MCU is a logistics-heavy business, and The Marvels jerks through its first act reminding viewers—through “previously on” montages and flashbacks—who the characters are and how they’re connected. First, though, we meet the villain du jour: Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), a Kree leader hellbent on restoring her devastated planet Hala. Her intended instruments of power are the “Quantum Bands,” a pair of magical bracers that can be used to restore her home world. Unfortunately for her, one of the bracers is missing; it happens to be in the possession one Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), aka Ms. Marvel, the teenaged Muslim superhero from New Jersey. Kamala’s power is to transmute light into a solid substance, and it turns out light is the common denominator for two other Earth-local heroes: Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris). A chance event triggers a cosmic connection between them, causing a body swap whenever two of them use their powers simultaneously. This brings the trio together for an intergalactic face-off with Dar-Benn, whose mission to restore Hala looks like it may come at the expense of several other planets.

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: The Marvels is not a great movie. It’s not even a great Marvel movie. But it’s not that bad, and shouldn’t be getting lambasted for basically making the same mistakes the last several films in a row have made. Let’s face facts: the MCU overplayed its hand and burned viewers out. It also followed in the comics’ footsteps by drawing convoluted murder-board connections between its multifarious properties. Plus, ever since Avengers: Endgame, it has muzzed up the stakes with time travel, remote alien civilizations, and alternate dimensions, increasingly making the jeopardy feel distant and unreal. Lately, the way it maneuvers its characters into each others’ lives is about as organic as the pink slime at McDonald’s, a blinding, cross-marketing bat-signal. And yes, it’s chock full of bogus science, collateral damage, and big dumb spectacle.

In other words, it’s not all that unlike Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, or Thor: Love and Thunder. Which were also varying degrees of stupid…and also varying degrees of fun. The Marvels delivers plenty of entertaining action sequences and sight gags, and is a solid showcase for its three stars—especially Vellani, whose enthusiasm is infectious. Samuel L. Jackson  keeps the ball rolling nicely as Nick Fury, while Mohan Kapur, Sagaar Sheikh, and Zenobia Shroff provide great comic relief as Kamala’s family. Dar-Benn is a bland villain, but Ashton is capable, and there is at least one riotously funny turn that helps break the MCU’s usual Act Three curse. Plus, there are the usual strategic cameos and Easter eggs for the Marvel faithful.

The Marvels, in other words, is a Marvel movie. It does a lot of annoying Marvel movie things—again. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised people are getting tired of that. But it also does some good Marvel movie things, and does them pretty well. Perhaps, instead of laying the disappointing numbers at the feet of the film, we should look at the unwavering, corporate formulism that continues to plague the franchise. It may be too late to course correct at this point, but hopefully the brass at Marvel is starting to get the message: if you’re going to keep making the same movie over and over, you might want to think about how to make them feel different.

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