The Marvels Review: A Fun, Low-Stakes Adventure

The Marvels review

Let’s get this out of the way up front: The Marvels, which hits theaters on November 10, is not the franchise-killer Marvel haters want it to be. If anything, The Marvels will hopefully help viewers arrive at the opposite conclusion. This sometimes goofy, often laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally beautifully composed sequel to several Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) properties points to a potential future for the franchise… Not in universe-ending stakes, but in smaller stories.

To be clear, there are universe-ending stakes in The Marvels. The plot pivots off of Kree villain Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), who is messing with jump points — essentially wormholes that allow fast travel around the galaxy — for unknown reasons. As a side-effect of Dar-Benn’s plans, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) all find their powers entangled and start switching places at the worst times possible.

As directed by Nia DaCosta from a script by DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, and Elissa Karasik, The Marvels has a similar task to Avengers: Infinity War… Take several properties with disparate tones, jam them together, and somehow make it all work. In this case, that includes Captain Marvel, WandaVision, Ms. Marvel, and technically Secret Invasion due to Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) inclusion, but they don’t even touch on or mention that series in any way.

Happily, the movie ably sets itself up in a way where you don’t have to have seen anything else other than The Marvels. Through several different recap methods that rarely feel like rote exposition, we learn everything we need to know about the main characters: Kamala lives in New Jersey with her over-protective family and has hard light powers; the Kree kidnaped Captain Marvel so she is wrestling with trust issues, as well as having abandoned Monica as a kid; and Monica walked through a witch’s hex, and now she can manipulate light. Also the whole “being abandoned by Captain Marvel” thing. That too.

The Marvels Kamala Khan

Part of the way DaCosta integrates all this is by sucking everything into Kamala’s world. Gone is the hyper-serious Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel of the previous films. Same for the conflicted scientist Monica was in WandaVision. Instead, everyone is big old goofs, and the movie is better for it. Vellani’s performance as Khan, a fanfic-loving nerd obsessed with Captain Marvel, is the sort of thing that a lesser movie would make fun of. Here, Kamala is practically celebrated for her obsessions, and it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that her heart and humor win over the more serious Monica and Carol. Not only that, but the Ms. Marvel supporting cast is along for the ride, and they even manage to turn the usually deathly serious Nick Fury into a joke machine. Sam Jackson? Being funny? For the first time in perhaps decades? You love to see it.

And the performances follow suit. Larson is looser, funnier, and more deeply emotional than she’s been in a long time here as Captain Marvel. Larson even gets to show off some of the other skills she’s excelled at in other movies, without getting into spoilers. Teyonah Parris is stealthily hilarious as Monica, a character whose brain moves a mile a minute but needs to let her mouth catch up. But the real revelation — unless you watched Ms. Marvel — is Vellani, who steals every scene, and proves here that she is a straight-up Movie Star. Luckily, the three also have excellent chemistry, and you instantly buy the bond these three women form throughout the movie. It wouldn’t work without them.

The Marvels brie larson and iman vellani

It’s not just the script that excels, it’s also the direction. Body-switching comedies are a challenge in themselves as you need to keep track of multiple characters who aren’t always who — or in this case — where they’re supposed to be. Add in superhero-style action sequences, and you have a recipe for a convoluted disaster. Instead, DaCosta keeps the action and geography clear in every scene, using the conceit to excellent effect. Sometimes that means a split-screen, but more often it comes down to a steady hand with the camera and blocking that lets you keep track of who is who, and who is where without sacrificing the kinetic pace of superhero fights.

It also, for the most part, looks very good. There’s been a lot of ink spilled about Marvel kicking their VFX units into overdrive, for diminishing results. Though it, unfortunately, heads to these waters towards the third act of the movie, for the most part, DaCosta directs some rather lovely space sequences that look and feel completely different from the cosmic landscapes introduced in the Guardians of the Galaxy series.

Where the movie doesn’t quite work is when it leans into the universe-ending stakes mentioned above. Dar-Benn, despite Ashton’s best efforts at scenery-chewing, never gels as a villain. Her understandable motivation is at direct odds with the smirking baddie performance, making her about on par with Christopher Eccleston’s also forgettable Malekith from Thor: The Dark World. And the inevitable resolution of the movie’s body-switching, as well as the “end of the universe” thing similarly never comes together, feeling perfunctory rather than fun.

The Marvels Dar-Benn Zawe Ashton

Also perfunctory? The obligatory teases to what’s next, as Marvel has been heavily pushing in the marketing. I’ll admit I got a visceral thrill at one of the scenes, though it doesn’t connect with the overall themes or ideas of the movie. The second is surprisingly emotionally charged, though again feels superficial and is hampered by the movie’s rare instance of janky CGI.

This gets us back to the original point. If The Marvels was “just” a body-switching comedy, with the main conflict being how Monica, Carol, and Kamala – three very different people, all with connections to each other — figure out how to work together before disconnecting, the movie would have been stronger for it. Instead, the obsessive need to add a villain, overwhelming stakes, and teases of what’s coming in the next movie or the next TV show ultimately hamper what could have been a simple, original sci-fi comedy.

Marvel isn’t over, and The Marvels won’t kill it (the box office prospects might tell a different story). But if the studio wants to move forward creatively, they might want to think less about everything being the next Avengers, and instead try to make the next Freaky Friday.

The Marvels hits theaters on November 10.

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