The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a difficult 2023. While the franchise has been top dog in Hollywood for the last 15 years, raking in billions and becoming the most popular thing on the big screen, the last few months have seen the release of two extremely rough swings-and-misses in Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania and the Disney+ series Secret Invasion. Both are bad in ways unlike any other Marvel Studios productions have been, and there has been a clear impact on confidence. The MCU has never been flawless, but its image as a blockbuster powerhouse constantly cranking out hit after hit has been tarnished.
Release Date: November 10, 2023
Directed By: Nia DaCosta
Written By: Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, and Elissa Karasik
Starring: Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani, Samuel L. Jackson, and Zawe Ashton
Rating: PG-13 for action/violence and brief language
Runtime: 105 minutes
The run-up to the release of director Nia DaCosta’s The Marvels seems to be evidence of this dip in morale. The marketing has resorted to revealing cameos in trailers and blatantly hinting at spoilers, and the studio has waited until just a few days prior to the release date to screen it and start building buzz. There’s a significant contrast in the way in which hype has been built compared to, as an example, 2019’s Captain Marvel… and that’s a shame, as the latest MCU feature is among the franchise’s best movies since Avengers: Endgame.
It’s not the MCU’s biggest blockbuster in terms of scale and stakes, and it doesn’t make back-breaking efforts to significantly play with and expand the canon, but what it does do is provide a clever and thrilling adventure that takes full advantage of its powerful ensemble of charming heroes. The plot plays out similar to a five-issue arc of a comic book series and isn’t the most complex or impressive we’ve seen from the continuity, but The Marvels has an excellent foundation in the perspectives and personalities of its characters, and it ultimately shines bright as a result.
Building off of the events in Captain Marvel as well as the Disney+ series WandaVision and Ms. Marvel, the new film brings together three of the franchise’s light-based heroes for a cosmic ride. The story kicks off as Carol Danvers a.k.a. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is alerted by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that there has been a strange surge in the galaxy’s interstellar travel system. She discovers that an old foe named Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) has begun executing a dangerous, multi-world threatening plot – but her investigation also provides some bizarre consequences. When Carol reaches out to touch a jump point that Dar-Benn has broken, she suddenly finds that her powers have become entangled with those of two others: Captain Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and New Jersey teenager Kamala Khan a.k.a. Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani).
Whenever the three heroes use their abilities at the same time, they find themselves swapping places around the universe, and as though that weren’t weird enough, the circumstances also come with significant emotional baggage. While Monica used to idolize Carol when she was a young girl, those emotions took a big hit when Captain Marvel left Earth in the mid-1990s and never came back. In contrast, Kamala is Carol’s #1 fan and is perpetually blissed-out that she is on an adventure with her favorite superhero. Unable to get untangled, the three women team up to try and stop Dar-Benn’s plans, and in the process, they end up unveiling darkness in Carol’s mysterious past.
There isn’t much to the plot of The Marvels, but the characters make up for it.
Anyone who has been watching superhero movies for the last two decades won’t exactly have their hair blown back by Dar-Benn’s scheme. As the leader of the Kree (the villains from Captain Marvel), she is making efforts to save her people’s dying planet, and she is doing so by stealing key resources from other worlds. Any Mel Brooks fans will immediately have the plot of Spaceballs come to mind. But while that idea is pretty basic material, The Marvels makes it work because it’s simply the background that lets the movie explore the complexities in the characters and their relationships.
For starters, there’s Dar-Benn. She’s not operating on the same level as Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger from Black Panther or Josh Brolin’s Thanos, and you do wish that she were provided a bit more fleshing out beyond a single flashback sequence, but she is outfitted with compelling motivations that make her perspective understandable. Similar to how Captain Marvel flipped the comic book reputation of the Skrulls, The Marvels has Dar-Benn introduce shades of grey to a previously black-and-white MCU outlook on the Kree, and it adds layers to the conflict.
On the protagonist side of things, there are wonderful shifting energies (no pun intended) between Carol Danvers, Monica Rambeau, and Kamala Khan. As one would expect from a relationship that involves a 30-year abandonment, Carol and Monica have an awkward connection bathed in palpable tension, and the movie provides satisfying confrontation that adds to the histories and emotional depths of both women. In parallel, Kamala is living her dream by going on an adventure in outer space with Captain Marvel – but doing so opens her eyes to Carol being a real person, and Monica clearly sees her 11-year-old self in her. They each bring their own baggage to the story that is well explored.
The performances are the best part of The Marvels, with Iman Vellani being the blockbuster’s charismatic standout.
With strong characters come strong performances, and that’s where we find The Marvels’ greatest asset. While still having the wryness and fortitude she demonstrated in her first MCU blockbuster, Brie Larson plays Carol this time around with an extra weight in her soul from her past experiences, and Teyonah Parris does a wonderful job balancing both Monica’s Carol-related drama and unrepentant science geekery. Samuel L. Jackson is fantastic in a supporting role, operating as the titular team’s point person and serving up a comical dose of his trademark attitude (a much-needed win after the aforementioned Secret Invasion) – but the true star of the show here is Iman Vellani, who is a bottomless well of delightfulness in every second she is on screen.
As a Captain Marvel superfan, Kamala Khan is ostensibly an on-screen surrogate for all of the world’s passionate MCU fans, and it’s impossible not to be struck by the earnestness and beautiful sincerity in Vellani’s turn. She represents the purest and best version of fanhood – left in silent, giddy shock when she merely learns that Carol Danvers was in her house – and it provides the film with buoyancy that never dissipates. And on top of her ever-flowing sweetness is also an excellent enthusiasm for heroism and being her badass self, and there is never a false moment.
The Marvels definitely won’t blow you away with its set pieces, but it has surprises.
The Marvels is propelled by its characters and performances, but set pieces are a mixed bag. The heroes switching places provides Nia DaCosta the opportunity to orchestrate some wild fight sequences with perfectly chaotic choreography (the first act executing a fantastic battle in three disparate locations), and the best sequence in the movie involves an emergency evacuation that has the heroes literally herding cats – but unfortunately, not everything works that well.
The best example of this is a trip to the planet Aladna, where the residents speak by singing, but the one and only musical sequence is completely forgettable, and while there is a unique visual aesthetic developed in the costumes and production design, the world isn’t outfitted with any scope. There also isn’t much to the final confrontation between the heroes and Dar-Benn, which is a fairly basic boss battle without any escalation in the action… though that shouldn’t be interpreted as the movie having a disappointing ending, as we get a satisfying emotional beat alongside some significant surprises.
The Marvels isn’t a Top 10 MCU blockbuster, sporting more than a couple glaring issues, but it also packs in plenty of the qualities that have made installments of this ever-expanding franchise special. It’s a lively, relatively simple character-driven ride through the cosmos that makes up for its plot weaknesses with personality.