‘The Marvels’ review: Ms. Marvel tries to rescue the MCU from itself

'The Marvels' review: Ms. Marvel tries to rescue the MCU from itself

2023 has been a pretty miserable year for superhero movies, bringing us the underwhelming Shazam! Fury of the Gods, the ungodly eyesore that was Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the atrocious The Flash, and the grim Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3. Only the neon-colored and family-friendly Blue Beetle relieved our superhero fatigue.

And now comes The Marvels, a movie that collides three different Marvel Cinematic Universe properties into one team-up adventure. Is it ripe with potential? Or will it be weighed down by the MCU’s growing demand that its audience keep up on hours and hours and hours of plot to be able to follow the thread? 

Co-written and directed by Candyman‘s Nia DaCosta, The Marvels is the shortest MCU movie, offering a space-trekking romp with action, comedy, charm, cameos, and a cat that spews tentacles. Yet this rollicking ride is plagued by this franchise’s determined grief streak. 

What’s The Marvels about? 

Zawe Ashton as Dar-Benn and Daniel Ings as Ty-Rone in Marvel Studios' THE MARVELS.

Credit: Marvel Studios

The 33rd film of the MCU is technically a sequel to 2019’s Captain Marvel, which was set in the ’90s. However, to get a full understanding of this film’s plotline, it helps to have also watched the TV shows WandaVision and Ms. Marvel. See, The Marvels’ intertwined superheroines from each of these — Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (a furrow-browed Brie Larson), Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan (the radiant Iman Vellani), and Captain Monica Rambeau (the riveting Teyonah Parris) — are “entangled” because of their light powers. This means they keep switching places accidentally because of a tyrannical baddie out in space named Dar-Benn (a woefully one-note Zawe Ashton).


Every Marvel movie villain, ranked

Determined to save her dying planet, Dar-Benn uses an ancient bracelet to pull a Spaceballs. She’s stealing the atmosphere from one planet, then goes after the life-sustaining resources of others, and it’s up to The Marvels to stop her — if they can get themselves together, that is.

Along the way, a flimsy B-plot is shabbily constructed by checking in with Kamala’s family (the winsome Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, and Saagar Shaik) who are chilling with an exhausted Nick Fury (a mostly seated and definitely phoning it in Samuel L. Jackson) in a space station orbiting Earth. The Khan family is undoubtedly the best part of The Marvels, grounding the Cosmic Marvel mayhem with relatable roots and characters who are actually fun to be around — whereas Carol and Monica tend to sulk and brood. Ultimately, tying together such different leads creates a chaotic collision of tones, making for a very wonky watch. 

The Marvels is Star Trek, sort of. 

Teyonah Parris as Captain Monica Rambeau in Marvel Studios' THE MARVELS.

Credit: Marvel Studios

There are plenty of surface similarities between this Marvel offering and the massively popular, decades-sprawling sci-fi franchise, including space travel, hi-tech gizmos, curious alien critters, trips to strange planets, and heroes who are essentially interstellar military. But the biggest commonality between The Marvels and Star Trek is the way the tone of their respective adventures can change radically from one location to the next. 

Pick a Star Trek series. One episode might be a stern tale of planetary war, rife with trauma and a dramatic orchestral score. The next might be a wacky adventure involving a holodeck mishap or a peculiar alien infestation that leads everyone to act out a comatose child’s favorite fantasy book. (Watch Strange New Worlds, trust me.)

The Marvels feels very similar. One moment, Carol’s flashbacks are plunging audiences into a violent coup, which begins a catastrophic war. Then, this curious trio visits a candy-colored planet where everyone speaks in song. So, naturally, K-drama star Park Seo-joon plays their beautiful prince in a swoon-worthy duet/dance number that is among the film’s very best moments. 

The MCU needs to lighten up. 

Brie Larson as Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers and Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan in Marvel Studios' THE MARVELS.

Credit: Laura Radford / Marvel Studios

With The Blip of Avengers: Infinity War, the MCU crossed the Rubicon on grim storytelling, piling on one story of grief after another and another and another and another. At this point, even the rascally rogue Loki has been sucked into a joyless plotline of saving ALL existence repeatedly. And yeah, The Marvels is following that plotline too. Because if this villain of the week’s plan works, she’ll yadda yadda yadda end of life as we know it. You know this song. It’s Marvel’s favorite. 

Here’s where Ms. Marvel was such a breath of fresh air. Centering on a Captain Marvel fangirl, Kamala brought an earnest excitement and enthusiasm — one much needed since the MCU’s Peter Parker went mournful. The TV show also worked in comic book-style graphics to reflect how Kamala imagined her world and her potential, and The Marvels does bring some of that in with her introduction. A joyous animated fantasy sequence plays out across notebook paper and post-it notes as she imagines her ideal meet-up with her idol. But you know what they say about meeting your heroes. 

Plagued by regret and grief, Carol is determined not only to save all existence but also to reconnect with her long-lost buddy Monica, who was a kid when Captain Marvel launched into space 30 years back. Amid all of this stress, Carol has also become a pretty boneheaded character, being so slow on the uptake of what her new nemesis is up to that audiences may well groan. If you liked Carol coming into her own in Captain Marvel or coming in as a heavy hitter in The Avengers movies, you’ll likely hate watching everyone else have to explain to her how to be a person, save the day, and generally quit being such a shut-down space hermit. It’s a lackluster plot splattered with entertaining action sequences — even if occasionally incoherent. 

Is this movie too short? 

man Vellani as Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan in Marvel Studios' THE MARVELS.

Credit: Laura Radford / Marvel

I never thought I’d say this about a Marvel movie, but at one hour and 45 minutes, The Marvels could have used some more screen time. Not to build out the plot or characters; even if you don’t know these Marvels well, there are flashbacks and exposition dumps to fill in the gaps. And truly, the plot is cliched enough that you’ll be able to get the gist even as the dialogue haphazardly fires off Cosmic Marvel lingo (Quantum band! Universal weapon! Jump points!). But there’s a dogged pacing — especially in the first act — that doesn’t include the few crucial frames that might allow moments in a frenzied fight scene to land. Jokes don’t get time for their punchlines to hit; dramatic life-of-death stakes are established so swiftly we barely have time to gasp before the cut has moved on. 

Essentially, The Marvels begins with a panicked pacing that doesn’t so much reflect the characters onscreen battling for their lives, but the Disney execs desperate to battle off the audience’s superhero fatigue. Marvel and DCEU movies are on the decline with critics and box office. So, perhaps in the edit, producers pushed for a cut that would be short and relatively sweet, even if that meant undercutting the character moments that could matter most. 

Because Marvel is notoriously a machine, it feels unfair to blame DaCosta for the pacing and jarring tone issues of The Marvels. Her breakthrough film, 2018’s Little Woods was a slow-burn and rich character-focused drama. (Her 2021 Candyman, while wobbly, was likewise a confidently paced film.) Instead, it seems like indie directors who have come before DaCosta (Chloé Zhao with The Eternals, Taika Waititi with Thor: Love and Thunder), she has been conquered by the MCU demands of lore and action and surprise cameos and sequel promises (or threats?). 

‘The Marvels’ is at its best when it takes a breath to let its heroines have fun.

The Marvels is at its best when it takes a breath to let its heroines have fun. A training montage of transporting while playing double-dutch, cutaways to a gawking Monica and agog Kamala while Carol sings to a dazzling prince — these are when this movie comes alive. Poor Parris and Larson are saddled with sadsack plottery that trudges along, but Vellani is gifted a character arc that allows her Kamala to be a ray of light amid MCU darkness. This girl is an absolute star and should be launched into the stratosphere to bring her contagious smile and superpowered charisma far beyond the MCU. 

All in all, The Marvels is a rocky ride that feels crowded by MCU compromises, which undermines the star power of its cast and the talents of its director. But hey, it’s short and pretty fun, and has the funniest cat sequence cinema has likely seen in at least a decade.

The Marvels opens in theaters nationwide Nov. 10.

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