The Marvels review: The MCU does battle with itself

Image: Marvel Studios
Image: Marvel Studios

It’s no secret these days that Marvel is having something of a crisis behind the scenes, completely revamping their approach to continuity-critical storytelling in their television efforts and scrambling to draw audiences back into theaters in a rudderless post-Endgame world. It’s a massive machine with so many moving parts that course-correction is undoubtedly going to be affecting Marvel Cinematic Universe projects for quite a while, and The Marvels feels like an extremely messy start to that process. Which is a shame, because there’s a light, breezy romp buried in here, begging to be let out from under the pressure of being a tentpole event film.

Running at a crisp 105 minutes, shockingly brief for Marvel, The Marvels suffers dramatically in the first act for being a hyper-edited mess. Even assuming that you’re invested in this universe enough to know the difference between a Skrull and a Kree, the amount of technobabble and proper nouns thrown around without any space to breathe makes the film borderline incomprehensible. And if you aren’t already familiar with WandaVision’s now-adult Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Ms. Marvel’s Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), this ostensible sequel to Captain Marvel isn’t all that concerned with bringing you up to speed. About all that’s discernible in the frantic chaos of simultaneous space-hopping fight choreography is that Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) has somehow gotten her powers entangled with Monica and Kamala, causing the trio to switch places when they activate their powers at the same time. So Monica and Kamala are pulled into Carol’s confrontation with Kree villainess Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), who is doing something with wormholes… or something.

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It’s with these flickers of character that The Marvels remembers how to have fun. It can be as simple as a training montage where the team figures out how to use their entangled powers in sync with one another, as high-concept and silly as a diversion to a planet where everyone communicates through the medium of song, or as off-the-wall as a sequence where a herd of flerken kittens goes adorably hogwild to the choicest musical accompaniment. These are the moments where it feels good to hang out in this world and with this gang of personalities, a reminder that anything can happen within a comic book universe.

Unfortunately, the plot must come crashing back in eventually, and while the third act is nowhere near as disjointed as the first, it really feels like Marvel’s just going through the motions at this point, sky-portals and all. The light tone and antics are best served when the momentary stakes are low, and heightening the threat to cosmic scale leaves the film in a discordant lurch, obligatorily filtering its climax through the language of cosmic consequence, to be handled down the line by some other superpowered protector. It would help if Dar-Benn were anything more than a theoretically interesting villain, but her motives and goals are only just functional enough to give Carol a backstory for her time off the grid, which isn’t so much an antagonist as a Wikipedia entry.

More’s the pity, because there really is plenty to like within The Marvels, and the fact that its most charming scenes weren’t cut to ribbons when it is otherwise so hastily plotted seems to indicate that Marvel knows it, too. Director Nia DaCosta provokes some incredibly likable performances from her cast, and stages some truly memorable set pieces that are suffocated by a rote plot that only distracts from that breezy appeal. Perhaps cutting to the bone was the best way to salvage that light tone, but that can’t prevent The Marvels from ultimately being a film at odds with its obligatory identity as a Marvel movie, whatever that even means these days.

The Marvels opens in theaters on November 10

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