Review: 'The Marvels' brings female-centric fun to a cinematic universe that needs it

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This fall, there’s been much hand-wringing over the state of the Marvel union. In the not-so-distant past, each Marvel movie was an easy slam dunk at the box office, if not necessarily with critics. But things have since been shaky and “The Marvels,” the follow-up to the 2019 film “Captain Marvel” (one of the 10 highest-earning MCU films), has been the recipient of a lot of online ire with regard to the waning days of Marvel madness. The new film, directed by "Candyman" rebooter Nia DaCosta, has the bad luck of unfortunate timing, sustaining the one-two punch of this fevered discourse about a glut of Marvel content and the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, which hasn’t allowed the cast to even things out with a promotional charm offensive.

It’s too bad, because “The Marvels” is quite entertaining for the most part, like all the MCU movies tend to be. As with “Captain Marvel,” it is a decidedly feminine project, which can be a tough sell in a cinematic universe largely aimed at young men. But DaCosta is unapologetic in her approach: “The Marvels” is a movie about female friendship, family, fan-girling and flerkittens, lots of flerkittens.

The emphasis on cats in space and a proliferation of side parts gives “The Marvels” a whiff of dated millennialness (which is “cringe,” according to zoomers), and that might be its biggest crime. But at an hour and 45 minutes, it skips along with zippy humor and lightness on its feet.

Much of that energy can be attributed to Iman Vellani, who plays Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel (you may have seen her on Disney+), whose awe-struck brightness and levity allows her to steal the whole movie out from under star Brie Larson, who reprises her role as Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel. It helps that Kamala is just happy to be superheroing with the big girls; in this sequel, Carol is grappling with the fallout of her actions from the first movie and the bloom is off the superhero rose for her, which could explain the air of awkward discomfort in Larson’s performance.

Teyonah Parris proves to be the heart of the film as Monica Rambeau, the grown daughter of Carol’s best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), who has passed away from cancer. Carol and Monica have become estranged over the years, while Monica has gained her superpowers (walking through a witch hex on “WandaVision”) but the multiverse has other plans in store. When Carol touches a glowing intergalactic rip in space-time — a “jump-point” — her powers become entangled with Monica and Kamala. Every time they use their powers, they body-swap, which makes things quite complicated for teenage Kamala, living with her family in Jersey City.

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An early fight scene set to Missy Elliott’s “Ratata” features the body-swap confusion, and has a swingy, dynamic flow and rhythm as the trio crashes from outer space to Kamala’s house to Nick Fury’s S.A.B.E.R. space station. DaCosta’s swooping camera dances in time with the actors, and it’s a tremendously energetic and inventive scene.

One wishes the entirety of the movie were this stylistically innovative (there’s also a fun hand-drawn animation sequence that calls to mind the “Spider-verse” movies), but a lot of it suffers from shoddy visual effects detailing battles on anonymous spaceships. Storywise, DaCosta has been saddled with the near-impossible task of making an engaging stand-alone movie deep in the weeds of the MCU that draws together characters and plot-lines from a wide array of movies and television series, while making it legible to folks who might have missed everything on Disney+. That she pulls it off for the most part is a minor miracle.

There’s not a whole lot of gravitas to go around, but DaCosta’s script, co-written with Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik, has some startling real-world resonance, dealing with themes of climate apocalypse, refugees and the pillaging of natural resources through war. Our antagonist is Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), who seeks to restore her own planet’s environment after Captain Marvel destroyed the Supreme Intelligence. She’s one of those overly sympathetic villains it’s impossible to root against, though, so the stakes of “The Marvels” are pretty low. The film flies but never lets any emotional weight fully land.

Tonally, “The Marvels” embraces the goofy nature of a sci-fi superhero movie aimed at a female audience. There’s a musical interlude featuring K-drama superstar Park Seo-joon, and a scene with a herd of space kittens that makes reference to “Cats.” That kind of sincere and self-deprecating humor is the Marvel hallmark, all the way back to 2008's "Iron Man." If audiences are ready to move on from that, it's no fault of the engaging and earnest “The Marvels.”

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service critic.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.