The MCU’s latest entry throws the unfamiliar into a murderer’s row of crossovers and Easter eggs, with only a charming Iman Vellani coming out on top.
Most films don’t come with homework. The same cannot be said of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s new movie, The Marvels. Unless you’re a devoted MCU fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of both the movies and the Disney+ TV originals, it’s difficult to understand the mechanics of this disastrously convoluted entry in the floundering franchise. It feels like being dropped headfirst into a crossover episode based on three shows you’ve never seen — mostly because it is.
The Marvels kicks off with a bit of genuine visual interest (that never appears again) in the form of hand-drawn comics created by teenage superhero-slash-Captain Marvel fangirl Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), aka Ms. Marvel. Vellani, who previously appeared as Kamala on the little-seen Disney+ series Ms. Marvel, is a spunky, hilarious teenage heroine whose impressive comedic timing buoys the leaden, disjointed script. She so thoroughly steals the show that it’s disappointing this movie wasn’t just about her; instead, it’s a confused mix of storylines involving Kamala, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), and astronaut Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris, Candyman). It feels like the powers that be made a huge mistake in consigning her story to a poorly publicized streaming original, instead of letting her headline a film on her own.
Larson, who proved to be one of the most exciting actors of her generation when she starred in worthy projects like Short Term 12, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and ROOM, is wasting her natural grit on her Marvel character. Thanks to the half-baked script by director Nia DaCosta (Candyman), Megan McDonnell (WandaVision), and Elissa Karasik (Loki), Carol’s reactions to emotionally charged moments mostly involve grimaces or wordless harrumphs. The third lead, Monica, is even more poorly drawn, despite having a backstory intimately connected to Carol’s past. It’s difficult to explain what her powers are supposed to be, let alone her personality. The lack of insight into these women makes it challenging to care about their fractured familial relationship, though that’s clearly supposed to be The Marvels’ emotional core.
Yet again, Kamala is the only member of the trio who feels like a real person. While Monica floats in space, talking to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) through her helmet’s headset and Carol negotiates with aliens like the Skrulls (green guys) and the Kree (blue guys), Kamala’s actually allowed to interact with a delightful supporting cast of family members. Her mother Muneba (Zenobia Shroff, The Big Sick), father Yusuf (Mohan Kapur), and older brother Aamir (Saagar Shaikh) shine in their all-too-brief scenes. The other minor supporting characters don’t fare as well. Dag (Abraham Popoola, The Great), one of the few speaking members of Fury’s crew, might as well have been named Exposition Man, since his only lines consist of dry infodumps.
Of course, there were times when a few more explanations were greatly needed. Even as someone who’s seen more than a dozen MCU films, it was hard to pin down the specifics of the threat facing the universe, and why the Marvels, as this newfound superhero team goes by, were being called upon to stop it. Zawe Ashton does her best to bring a sense of menace to her role as the villainous Kree zealot Dar-Benn, but with little connective tissue between her various scenes, the stakes of her dastardly plot feel ephemeral.
The Marvels cross paths for the first time because of their interlinked light powers, for reasons that elude this reviewer. Whenever they used their poorly defined glowy-hands powers, the three women switch places. This yields one entertaining switcharoo fight scene that involves Captain Marvel and Monica repeatedly crashing through Kamala’s family home, as the Khans fight off bad guys that look like a mixture of Power Rangers and Doctor Who baddies. However, the switching places device grows wearisome. There’s a disappointing lack of creative fight choreography, perhaps because the characters feel totally unmoored in time and geography. Setpieces like a planet populated by people who communicate only through song, ruled over by a K-Pop prince (Parasite’s Park Seo-Joon), should be catnip for audience members complaining of “superhero fatigue.” But sadly, thanks to the flat, lifeless cinematography and intrusive CGI effects for which Marvel has come to be known, the musical planet feels like just another green-screened nowhere.
There are the requisite Marvel Easter eggs, of course. Thor’s friend Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) shows up halfway through the movie to hug Captain Marvel and tell her to keep up the good work. Of course, Thompson’s presence also nods to DaCosta’s excellent 2018 film Little Woods, in which Thompson also starred. DaCosta can and does create stylish, compelling movies. It’s a shame that Kevin Feige’s Marvel machine churns out the same homogenous-looking dreck every time.
The Marvels feels like a chaotic pileup of every bad habit the MCU movies have developed over the years, including the “well, that happened!” anti-humor that infected the franchise when Joss Whedon first got involved. At her quippiest, Carol sounds like a cut-rate Buffy Summers. But The Marvels isn’t even a fun mess. It’s three separate, incomplete arcs, all bundled together with opaque fandom terms and nods to previous, better-liked projects. Movies aren’t supposed to require Wikipedia deep dives. The Marvels never soars—it can’t even stand on its own two feet.
The Marvels crashes into theaters November 10th.