Movie Review: The Marvel
The Marvels is the 33rd movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it feels like the 333rd. Shakily directed and co-written by Nia DaCosta (Candyman, which I really enjoyed), it’s packed with so many zigzagging incidents and characters — including three superheroes whose powers and locations become entangled — it’s as if outtakes from other movies and TV shows were stitched together for a gag reel. Except it’s not funny. This Captain Marvel sequel is also not dramatic, thrilling, profound, interesting or the least bit necessary, which explains why it has had the worst box office performance of any MCU film ever. The Marvels, in short, is almost completely non-marvellous and a continuation of the MCU’s recent fall from public and critical favour.
Note I said it’s almost completely non-marvellous. What The Marvels has going for it, apart from a 105-minute running time that blessedly makes it the MCU’s shortest film ever, is the energizing presence of Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan, Marvel’s first Muslim superhero. She’s almost enough to save a movie that ultimately is beyond redemption.
Vellani is one of three actors (the others are Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris) whose characters involuntarily swap their “light-based powers” and locations due to a magical MacGuffin called a quantum band that is maniacally misused (more on that in a minute).
Vellani made her acting debut as New Jersey teenager Kamala in the recent Disney Plus series Ms. Marvel. Over six entertaining episodes, young Kamala learns that her
obsession with comic book hero Captain Marvel (played by Larson in the movies) is based on more than just fangirl worship. However, there’s a lot of that, too. She brings some of the TV show’s quarrelsome fun to The Marvels, along with her family from the series: her hectoring mom and dad (Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur) and her know-it-all older brother (Saagar Shaikh). Kamala/Ms. Marvel has acquired superpowers of her own, latent shape-shifting abilities activated by a magical bangle, a.k.a. quantum band, given to her by her grandmother.
This brings her into the orbit of what passes for a villain in The Marvels, a pissed-off Kree warrior/leader named Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton, giving quite possibly the most
listless performance by any MCU villain). The Krees are outer-space blue meanies with a major grudge against Captain Marvel, a.k.a. former U.S. Air Force pilot Carol Danvers, who accidentally destroyed their home planet, Hala, while seeking to protect the universe. The Krees now call Carol “The Annihilator,” much to her chagrin. (The Krees are also warring with the green-skinned Skrulls, refugee aliens who resemble depressed elves.)
Dar-Benn has acquired her own quantum band and she wants to get Kamala’s, too. She opens a series of “jump points” in the universe, which has the head-spinning effect of swapping the powers and places of Carol, Kamala and the film’s third superhero, Carol’s estranged niece, Monica Rambeau, previously seen in Captain Marvel and the streaming series WandaVision. Monica is now an astronaut for S.A.B.E.R., a new Earth-orbiting defence system led by a bored Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Marvel’s ubiquitous boss man, whose appearance in The Marvels is linked to yet another Marvel small screen offshoot, Secret Invasion.
Confused yet? More to the point, do you care? The plot description above barely covers the multiple narratives of this messed-up movie, which DaCosta shoots with many
claustrophobic close-ups and an underlit screen, perhaps to hide the worst excesses of the bad CGI. The story takes a bizarre detour to a planet inhabited by gaudily dressed dancers who communicate by singing (I have in my notes “Planet of Bad Cabaret”), where we learn that Carol is a princess in a marriage of convenience to a prince (Park Seo-joon, Parasite).
Captain Marvel’s cat, Goose, is a member of yet another alien race, this one called the Flerken. The Flerkens disguise themselves as cats that vomit out tentacles (I’m not making this up) and are seen en masse in an exceedingly goofy musical sequence. You might ask: What’s going on with Larson during all of this? The Marvels nominally follows her story from Captain Marvel in 2019, which did pretty good business back when the MCU was the hottest thing going. Such heady times seem so long ago.
Now Larson looks and acts like a prisoner of her own movie, without much to do or say and locked into a facial expression that expresses permanent alarm. Her reaction will be mirrored by many who make it through The Marvels. But at least they’ll get a chance to see the talented Iman Vellani in action again.