Come For the Supers, Stay For the Flerkens
Every so often, there’s a narrative around a narrative. Specifically, a movie. Whether it’s positive, negative, or simply strange, sometimes prior to a movie’s release, we start to hear things. Rumors, conjecture, a whisper campaign designed to break a project, lift up a filmmaker, or redirect attention entirely.
One of the most famous examples of this involves a movie about a big-ass boat. The conventional wisdom around Titanic, prior to its release, was that James Cameron was going to get hosed. He’d spent a (Haw!) boatload of money making a movie that a) had no stars, b) was about an event that couldn’t possibly have a happy ending, and c) was long AF. Everyone knew Titanic was going to bomb, everyone knew James Cameron was done. That is, until it didn’t. The flip side of that is Don’t Worry, Darling, the 2022 mystery/thriller directed by Olivia Wilde and starring Florence Pugh. Rumors abounded of an out of control production, COVID delays, and friction between various creatives. Everyone knew that Don’t Worry, Darling would implode, everyone knew it would be lucky to recoup its budget. In this case, the rumors may have been largely accurate.
We’ve got a similar situation going on now with The Marvels. It’s the thirty-third entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for some people, that’s thirty-two entries too many. The narrative around this film is that it’ll be the first bomb in the MCU, and surrounding that narrative is a kind of gleeful anticipation. Is the whisper campaign accurate? Well, The Marvels is no Titanic, but it’s certainly no Don’t Worry, Darling.
First, we’re re-introduced to Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani). She’s a high school student, a mutant with the ability to generate hard light constructs, and possibly the world’s biggest fan of the hero Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). Kamala was inspired (I think?*) by the good Captain and has taken the first few steps in becoming the hero and protector of Jersey City, New Jersey.
Then we’re re-introduced to Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris). She’s an astronaut who works for S.A.B.E.R., a global initiative designed to protect the solar system. Monica has noticed a strange space anomaly, which is bloody weird, even for the MCU. She’s also got light-based superpowers which, in an amusing running joke, she explains came from a witch’s hex.
Then, we’re re-introduced** to Carol Danvers, Captain Marvel herself. She’s chosen to immerse herself in work, which is protecting the universe from various and sundry threats. At least she’s still in touch with superspy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and at least she still has Goose for company, a creature that looks quite a lot like a cat except for a few massive differences. As a child, Monica idolized Carol. Carol returned the favor by blowing her off for years, and we learn that Carol kind of sucks at interpersonal relationships.
Lastly, we’re introduced to Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), the current leader of the warlike alien race the Kree. Dar-Benn is super pissed at Captain Marvel, for reasons that shall be known later. So much so that her rage fuels her to hunt down one of the two fabled Quantum Bands. Complicating matters is that Kamala has the other Band, and since she, Monica, and Carol all kind of have light-based powers, the Band creates problems when they use their powers. Now, the trio must team up to fix their powers, stop Dar-Benn’s evil plans and, I don’t know, read more for pleasure.
To spell things out for the cheap seats, The Marvels is not a cinematic abomination, an affront against almighty God, a blight on childhoods everywhere. In point of fact, it’s pretty good!**** Director Nia DaCosta has made a bright, colorful, and blessedly short trifle of a film. When the film focuses on the three leads, their semi-ridiculous adventures, and an infestation that can only be classified as adorable, it’s a ton of fun. Having said that, the film’s pacing often feels kind of screwy. While reshoots are a normal and common part of blockbuster filmmaking, I wonder if the initial cut of the film wasn’t working and the reshot scenes didn’t help. There’s a feeling at times of things stapled haphazardly together, and when scenes should flow together naturally, they can feel jerky.
Writing the screenplay must have been an uphill battle for DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, and Elissa Karasik. They needed to set up time for established characters, introduce new ones, pay off moments within this film and set up potential appearances later in the MCU. The good news is that they’ve managed to create a semi-coherent narrative that’s often very funny and satisfyingly silly. The bad news is that aspects of the main plot feel undercooked. We’ve got another villain who, despite the best efforts of Zawe Ashton, feels significantly less interesting than our three heroes. We also have a situation where the universe is, yet again, at risk of ending. A cosmic-based story doesn’t always have to have existential stakes, just a villain who’s both a threat and someone who possesses a compelling motivation.
Some of the best Marvel movies are hangout movies, and one of the best scenes in the entirety of the MCU features the Avengers hanging out and trying to pick up Thor’s hammer. Moments like that tell us who these people are and what they care about. We get a good bit of that here. When it works, it works like gangbusters. Brie Larson is given the chance to play a more flawed and interesting Carol. She’s made some mistakes, massive ones, and her focus on rectifying those means she’s got to neglect people she loves. Larson has always been a skilled actor, and it’s good to see her given more to chew on. While Teyonah Parris is a damn good performer, she isn’t given as much to do dramatically. Monica could be the breakout star of the MCU here, but she’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock is Brie Larson’s Carol, and the hard place is the scene stealing from Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan. When it comes to comedy, Vellani is a rock star. From her dialed up to 10 fangirling to her focus on coming up with a cool codename for Monica, Vellani plays Kamala as an enormously likable goof.
Based on all of this, do I think The Marvels will underperform? Probably, and there are a few reasons. Superhero fatigue isn’t widespread, but it is real. So is movie theater fatigue, and many of us prefer to watch a film in the comfort of home as opposed to enduring cretinous audience members and expensive snacks.***** The film also was hobbled by numerous delays and a marketing campaign scared to sell the actual film. It’s a shame. I had a great time with The Marvels and walked out grinning. Everyone involved in the making of it deserves a narrative with a happy ending.
*This film posits that Captain Marvel is a superhero icon. My question is, how? She was barely on Earth during the events of Captain Marvel, and on Earth again in Avengers: Endgame just long enough to smash through a starship & smack Thanos around a little. Other than that, she’s spent years in deep space. So how does she develop a fan base? Somebody want to No-Prize this for me?
**You might be wondering, “What’s the deal with all of these re-introductions?” That’s because The Marvels is the latest film in the MCU, a direct sequel to Captain Marvel, and prominently features characters/situations from the TV series WandaVision, Ms. Marvel, and Secret Invasion. Does that clear things up? Not at all? Then…sorry, it’s a feature, not a bug at this point.
***Just once, I want an awesomely named item in a movie to do nothing. The Apocalypse Blade won’t rend galaxies in twain or cut a god, but it does look nice hanging over a fireplace.
****For those thinking I’m an obvious Marvel shill, if so, please contact them because none of my checks have arrived yet. Do you expect me to shill for free?
*****I think that combination is what doomed Blue Beetle, a fun and perfectly fine movie that didn’t deserve to crater so hard.