Some are already branding The Marvels Marvel’s first failure. Projections imagine the film falling far short of its break-even point, and many have lost faith in the project. It’s far more fun than it has any right to be. If this is the downfall of the Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment, it won’t deserve its fate. The Marvels has a weak story, some botched emotional moments, and a forgettable villain. It makes up for those flaws by doubling down on weird, fun, creative ideas.
Nia DaCoasta, the first black woman to helm a Marvel movie and its youngest director to date, seems a strange choice. She directed and co-wrote the spectacular Candyman remake, establishing herself as a filmmaker worth watching. DaCoasta seems less at home directing effects-heavy blockbusters like The Marvels. She co-wrote the film with WandaVision writer Megan McDonnell and Loki scribe Elissa Karasik. I’d love to see DaCoasta take on a sci-fi comedy next because her greatest strength in The Marvels is exploring bizarre ideas.
The Superhero Fan
Kamala Khan’s gimmick as a character is that she’s a bigger fan of superheroes than you are. She reflects fandom in her irrepressible excitement. Watching her write fanfiction or lose her mind meeting a costumed crime fighter reminds us of the wholesome joy that’s supposed to come from this genre. It can feel a little self-congratulatory at times. If done wrong, she’d come across like a laugh track over an unfunny show. The Marvels plays her obsessive fandom for laughs while using her vibrance to keep the story breezy. Kamala is the glue that holds this film together. Iman Vellani shines like a diamond here. Marvel will be putting her front and center in future outings if they know what’s good for them.
The allocation of resources is strange here. The Marvels wants to be about all three lead characters. It feels like a team-up vehicle. Carol Danvers struggles with her memories and the dark past they imply. Kamala Khan spends most of her time screaming and panicking, either out of terror or glee. Monica is stuck with exposition, but she’s also the emotional center of the film. She and Carol have to make amends, but their problems are rather uninvolving. I know we have to deal with the fact that they haven’t seen each other in decades, but it’s framed as a betrayal. They get over it quickly enough, thanks primarily to Kamala. That lack of narrative weight leaves it feeling perfunctory.
Marvel’s Villain Problem Strikes Again
I thought we were done with the old dull Marvel villains. They’ve been on a decent run with Kang, the High Evolutionary, Namor, and Wanda. Zawe Ashton portrays Dar-Benn, a spiritual successor to Ronan the Accuser. Remember Ronan? The antagonist from Guardians of the Galaxy? No? Because he was a bog-standard evil alien overlord, effectively pantsed by James Gunn’s refusal to take anything seriously? Well, Dar-Benn borrows his motivation and signature weapon. Ashton deserves some credit for portraying the character as believably unhinged, especially in her few quiet moments. She’s another villain with an understandable motivation, using absurd acts of violence to become less sympathetic. You will forget her before the credits finish rolling.
The boring villain still serves one purpose. She and her army of faceless henchpeople are action fodder. The fight scenes work across the board. The central gimmick swaps Kamala, Monica, and Carol when they use their powers. Not every time, just when it’s convenient. It’s a fascinating concept, but the film doesn’t even pretend it’s not used selectively. It spices up the fight scenes and adds a snag on Captain Marvel’s otherwise unstoppable powers. They wring everything out of the concept. The Marvels uses its trio to cover a fascinating range of action scenes. The battles stay engaging across the entire film.
Silly and Weird
So, I’ll admit the film has some significant problems. The villain, emotional beats, and main story suffer from sameness. Why did I like it anyway? The concise answer is that it understands its priorities and delivers consistently fun gags. This is the shortest Marvel movie yet at 105 minutes, and I can’t praise DaCoasta enough for not overstaying her welcome. In that time, you’ll see a bunch of funny, charming, weird ideas played out to their logical conclusion. I don’t want to spoil anything, but The Marvels regularly looks you in the eyes, tells you something bizarre is about to happen, and then plays it for laughs. It works just about every time.
In the broader context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Marvels is no Civil War. It feels closer to the Guardians of the Galaxy than any other chunk of the franchise. Not just because it’s set in space. The Marvels is colorful, chaotic, and cathartic enough to feel like a comic book movie should. This is the kind of goofy fun that should be seen as Marvel’s default state. It’s not pushing the envelope or breaking any new ground. Instead, they managed to harken back to Marvel’s early days. Not every comic book movie needs to be The Dark Knight. This one captures the good and the bad of cracking a random Marvel issue and diving in, complete with a sloppy story.
The Marvels packs some fun action, charming performances, and a million fun moments into a light, breezy package. I’d usually say this won’t be anyone’s favorite, but I guarantee it’s weird enough to crack a few fans’ top ten. A feature like this will not bring down the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s the cowardly, risk-averse, committee-designed shlock that will kill the franchise. I want to see more superhero movies that go to weird places and have fun getting there. I just hope the next one manages to pack in a decent story, too.