Monday, November 13, 2023

The Marvels (2023)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading the nonfiction book MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios by Joanna Robinson, et al, and rewatching a few of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s greatest hits (Iron ManThe Winter Soldier) – all while keeping current with the second season of Loki and, yes, even the colorized version of Werewolf by Night on Disney+. And if you’ve been reading my reviews long enough, you’ll have sensed my genuine fatigue with all of this – not in keeping track of the superhero genre but in keeping up. I haven’t reviewed the Marvel shows because it’s too much content to watch and digest; to be honest, most of it elicits an “It’s Fine” shrug from me. There’s just so much of it these days, and very little of it is actually great. It’s beginning to feel a lot like homework.
And this weariness is Robinson’s whole point. In MCU, she and her co-authors observe that the low points in the 15-year franchise have been when the movies lose sight of what made Iron Man such a roaring success – not its CGI smash-fests or its breakneck sprint to a bigger picture, but the quiet character moments that “let us experience who they are as people and not legends” (352). In short, let superheroes be fun, let them be human, and make the world-building afterthought, not a forethought. (In other words, stop trying to make Kang happen.)
With this whirlwind reminder tour fresh in my head, I plunked down for a ticket to the 33rd MCU film, plugged my ears from the noisome and tiresome culture wars, and just prayed to God and Kevin Feige that The Marvels would be fun. Maybe prayers do get answered, because The Marvels is breezy and bright, weightless in a way against which we’ve been inoculated, and I smiled most of the way through.
Thanks to some super-quantum cosmic entanglement, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) finds herself physically switching places with her niece Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and superfan Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan (Iman Vellani). The unlikely trio soon learn that their predicament comes at the hands of Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), who is tearing worlds apart in a bid to restore the Kree Empire to its former glory.
While in one sense the Marvel Cinematic Universe set an unbeatable bar with Avengers: Endgame, its more recent outings have simultaneously lowered the bar. From the incoherent plotting of Spider-Man: No Way Home to the downright dismal proceedings of Thor: Love & Thunder, right up through four years and ten seasons of television shows, there’s very little of it I want to rewatch – and the very notion of a soup-to-nuts rewatch is so exhausting that I can barely stomach the sentence. In a world of Spider-Verses, who needs more Quantumania? So I went into The Marvels with my expectations fairly lowered, and the hurdle it needed to clear was whether I would begrudge it the time I spent with it.
The Marvels is far from perfect. It’s brief and a little thin, and its villain is the very definition of undercooked; Dar-Benn is not unlike her predecessors Ronan or Malekith, and the fact that you are likely rushing to Wikipedia says it all. Marvel has sometimes (often?) struggled to make its one-and-done villains sing, and Dar-Benn is no different. Her motives are clear enough, but the film doesn’t give Ashton much to do beyond scowl and brandish a hammer – a shame, since there is something at the core of this character worth exploring beyond a tepid and compulsory flashback sequence.
Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris are fine, too, getting to cut loose a bit more than they had in their respective debuts. The film truly shines, though, on the capable shoulders of Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel. Where her Disney+ miniseries felt bogged down by cosmic nonsense and lifeless enemies, The Marvels wisely plays into Vellani’s unabashed affection for the genre and the giants with whom she shares the screen. When she squeaks with delight, we get it because we too would feel starstruck in the presence of Samuel L. Jackson (whose Nick Fury is so much more entertaining here than in the limp Secret Invasion). And in the film’s final scene, Vellani gets to riff on an iconic MCU moment, so effortlessly cool and nerdy that I literally applauded for how perfect it was for this character, this performer, to reenact that moment.
Indeed, the film is aptly titled The Marvels because it is that rare three-hander that gives the team a perfect balance of screen-time and responsibility for the plot. (The fact that it is handily stolen by Vellani is a testament to her dynamism as an actress.) An early action sequence introduces the dizzying effect of the three women swapping places, a unique setpiece that simultaneously moves the plot forward and the quickfire change of setting is brisk and – most importantly – entertaining. Much has been made of the film’s 01:45 runtime (the shortest in MCU history), and I have to say it felt refreshing; there wasn’t much bloat in the film, with very few moments that overstayed their welcome. 
When we rank all the Marvel movies, The Marvels isn’t at the bottom, but it’s nearer to the bottom of the middle. There was something alchemical about those early movies, especially the unsurpassed best, The Winter Soldier. No, The Marvels is nearer to something like Thor: The Dark World, meat-and-potatoes superheroics largely unconcerned with the wider tapestry. It’s fine, but it’s fun. It is not a film that I will rush to see again, but if we assess the MCU entries in terms of how long I smiled and how many times I laughed, I suspect The Marvels would register somewhere near the top ten.
The Marvels
is rated PG-13 for “action/violence and brief language.” Directed by Nia DaCosta. Written by Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, and Elissa Karasik. Based on the Marvel Comics. Starring Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani, Zawe Ashton, and Samuel L. Jackson.

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