‘The Marvels’ is a Wacky, Wonky Comic Book Delight

It takes a certain kind of director to set the herding of cats in a space station to Barbra Streisand’s cover of “Memory.” (Yes, from that Broadway musical.)

That director is Nia DaCosta, someone who clearly relishes the innate silliness that should accompany most comic book stories. Yes, the zeitgeist has been inundated with superhero films built around cosmic-level cataclysms that require multiple deity-level abilities to combat successfully. In a post-Endgame world, it is refreshing to see a story tapping into the silly hijinks that superheroes might find themselves in. And what’s sillier than Barbra Streisand soundtracking a shamelessly literal yet ferociously funny sequence involving cats?

As it turns out, things can get very silly with The Marvels. The sequel to the billion-dollar Captain Marvel expands beyond Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) to rope in two other light-based female superheroes Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani). An accident involving the vengeful Kree leader Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) entwines the trio’s powers, causing them to switch places whenever they use them. It significantly complicates superherodom, especially when trying to prevent said vengeful Kree leader from wreaking havoc across the galaxy. Despite lingering resentment between Carol and Monica and Kamala losing her mind over being in Carol’s presence, the three work together to stop Dar-Benn and save at least two worlds.

Surprisingly, the world-saving gambits are pretty immaterial to The Marvels. The film is best when it lasers in on its superhero body-swap premise. DaCosta gets significant visual and kinetic mileage out of Carol, Kamala, and Monica hopping between villains and scenarios and adjusting their skills accordingly. The first swap – taking place on a Kree battleship, Nick Fury’s space station, and the Khans’ living room – is a raucously fun sequence that is surprisingly easy to follow with its thoughtful camerawork. You might expect the premise to run stale by either needlessly keeping the women apart or running out of swap gimmicks. DaCosta smartly avoids both. She trusts her audience and characters to ultimately accept the snafu’s mechanics without much preamble. It allows her to focus on the novelty of three superheroes awkwardly working through the weirdness.

Iman Vellani in ‘The Marvels’ (Courtesy: Disney)

The Marvels makes an enjoyable, if occasionally stilted, effort at embracing its wackier impulses. DaCosta takes the Marvels to strange places and earns plenty of smiles from the ensuing absurdity. Carol is the princess consort of a beach kingdom planet where the inhabitants sing to communicate? Sure, why not? It doesn’t make sense, but “sense” feels beside the point, considering the film’s flipping-through-a-graphic-novel pacing. DaCosta makes it easy to enjoy this galaxy of alien tentacle cats and Park Seo-Joon as Carol’s platonic husband. However, the film’s brevity and lax nature also undercuts its emotional narrative. Amidst the weirdness, DaCosta also tries to reconcile Monica’s complex feelings of being abandoned by Carol and Carol’s crippling loneliness and guilt. The story doesn’t have the space to properly unpack those emotions, leaving the vibrant film occasionally unbalanced by cheap, unearned platitudes.  

DaCosta also deals with the existential threat that the MCU continues to pose. From Eternals to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, every Phase 4 film has struggled to assert itself against its obligations to the broader universe and its chief architect, Kevin Feige. The Marvels’ duty is to the Kree Civil War that Captain Marvel started and reared its head recently in Secret Invasion. The Kree plot is deeply unengaging. It introduces a villain we have little reason to care about (despite Zawe Ashton’s best efforts) and brutally interrupts the atmosphere with terrible, weightless tragedy. Tragedy returns in the third act, disrupting the trio’s camaraderie to set up an eventual follow-up film. To DaCosta’s credit, the film wears the Marvel house style’s strain considerably well; it never distracts from the experience’s enjoyment.

Teyonah Parris in ‘The Marvels’ (Courtesy: Disney)

The Marvels’ success is also owed to its three leading ladies, Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, and especially Iman Vellani. The chemistry between them is worth the price of admission alone, built upon mutual admiration, respect, and excitement of being around each other. Larson slides right into her role as the de facto leader of the Marvels, presenting a quiet authority and subtle insecurity that is quite compelling. Parris carries the most emotional weight of the three but shines when conveying how Monica is both efficiently capable and in over her head dealing with the cosmic zaniness. Vellani is the most wildly charismatic performer introduced by the MCU in years. Every second of her on screen is a delight, and if Disney had any sense, they would hand her the franchise keys for as long as she wants it. She is the future.

In the ongoing negotiations of being a Marvel film, The Marvels feels like a refreshing step sideways. The further it gets from the MCU’s machinations, the better it becomes, especially as a wacky comedy of superhero errors. The impulse to escape pushes the film too far, as it wobbles in telling an emotional story as successfully as it does in realizing its premise. Nia DaCosta further proves the entertainment potential of striving away from the Marvel formula for something off-kilter and distinctive. Given its current challenging run, it’s a path worth taking.

The Marvels is currently in theaters.

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