Tell me if you heard this: The MCU has been trash ever since Spider-Man: Far From Home. The Disney+ shows are horrible. There are no good characters anymore. The visual effects are bad. WandaVision was good but no one cared about Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye. She-Hulk twerking was a disgrace. They should bring back to the original Avengers.
Or this one: Marvel is just replacing all the original characters with new ones for the sake of “diversity.” Go woke, go broke!
Whatever the argument, the conclusion over the last three years has been the same: The MCU is dying.
The Marvels is not going to change this narrative.
The catch is, The Marvels was never going to change this narrative.
Even if the film were the greatest superhero action comedy ever – which it is not – negative sentiment toward the MCU has too much momentum for any one film to change. Even if paired with its immediate predecessor, the excellent Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, or further grouped with three of the last four releases, the third being this year’s regrettable Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, while the fourth is last year’s emotional powerhouse Wakanda Forever, the narrative of a struggling, near collapsing MCU would remain. This is because when it comes to large groups of people, perception rarely matches reality. (We can see this in Americans complaining about a horrible economy while enjoying record low unemployment, inflation rates among the lowest in the world and falling, a high gross domestic product, and recovering real wage growth, but things were somehow so much better when a pandemic forced people to stay home.) This is also because, and here’s the part few people mention: there is nothing that the masses love more than building something up as greater than it is only to then tear it down for not being as great as they expect.
In other words, it doesn’t matter if The Marvels is good or not. Too many people are already invested in the idea that the film is bad and the MCU is dying. Every new film is compared to Avengers: Endgame when the studio and the Russo Brothers rode the momentum of twenty-one previous films – not all of them as great as people now claim – to bring together characters with ten years of established history and accomplish a cinematic feat that had until that point been impossible. Trades focus on how the box office outlook for The Marvels is lower than previous MCU films. Then, of course, there will be the fools who claim that The Marvels is a product of forced diversity and therefore deserves to fail. Yet none of these stories will address the merits or the weaknesses of the film itself. And all of these stories will be a tremendous disservice to the cast and characters that are the reason the film succeeds at all.
The Marvels begins almost exactly where the Ms. Marvel series ended as after a brief set-up we see Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) sketching animated fan art of herself and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) becoming best friends. While the film smartly uses this time as a refresher for Kamala and the Ms. Marvel storyline, it’s debatable whether or not these opening minutes are enough to let new or casual viewers invest in the character. However, if the present narrative is to be believed, not many new or casual viewers even go to MCU films anymore. It’s during this opening act, including the reintroductions of Kamala, Carol, and Monica, and the chaotic first action sequence which ties them all together, that we see The Marvels at its fullest potential. Although a bit nebulous in explanation, it is undeniably fun to watch Kamala attempt to calm her family while simultaneously switching places back and forth with Captain Marvel and Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) battling Kree soldiers. This opening is the exact type of furious action and clever comedy that Marvel Studios was built on. It can be a bit hard to follow but it’s just too much fun to care. Some of this fun comes from the action, but the majority comes from the Vellani, Larson, Parris, and their respective roles.
Upon debuting in 2014 Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan was immediately established as the newest of Marvel’s flagship characters. Her first issue spawned a brief viral sensation, drawing interest from new readers and mainstream critics alike. Then, only a couple years later, a Marvel senior VP of marketing blamed Kamala and the company’s effort “to increase diversity and female characters” as the reason for a slump in sales. These opposing outlooks on Kamala are an easy test of how much an individual will enjoy and/or be annoyed by The Marvels. For some, Kamala will be a delightful addition with her dopey smile, endless fangirl energy, and constant geek-outs over being in the company of her heroes. Iman Vellani herself has stated her genuine excitement in joining in the MCU ensemble, and this enthusiasm is all over her performance. Yet for others the palpable joy on display will come off as too much, while her asides and jocular inserts will typify their hatred of the recent MCU: everything has to be so jokey, there’re no stakes, plus she’s a young Muslim woman, so, you know, wokeism! Meanwhile, Brie Larson, bringing a needed vulnerability to a role that had previously been almost unapproachable, will remain a divisive figure because of some comments she made four years ago. As the third of this trio, Teyonah Parris will spark no less controversy as the character with the least focus in the main cast. While Monica’s connection with Carol is wonderful, and every seen of the three heroes being together is entertaining, it still feels as though Monica is given less material than the other two. It’s this lack of development for Monica which best hints at The Marvels‘ main issue.
Much has been said about The Marvels being the shortest MCU film to date. While this isn’t a problem in terms of action, comedy, or keeping the film moving at a good clip, it is a problem in terms of continuity, plot, and structure. At one point during the initial confusion – and confusion is the right term as there is little explanation on what is happening and why – Kamala’s clothing suddenly changes and remains so until she remarks about borrowing another set. Similarly, an entire subplot is established as an ongoing mystery only to be brushed off and made into convenient contrivance. Still another sequence is almost unfathomably silly when considered in the context of the rest of the film. Imaginative, yes, and suitable in the same universe that contains Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnorak, but inconsistent with the film’s tone both before and after. Yet most egregious is that at one point a planet is literally destroyed, killing millions of innocent people, but after a short exchange the film and the characters move on as though nothing happened. There simply is no emotional impact.
Past MCU entries have had trouble maintaining continuity between films – remember the big hand sticking out of the Earth, or the Sokovia Accords, or Tony Stark destroying all of his suits – yet The Marvels takes this one step further by forgetting what happened from one scene to another. Given the pedigree of actors involved, stories of the director moving onto her next project prior to completion of this one, and rumors of panic at the studio, it’s hard to determine if important connective tissue was removed from the film or never shot. Either way, it makes what is otherwise a breezy, largely enjoyable film fall apart.
Where the story does shine is in forcing Captain Marvel Carol Danvers to reflect on her previous actions. Without going into too much detail, the central conflict focuses on the villain Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton, yes, another woman) attempting to rebuild the planet that “The Annihilator” destroyed at the end of the original Captain Marvel. Essentially, in attempting to do something good for the Kree people, Carol made things infinitely worse. There are obvious parallels between this plot and real life instances, such as American efforts to “free” oppressed people only to create a generation of extremists when chaos ensues after withdrawal. Yet perhaps a more interesting parallel could be made between this fictional story and the MCU’s real world issues. In the same way that Carol’s achievement did irreparable harm to the planet, Endgame‘s monumental success did possibly irreparable harm to the franchise’s future. Yet, like the MCU itself, Carol isn’t allowed the time to reflect as she instead has a plot to advance. Perhaps the film, the character, and the entire cinematic universe, would be better off dealing with these unintended consequences and reconsidering their course rather than just flying on at full blast. Maybe, in the wake of the recent Variety article, Marvel Studio executives can course correct. I’d suggest taking notes from Gareth Edward’s work on The Creator: have a solid script, complete the picture, and then add the effects. As is, Carol and the MCU, can attempt to fix this one error – say by stripping The Marvels down to the bone – but that won’t prevent future mistakes nor change the momentum pushing against it, especially when the result is a film that’s as enjoyable as it is frustrating.
That is, until the mid-credits scene, where we are remind that the MCU still has the ability to make us excited for the future. Because in order for the masses to tear something down for not being as great as expected, they first have to build it up as greater than is possible. Post credits, however, were completely different as the screening I attended, along with that of the only other person I know who has yet seen the film, ended with the screen going black while music continued for several minutes, then some sound effects, and finally the Marvel logo. If anything should’ve been cut for time, it’s this.
At its core, The Marvels is a pleasant, entertaining, at times silly or baffling film built on characters that people will find endearing and/or annoying depending on the narrative one wishes to follow. It’s not a strong enough success to alter diminished public sentiment, nor bad enough of a failure to extinguish all hope. Yet, beyond any belief that the MCU is dying, or that everything after Far From Home has been trash, the worst, most inexcusable outcome would be punishing the director or the cast, especially Brie Larson and Iman Vellani who are, after all, the best parts of a film that had no chance of success. If anything, Marvel executives should take the time to reflect instead of blasting on. The Marvels can’t change the narrative. Hopefully Marvel can.