The fall from glory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues with “The Marvels.” This is not to say that this movie is the “worst” the MCU has ever put out (for one thing, there’s no M.O.D.O.K. in sight), but the franchise has seen better days, both commercially and creatively. I think the problem lies with its middling ambition. It tries to upgrade elements that had been previously relegated to the small-screen when it probably should have made the hard decision to downgrade some big-screen elements.
When villain Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) tears a hole in the universe, Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (Brie Larson) goes to investigate and is countered by Dar-Benn’s minions. Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) works on solving the problem from a space station under the supervision of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Meanwhile, teenager Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan (Iman Vellani) just hangs out in her room in Jersey City, fantasizing about using her mutant powers to help the Avengers, especially Captain Marvel.
Suddenly the three switch places and are instantly in different settings. Without trying, they switch places several more times, ending up on the alien planet, the space station, or Kamala’s family home. Carol’s cat-like pet Goose also gets caught up in the switching, as do some of the similarly-bewildered henchmen, who nevertheless keep the battle going. After much confusion and hijinks, the day is won, but Carol, Monica, and Kamala all need to convene on a spaceship to sort things out. They determine that using their light-based powers at the same time is what causes the switch. They’d like to get a better handle on the matter, but Dar-Benn needs to be stopped before she tears the whole universe apart.
The film’s action sequences mostly consist of the trio doing what they can with their individual powers, even though their individual powers may not be what’s needed at the moment. Staying close together means that the same three people are basically in the same place (hence why the inexperienced Kamala needs to be on the spaceship), but separations are inevitable. On the other hand, and this is learned through experience, the system also means that one can swap themselves out for another if the situation calls for the other person’s powers.
It's fun watching the characters having to adapt to new settings in the midst of an action sequence. It’s also fun watching them train to become fluent in switching. They visit a planet at one point where people only communicate in musical numbers, and of course that’s fun. A sequence toward the end with Goose is one of the most fun Marvel has ever put out. And yet the film never succeeds on a level higher than “fun.”
“The Marvels” lacks the gravitas that one expects from the MCU – especially on the big screen. Heck, it lacks the characters one expects from the MCU on the big screen. Yes, Captain Marvel had her own movie back in 2019 and was an important part of “Avengers: Endgame,” but so far the adult version of Monica Rambeau and the entire character of Ms. Marvel haven’t been proven outside of streaming on the small screen. And I think a streaming series would have been a better fit for this chapter of the MCU.
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Given some of the qualms I have with “The Marvels,” a streaming series makes total sense. The movie’s visit to singing planet Aladna seems rushed, maybe it could get its own episode. A minor conflict about Carol never returning to Earth to see Monica could be further explored instead of briefly mentioned and forgotten, all seemingly because an outline of the script called for a dramatic moment. Dar-Benn herself could be developed beyond a thousand-yard stare that’s practically begging to be mocked. Most importantly, home viewing is more conducive to the hangout atmosphere where these characters thrive. I know that the MCU can produce hits for both the movies and home, but it needs to make better decisions about which properties should be which.
“The Marvels” is rated PG-13 for action/violence and brief language. Its running time is 105 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.