Beneath a layer of slapstick, The Marvels is a warning about hero worship.
The Marvels being a good time feels like a bit of a surprise.
For one thing, Marvel has recently seen an uncharacteristic streak of stinkers. Eternals was a beautiful bore. Ant-Man: Quantumania was a horrendous experience. Thor: Love and Thunder was three good jokes in a trench coat masquerading as a movie. Add to that a bunch of Disney+ shows that are growing increasingly exhausting to keep up with and a main villain — Kang — who feels like the embodiment of a physics lecture (played by an actor facing domestic assault charges), and you get a studio that seems to have lost its mojo. As such, the expectations for The Marvels weren’t very high.
On top of all that, the company hasn’t really gone out of its way to market The Marvels.
A large part of that has been the actors’ strike, which ended yesterday, but meant stars Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, and Iman Vellani couldn’t participate in a traditional promotional tour. Still, Marvel loves to tout its superheroes and its diversity, and one would think that the studio’s first movie with three female superhero leads, two of whom are women of color, would warrant an all-out blitz. That marketing onslaught never materialized. Instead there’s just been a general lack of enthusiasm from the company, the kind that signals “Hey, don’t bother with this one.”
That’s all a bit of a shame because of how fun and charming The Marvels really is. It’s buoyant, goofy at times, and also manages to take some swings at hefty ideas like military propaganda. It’s not a perfect movie, but it certainly is good enough. Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Marvels is that it shows that the Marvel movie formula, an often-critiqued aspect of the studio, isn’t broken. In fact when it works, that formula is still capable of making magic.
The Marvels isn’t reinventing superhero movies. That’s okay.
A major flaw in Marvel’s recent slate of movies and television shows is that they’re too reliant on interlocking stories. Marvel employed this strategy to great success when creating 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the final chapter to a decade of Marvel movies. In Endgame’s wake, however, the strategy proved far less successful without a big, momentous occasion like Endgame.
Marvel’s essentially asking fans for Endgame-level commitment to stories that don’t have the same kind of payoff nor the same kind of excitement. At the heart of this batch of films is a complicated and tiring concept called the multiverse, which more or less means that there’s infinite parallel universes. Since 2021, Marvel’s been peppering the multiverse in its various tv shows and movies.
What this all means is that to understand Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, you need to have seen the Disney+ show Wandavision. Similarly, Quantumania is built on concepts and a major character from Disney+’s Loki. Calling Multiverse and Quantumania movies is generous because they’re really just stepping stones. They barely have beginnings and endings, which lets them slide into the overall narrative better, I guess. But those qualities really make these movies rather dreadful to watch on their own.
The best thing about The Marvels is that director Nia DaCosta says: don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about Doctor Strange. Don’t worry about Ant-Man. Don’t worry about the multiverse. For one hour and 40 minutes or so, that stuff doesn’t really matter.
All you need to know for The Marvels is that Captain Marvel a.k.a. Carol Danvers (Larson) has been adventuring in space; Kamala Khan a.k.a. Ms. Marvel (Vellani), a teenage superhero from Jersey City, is doing some street-level crime-fighting; and Monica Rambeau a.k.a. no MCU codename yet (Parris) is a scientist.
For whatever reason, this trio’s superpowers are connected to light and electromagnetic energy. With the emergence of Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), a beautiful Kree conqueror from the planetary wasteland Halla, the trio find out that not only are their powers connected to one another, but that they, as people, are connected to each other too.
Because of some kind of cosmic glitch (again, don’t worry about the nitty-gritty explanation of these logistics because it really doesn’t matter), using their powers makes them physically switch places with one another. An example: when Carol blasts someone on an alien spaceship, she’s beamed over to Kamala’s bedroom; Monica blips to the spaceship Carol is at; and Kamala gets sent to Monica’s location.
It’s a bit like a Rubik’s cube, in that whatever’s happening to one side of this trio affects the others. DaCosta primarily employs the Freaky Friday-esque gimmick for maximum goof.
At one point henchmen swarm Carol, one of the most powerful people in the universe. When she zaps a couple with her photon beams, said henchmen find themselves fighting a less-powerful teenage girl who turns light into heavy physical objects. When Kamala starts fighting, Monica is transported in and hits those goons, who have already been blasted and bopped, with laser beams. The Marvels’ constant switching is an equal opportunity conceit. Some of those minions get their licks in too as Carol, Kamala, and Monica can’t predict where they’ll end up.
Tired of being concussed and worried that they might accidentally send a teenager to deep space, the trio figure out that they need to work as a team. Getting teleported across a galaxy is terribly inconvenient when you have homework to finish and worlds to protect. And it’s especially detrimental against Dar-Benn, who has the power, via wormholes (don’t worry about it), to plunder natural resources from other planets, like oxygen, oceans, and suns.
Can our heroes learn to work together? Can they come to like each other? Can they defeat Dar-Benn? Can they stop her galactic eco-terrorism all in the nick of time before too many people die?
These aren’t trick questions. The Marvels is a Marvel movie after all. But given how much of Marvel’s recent offerings have been abrupt, jumbled storytelling, it’s a relief that The Marvels maintains its structure and doesn’t try to function as a springboard to the next Marvel movie or television show. The Marvels gets the space to let the characters just be themselves and for us to better understand what makes them heroes.
Is Captain Marvel a savior? It depends who you ask.
The most riveting idea in DaCosta’s movie is examining who Carol Danvers is.
On paper, Carol is the most powerful Avenger. She possesses superhuman strength, durability, speed, and can fly at ultrasonic speeds. She went toe-to-toe with a fully-powered Thanos in Endgame. If there’s someone more powerful than Carol, we haven’t seen them yet.
Yet who Carol is beyond her powers is still a bit of a mystery to all of us — Carol included. In the first Captain Marvel, Carol suffered from amnesia and didn’t really have much of a personality beyond trying to regain her memories. What she does remember is her time as a pilot in the Air Force, and her best friend, fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). In Endgame and its aftermath, supporting characters and Carol herself mention that other worlds in the universe need her help. But all of Carol’s galactic feats happen off-screen, making the character strangely opaque despite being omnipresent.
DaCosta challenges Carol’s narrative. Perhaps, The Marvels suggests, we should all be a bit more skeptical of someone who can jumpstart solar systems and punch holes in the sky. All that power should be a frightening thing. Carol is essentially a god — but also still human, making imperfect human decisions. Carol’s choices have consequences, sometimes gory ones. As Dar-Benn enlightens the trio, Carol once wanted to “liberate” Halla. Afterward, the planet was a wasteland. Halla sees Carol as its destroyer. And if Carol left Halla with no air to breathe and water to drink, how are the other planets that Carol has “helped” faring?
The optics of a white woman superhero girlbossing a planet too hard and failing to recognize how her actions affect other people isn’t lost on me. Just as surprising is a warning about militaristic propaganda coming from Marvel, a studio whose movies are criticized for being military propaganda. None of this on my bingo card.
Back on Earth, everyone thinks of Carol as a benevolent hero, and there’s no bigger Carol fan than Kamala Khan. Vellani imbues Kamala with the giddy warmth and sparkle that made the comic book character such a fan favorite. When Kamala takes her first spacecraft voyage, she’ll make your heart swell; Vellani just about walks away with the entire movie. At first Kamala is starstruck at meeting her hero, but she soon learns that the Captain Marvel she idolizes isn’t the person she’s imagined her to be.
The real Carol Danvers is probably closer to the one Monica sees. Monica knew Carol as a kid — her mother and Carol were best friends — and like Kamala, she idolized her. She called her Aunt Carol. But while maintaining her cosmic duties to helping everyone, Carol never came back to see Monica. To Monica, Carol’s goodness and legacy came at the price of their relationship.
How Carol reconciles her relationship — hero, aunt, mother, friend, example, peer — with these two women gives the character more soul and humanity than we’d yet seen. The decisions Captain Marvel makes aren’t easy, nor are they always correct. As powerful as she is, Carol is a bit of a coward when it comes to taking responsibility for her actions.
In this journey, with a teenage fangirl and a woman who knows better, Carol realizes that it isn’t her photon beams or god-like invulnerability that make her a hero. That stuff is easy. It’s the other, tougher stuff that does: accepting the cosmic responsibility to protect the defenseless, taking accountability for the failure that inevitably comes with it, and continuing to fulfill that duty with unwavering hope and optimism.
In its best moments, The Marvels is about how we see our heroes, and who writes their stories. It’s not perfect by any means, and a better version of this story would probably give us more insight into Carol Danvers beyond her job. Tony Stark wanted a kid and Steve Rogers wanted a wife, but I’m not sure what Carol actually wants. I’m not sure if it’s something different from what she’s doing.
Still, there’s still plenty to like in The Marvels. There’s some goofy kinetic fun, a lot of joy from Vellani’s performance, and a big emotional payoff, thanks to the friendships these women create. At times it’s even a little bit magical — the way Marvel movies used to be when they weren’t too busy telling you to look out for what’s next.