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It brings me absolutely no joy to report that “The Marvels” is terrible, and the worst film yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Thor: The Dark World” was merely a forgettable drag. “Eternals” was an overlong slog but always gorgeous to watch. “Thor: Love & Thunder” was disjointed tonally but featured a terrifying Christian Bale performance.
Within a pop culture empire that’s become increasingly inconsistent in quality, precisely because of its efforts to remain consistently in front of our eyeballs, “The Marvels” had the potential to offer a much-needed breath of fresh air. Carol Danvers, Monica Rambeau and Kamala Khan have all been hugely enjoyable characters in their respective movies and TV series, so the possibility of a shared adventure for them held promise. Instead, it’s a narrative and visual jumble, and the clearest evidence yet that maybe we don’t need some sort of Marvel product in theaters or on streaming at all times.
What’s especially frustrating is that the actresses playing these comic book roles have each brought something specific and compelling: Brie Larson with her spiky cool throughout the MCU but particularly in “Captain Marvel”; Teyonah Parris with her warmth and wisdom on “WandaVision”; Iman Vellani with her infectious teenage enthusiasm on “Ms. Marvel.” Having “Candyman” director Nia DaCosta at the helm felt like an inspired choice, and suggested the kind of perspective we don’t usually see within this male-centric movie universe.
But the script from DaCosta and co-writers Megan McDonnell (“WandaVision”) and Elissa Karasik (“Loki”) is a mess as it tries to cram in all three characters’ stories, plus connect back to other MCU properties while also spinning this behemoth saga forward. You definitely need to be familiar with Carol, Monica and Kamala’s previous movies and/or series, as well as “Secret Invasion” on Disney+ and some other content I won’t mention for fear of spoilers. In trying to juggle all of these elements, it never really finds a groove. The story veers between people standing around explaining things to each other and inscrutable action sequences in which characters go flying across the room in dizzying fashion. It’s short—only about an hour and 45 minutes—so the emotional connections and stakes feel forced and rushed. It’s as if big sections are missing that would have made this make more sense. Instead, Carol, Monica and Kamala are literally thrown together to defeat Zawe Ashton’s wild-eyed, vengeful Kree villain, Dar-Benn.
From the very start, Ashton’s character is at the center of the film’s spectacularly hideous visual effects. An opening sequence in which Dar-Benn discovers the powerful bangle she’s long sought—a match to the one that gives Kamala her powers—has the chintzy look of an unadorned soundstage. Giant boulders look like chunks of Styrofoam spray-painted gray, and the whole scene is smothered in bright, flat lighting. For the most part, you’d never know that Steve McQueen’s frequent cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt (“12 Years a Slave,” “Shame,” “Widows”) shot this.
Something happens when Dar-Benn seizes this potent piece of jewelry that causes Carol, Monica and Kamala to switch places whenever any of them use their own powers. They’re all inextricably intertwined in ways they keep being spelled out to each other, and to us, but remain confusing. One of them will throw a punch, for example, and wind up where another of them had just been. Among the peripheral figures who get caught up in this chaos are Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who does basically nothing but offer a smart-ass quip or two, and Kamala’s family, who are as adorable as ever in a sitcommy way that’s a reminder of just how scattered everything is here.
Reprising her title role from the “Ms. Marvel” Disney+ series, Vellani brings a likable, sunny presence to her big-screen debut, but is stuck for too long in one-note fangirl mode. But Larson and Parris, while individually charismatic and commanding, can only do so much to convey the heartache of a shared trauma when it’s wedged in between blandly frantic action sequences. Many of these consist of characters soaring like fireballs across the stars to pummel each other or pull things apart or push them back together again. It's all very wearying.
Still, the three must work as a team and hone their abilities to stop Dar-Benn from intergalactic destruction. Speaking of which, the choice of the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” during an outer space training montage is eye-rollingly obvious. But other musical moments are such a drastic departure from everything else that they’re an unexpected and much-needed delight. They're SO weird in the best possible way. I won’t ruin them for you, although people are already posting videos of the end credits scene, so apparently nothing is sacred anymore. But two scenes in particular were reminiscent of the irreverent tone of one the best MCU movies, “Thor: Ragnarok.” They’re big swings and they’ll be divisive, but they’re the only truly hilarious moments of the entire movie, and they’ll make you wish we’d gotten more of such risks throughout.
In theaters Friday, November 10th.
Brie Larson as Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel
Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau
Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan / Ms. Marvel
Zawe Ashton as Dar-Benn
Park Seo-jun as Prince Yan
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau
Mohan Kapur as Yusuf Khan
Zenobia Shroff as Muneeba Khan
Saagar Shaikh as Aamir Khan
Daniel Ings as Ty-Rone
Gary Lewis as Emperor Dro'ge