by Julian Spivey
Director: Nia DaCosta
Starring: Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris & Iman Vellani
Rated: PG-13 (action violence)
Runtime: 1 hour & 45 minutes
It’s been at least three years since Nia DaCosta (“Candyman”) was announced as the director of “The Marvels” and as a writer/director that means she has been thinking about this story for at least that long as well. I say this 1) because I doubt what is portrayed on screen here is all she had in mind (more on that later) and 2) because it’s important to remember the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe into which films are released is not often the same context in which they were written or shot. DaCosta came on in the immediate aftermath of ‘Endgame’ - prior to the release of either “WandaVision” or “Ms. Marvel” and most importantly - prior to COVID, likely eager to continue the story of this newly minted Avenger and the prospect of the first ever MCU lady league. Taking that into consideration, “The Marvels” obviously arrives at a very different point in the MCU trajectory than DaCosta likely expected as steam has been lost and arguably a fair amount of quality as well. I hate to be a doomsdayer, but the one-two punch of COVID’s impact on the release schedule and the tragic loss of Chadwick Boseman threw a wrench into the MCU’s plans and as a result the whole operation into recovery mode in more ways than one. Prior to ‘Endgame,’ “The Marvels” would have nestled snuggly between ‘Homecoming’ and “Ant-Man” in terms of quality and stakes and no one would have batted an eye as it is both a smaller-scale team-up movie and a fun comic caper, but when the fate of the MCU is riding on something more equivalent to “Ant-Man and the Wasp” than ‘Civil War,’ folks will both be disappointed and continue to declare the end of this once bulletproof franchise.
Now, I will admit that something is missing. Even if time and distance end up proving the cultural reaction to Phase 5 of the MCU was more determined by our tiredness of the franchise than the quality of the film’s themes, it still feels as if something is missing. That isn’t to say the magic is completely gone, but whether the direct fault of the individual movie of the moment or not the collective feeling is this is obviously not what it once was. So, all things considered: is “The Marvels” any good? It’s impossible to say how much of what we’re seeing on the screen this weekend comes from what DaCosta - along with co-writers Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik - originally envisioned those few years ago, but while DaCosta doesn’t really get to put her “spin” on a Marvel movie a la James Gunn or Taika Waititi, she does manage some memorable character interactions - immediately striking a winning balance of awkwardness and humor between our three leads - as well as some of the better, more creative action sequences in MCU history. The orchestration of the three leads, how their switching of places and the advantages of as much is illustrated via the action sequences is more than enough to commend DaCosta as a whole and more than makes up for the lack of delineation between the three different power sets. The more important part is that Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris and Iman Vellani almost immediately find a chemistry and rhythm that works for the different character dynamics at play. The soundtrack selections are pretty sick as well.
Parris’ Monica Rambeau (who is working closely with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury on that space station from the post-credit scene in ‘Far From Home’) is forced to take on the role of the holdout due to her lack of trust in/communication with Larson’s Carol Danvers whereas Larson sticks with, kind of surprisingly so, the simple and straightforward approach; a no-nonsense attitude if you will, both of which are thankfully relieved by the presence of Vellani’s wonderstruck Kamala Khan. I enjoyed the “Ms. Marvel” series not only for the inclusion of this world and perspective it cultivated but largely for the sense of energy in tone and the thrill even a non-MCU fan could pick up on in Vellani’s performance and thankfully, Vellani brings all of that over from her series to this foray into the cosmos. In a film that goes for a tone that can handle and make credible an entire planet where the main mode of communication is musical numbers and a rescue mission that is executed by having kitty cats eat crew members, tone is absolutely key and Vellani’s performance is the only one that really locks in on this and not only makes her the highlight of the film but elevates everyone else around her. To this extent, between that tone, the costume designs, and even the production design on a few of the planets our heroes visit, this does sometimes veer into ‘Power Rangers’ territory. That is to say, it has a whole Saturday morning cartoon vibe to it - which, as a child of the ‘90s who grew up watching “Power Rangers” along with the animated “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” series on Saturday mornings, is not a derogatory comment - but whether or not that is what DaCosta or the MCU as a whole was going for here? Hard to say.
Hard to say because DaCosta or maybe Kevin Feige brought in Sean Bobbit AKA Steve McQueen’s regular cinematographer AKA the guy who shot “12 Years a Slave,” “Shame” and “Widows” to shoot this film yet you wouldn’t know it until you saw his name in the credits. Not to say the film doesn’t have its moments aesthetically, but the aforementioned odes (intentional or not) combined with the still shabby visual effects in certain spots don’t make this something Bobbit would likely want to be featured on his IMDb page. Besides not taking advantage of having Bobbit as your cinematographer though, the biggest L The Marvels takes is with its villain. Zawe Ashton (Loki’s real-life partner) is Dar-Benn (a name I had to look up in order to cite here), a Kree general who is after the same bangle that gave Kamala her powers in order to restore her planet of Hala to the once prosperous place it was as it has sat deprived and dying since Captain Marvel sought revenge on the Kree for taking her life from them. The thing is, as the plot - which deals with Dar-Benn harvesting other planets' resources to reinvigorate Hala - unfolds it’s hard not to think this whole ordeal could have been handled more diplomatically. Like, I get that there needs to be heated conflict and more importantly, fight sequences, but it is kind of funny we’ve made this big deal about this being a female-centric superhero movie and given women as a sex have largely always championed resolution through discussion rather than fists it seems ill-fitting that the crux of this movie specifically is one that could have been resolved with some better trade discussions and an apology from Captain Marvel as she’s well-aware and even understands why the Kree harbor such hate toward her. Not wrong by any means, the constructs of the genre still have to exist no matter the sex of the hero and it’s not necessarily that it feels ironic, but more “The Marvels” feels like a missed opportunity to truly take a female-centric superhero movie to another, different, unexpected level. Instead, it sticks to the yuks rather than exploring any of the deeper emotions each of these characters - Monica, Carol, Dar-Benn, and even Kamala - are clearly dealing with. But hey, Fury’s interactions with the Khan family are hilarious so what do I know?