The Marvels might be the first Marvel movie that doesn’t need a villain. At a brisk 105 minutes, The Marvels is the shortest film in the MCU to date, but it still suffers from being overstuffed and heavy on clunky exposition, as many Marvel movies are, no matter their runtime. Featuring a central team-up of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), The Marvels has enough to get on with just properly serving the central trio of characters, plus Samuel L. Jackson returning as Nick Fury. Zawe Ashton, who appears here as Kree villain Dar-Benn, is underserved by the script and adds little to the film beyond plot machinations that I am not convinced The Marvels even needs.
Picking up post-Endgame, The Marvels finds Carol doing her Captain Marvel thing in space. In the years since her Nineties adventure with Nick Fury, a civil war that she indirectly prompted has destroyed Hala, the Kree civilization’s home planet. Dar-Benn, an angry Kree, uses a space magic bracelet and big hammer to knock holes into space-time in an effort to restore Hala’s destroyed environment (it’s basically the Mega-Maid plot from Spaceballs). In doing so, she causes a quantum entanglement between Carol, Monica, and Kamala, who switch physical places any time one of them uses their powers. This leads to both some thrilling action sequences—Kamala’s power set doesn’t include flight, so she has no idea what to do when she trades places with Carol mid-air—and Freaky Friday-esque humor that serves the film well, but WHEW, the exposition it takes to get there.
Amazingly, the film, which is co-scripted by director Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, and Elissa Karasik, is much more compact and lighter in its recapping of WandaVision and Ms. Marvel to introduce the audience to Monica and Kamala. If you haven’t seen those shows, don’t worry, the film actually handles this component efficiently. But the quantum entanglement stuff is needlessly complicated and given that the MCU at large is concerned with the meltdown of the multiverse, it probably didn’t even need Dar-Benn to drive the plot, it would have been enough to thrust these three women into a body swap scenario and leave them to sort it out, no villain necessary.
Because Dar-Benn is not a good villain. Zawe Ashton is a fine actress, but she simply does not have anything to do beyond scowl and info dump on characters to move the plot forward. It feels like at one point The Marvels was meant to be a direct sequel to 2019’s Captain Marvel and focus on the consequences of Carol’s actions in that film, with the Kree seeking revenge against her. Somewhere along the way, though, Monica Rambeau and Kamala Khan were signed up for the adventure, and whatever the tone was supposed to be, it ends up being mostly comedic with a few odd, disjointed moments of darker, more serious drama that feel left over from earlier drafts.
The Marvels is not the messiest film Marvel has produced—it’s not even in the top 5—but you can definitely feel that some different intention was scrapped along the way to make room for a cosmic Freaky Friday. To that end, the film is mostly successful—it’s genuinely funny in a way Marvel movies haven’t been for a while. And Iman Vellani remains an absolute treasure, bringing a lightness and warmth that offsets the personal drama boiling between Carol and Monica, whom Carol essentially abandoned as a child. Up against actors of Larson’s and Parris’s abilities, Vellani, a relative newcomer, acquits herself well, and the film works best when Kamala is bouncing off Carol, her hero who maybe isn’t all Kamala believes she is.
There is a lot to like about The Marvels, but there is also no escaping that disjointedness, or the feeling that for so short a film, there is just too much going on. Either The Marvels needs one less plot element to streamline the story, or it needs like, twenty more minutes of screen time to let things breathe between major developments. And a better written villain wouldn’t go amiss, it’s a shame to waste an actor of Ashton’s caliber, and to make the audience suffer through ANOTHER disposable Marvel villain in a film that is otherwise mostly good.
The Marvels does some things very well, particularly juggling characters from TV series not everyone in the audience might have seen, but the old Marvel problems of forgettable villains and messy storytelling are in evidence. Also, this film is lensed by Sean Bobbitt, Steve McQueen’s go-to cinematographer, yet The Marvels is really quite ugly. Flat, dismal lighting and bad VFX—not surprising given the ongoing crunch in the VFX pipeline—render almost all the action sequences dull despite good action choreography in camera. It’s a shame, given the “light powers” of the trio of heroines and the cosmic setting, The Marvels could have leaned into a unique visual style, but it is another victim of the boring Marvel house style compounded by shoddy visual effects.
People will undoubtedly be divided on this film. For some, it will be a throwaway piece of fluff not unlike the earlier Ant-Man films or even Thor: Ragnarok and especially Thor: Love and Thunder, but others might find the humor and heart, particularly those elements orbiting Iman Vellani’s performance, to be rewarding despite the messiness of the story. Given that it is relatively short, it’s not painful to sit through, but it is clear this yet another Marvel film doing too much, hobbled by overstuffed storytelling. The Marvels has its moments but can’t overcome the same old problems we’ve watched plague the MCU for years.
The Marvels is exclusively in theaters from November 10, 2023.