Media monsters usually come in cycles. Like a fashion trend, they’ll often ride the wave of some totemic smash before diminishing returns and bored audiences relegate them to another period of obscurity.
For vampires and zombies, Twilight and The Walking Dead franchises led to a box office and TV-scape littered with the ghouls, before they recently started to fade. But when it comes to the current Dr. Frankenstein of Marvel Studios, and its latest creation, The Marvels, it’s hard to miss the difference.
Instead of drifting off naturally, this mad scientist is harnessing some lightning — by pulling the strings behind virtually all the biggest productions propping up its superhero trend, Marvel can artificially extend the life of what would otherwise have died a long time ago.
And when it comes to the doctor’s eponymous monster, the chopped up, stitched-together creature is really starting to reek.
WATCH | The official trailer for The Marvels:
For The Marvels, it’s not that the movie is an outright failure. Instead, the buddy film space-romp following uber-hero Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), friendly neighbourhood “hard light”-manipulator Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) and WandaVision‘s Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) is — much like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 before it — actually a bit of a course correction.
And in it director Nia DaCosta, a relative newcomer to Hollywood, was impressively able to solve one of the problems most endemic to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s now 15-year reign: the bloat.
But the way DaCosta and co-screenwriters Megan McDonnell, Zeb Wells and Elissa Karasik sidestep that problem proves just how completely lost the once-exciting franchise has become.
By not bothering to grapple with or include many MCU plot points, and focusing on a single character’s development instead of trying to stuff the backstory, exposition and growth of multiple characters into a single film, its creators entertain despite Marvel’s cultural dominance, not because of it.
In avoiding the suffocating backstory contained in nearly 120 hours of connected content shows, The Marvels shows that what was once the MCU’s greatest strength has turned into an awkward and especially heavy albatross.
But the qualified success of a film with already muted box-office expectations doesn’t offer hope for the superhero franchise so much as it demonstrates that Marvel has overstayed its welcome at the party, making viewers cough pointedly a few times before nodding toward the door. Yes, that is a great story, Marvel, but don’t you think it’s getting kind of late?
That said, The Marvels does start strong. After a dizzying exposition section covering the events of Captain Marvel, Infinity War, Endgame, and the Disney+ series’ WandaVision, Secret Invasion and Ms. Marvel, we get to the meat and potatoes. Captain Marvel (a.k.a. Carol Danvers) is still drifting alone in self-imposed interstellar isolation, brooding over all the great power and great responsibility a growing superhero needs.
At the same time, teen hero Ms. Marvel (a.k.a. Kamala Khan) practices sketching in a bedroom designed like a kaleidoscope of Captain Marvel fan art. And Rambeau, recently given powers by science gone wrong, works on repairing the outside of a space station at the direction of Avengers-assembler Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
The MCU’s secret weapon
Not too long after, the film’s conceit kicks in to jump start the actual plot: Danvers makes the intelligent decision to touch a glowing space light, which turns out to be a quantum physics-adjacent space aberration that “entangles” Danvers, Khan and Rambeau.
They become linked together, physically switching places with one another whenever they use their powers, and forced into one of Marvel’s many intergalactic road films to solve the mystery and save the world.
It’s that switching that gives The Marvels one of its biggest strengths; while all three characters have light-based powers, they’re different enough that the beautifully choreographed fight scenes pull the action along.
Even if you can’t tell exactly what’s going on, watching our heroes jumping positions as the camera swings wildly around various alien fighters, gives a simple kind of visual stimulation as satisfying as playing a video game with your face too close to the screen.
The chemistry between the characters keeps the whole thing chugging along. The tension between Rambeau and Danvers may feel forced, but Larson and Parris do a commendable job of playing off one another.
Meanwhile, Vellani continues to prove herself the MCU’s secret weapon and defacto Spider-Man replacement. Her undeniable onscreen presence, fantastic acting chops and always on-target comedic timing shine as she struggles not to embarrass herself in front of her idol, Captain Marvel.
But this chemistry is far from balanced. While past Marvel productions like Eternals struggled to provide interesting character arcs for each member of its team, The Marvels takes the easy route. Danvers far overshadows the other two in terms of narrative, and her redemption journey reduces Rambeau to little more than a foil — a pathos machine designed to highlight the saddest parts of Danvers’ arc.
Virtually all opportunities to develop Khan’s character are stripped away; no traces of the satisfyingly deep journey she went on in Ms. Marvel remain. Instead, the most interesting of the three Marvels is turned into an (incredibly competent) comic relief character on the outskirts of the action. Hauling her family along for an almost entirely unrelated B-plot shows how The Marvels is plotted more like a TV show than a movie.
While that protects it from some larger potential failings, it hamstrings the story and bears out a wildly anticlimactic third-act (reportedly plagued by reshoots and rewrites) that stamps The Marvels as adequate, but not much more.
But comparing it to the rest of the MCU, it’s not actually much of a complaint. The middling successes of The Marvels are still successes.
The strong performances, often genuinely funny jokes and serviceable plot makes it more worth a watch than anything Marvel has put out since Endgame. All this combined with some phenomenal battle scenes (and a chuckle-worthy musical number) mean it should do fairly well with a younger crowd.
That said, The Marvels is basically like someone bitten in a zombie apocalypse that hasn’t yet turned. Sure, you’re not a reanimated corpse yet, but we’re still going to have to put you down eventually.