REVIEW – The Marvels (2023)

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A fun and breezy sequel to mark the mid-point of Phase 5 of the MCU, The Marvels is more “comic-booky” than some of its predecessors.

The artificial network of wormholes (also known as “jump points”) that help with interstellar travel is becoming unstable thanks to a Kree revolutionary (Zawe Ashton) and her quest to rescue her dying planet. While investigating this instability, Captain Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), Captain Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and an unsuspecting Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) have their powers entangled and end up physically swapping places whenever they use said powers.

As a sequel to the 2019 film, The Marvels also serves as a sort of sequel and culmination, a mini-Avengers if you will, of the events from WandaVision and Ms Marvel. And while watching both those series on Disney+ beforehand would certainly enhance the experience for this film, there is a bit of effort made to help catch the audience up. Actually, that’s the dirty little secret of the Marvel Studios films: you’re only made to feel as if you’re “required” to see everything before, some of it by marketing but mainly by social media and news reporting (all those articles and even friends or influencers talking about what order to watch the previous films, etc).

Marking the midway point of Phase 5 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Marvels is a particularly fun and breezy adventure. Sure there are big stakes, planets and lives at risk, and plenty of impressive action sequences, the highlight are the character interactions that range from delightful and endearing to definitely dealing with some emotional baggage. While some may criticise that said emotional baggage isn’t particularly deep, I appreciate that we didn’t have to drown in such as I was, personally, in the mood for the light-hearted tone set here.

Of course with its massive budget, it goes without saying that this is a great looking film; from the space scenes, to the S.A.B.E.R. space station, to alien worlds and even depiction of powers, it all looks fantastic. A few set pieces and visual effects shots may have slipped under the bar of quality or don’t quite work due to certain restrictions, but for the most part, the designs and effects worked so well in tandem.

The action scenes in particular are very exciting and look spectacular especially with three superpowered leads who have light-based powers. Their choreography is also rather cool and thrilling to watch and you sort of resist wanting to cheer when they inevitably get it right and get in sync with one another. That synchronisation feels especially convincing because of how well the characters interact.

For the previous Captain Marvel film, Brie Larson was unfairly criticised for her sometimes stoic performance. However, I had read from a few ex-pilots and US air force veterans that Larson’s characterisation of Davers was spot-on with how their flight instructors and squad leaders behaved on the job. In The Marvels we’re presented with a slightly more laid back Carol, someone more comfortable with her powers but maybe not so comfortable with dealing with people from her past or even fans. Teyonnah Parris’ performance as Monica Rambeau works well as the more grounded and scientific counter to Larson’s larger than life superhero. Someone who resists having a superhero name, and maybe sees her abilities as a utility rather than a gift.

To go along with the light and breezy tone of the film is the lighter version of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) who, in previous outings, often flips back and forth between enigmatic spy and guy who “keeps it real” when needed but this is certainly more reflective of his jovial tone in Captain Marvel than Secret Invasion. And it plays well in conjunction with the Khan family (Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapoor, and Saagar Shaikh) who all sort of tip-toe that line into “how much is too much comic relief” but they serve an important role in reminding the audience that there are more than just the heroes and the soldiers involved and they get some stuff to do too.

The stand out of course is Kamala Khan herself with Iman Vellani bringing that wide-eyed enthusiasm and fan-girly energy over from the Ms Marvel series without it ever becoming obnoxious. It works well to lift the tone of the film and offer another perspective in this universe of super-powered folks. While she has her own small character arc in this movie, Kamala also plays as a bit of catalyst for a couple of the other characters too. The interactions between Danvers, Rambeau, and Khan are rather sweet and endearing and although things start out a bit rough, the inevitable resolution between the trio does make you remember, “Oh, that’s how easily women solve their problems.”

Having said that, I think Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) was slightly underserved by either the script or the final edit. Ashton is giving it her all and making the right choices playing the dramatic and desperate villain but I feel as though her motivation falls flat as there’s not enough for us to make us understand her, apart from maybe a fleeting flashback or two. As I said, this could be a script issue, it could be something left on the cutting room floor, but there’s only just enough here for her to be a formidable foe if nothing else.

One of the problems preventing The Marvels from being truly stellar is that it has many of the hallmarks of being filmed during the pandemic. Certain scenes feel far too small in scale for what they represent and therefore look more like an expensive television show rather than a big screen blockbuster. Certain story threads are left hanging and unexplained and some moments just happen. These are the sorts of things that are either the result of over-editing in order the fit a specific running time (at 105 minutes, this is apparently the shortest film in the MCU) or would have been solved in reshoots (and with the recently resolved union strikes in Hollywood that would have been impossible to do). It can sometimes feel jarring but often you don’t have time to mull over it before the next thing happens.

I want to correct myself with something I said on social media after watching this movie: I stated that this was the “least grounded” of the bunch and that’s really not accurate. I will admit that I sometimes forget just how far the MCU has shifted from the relatively more “grounded” origins of the first Iron Man film to the more out there stories told in Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok and the like. In my mind I was perhaps making comparisons to the previous Captain Marvel movie, which was cosmic and sci-fi but also had “down-to earth” elements, figuratively and literally. Even with the presence of the Khans, The Marvels leans more into the comic book tone where just about anything can happen to the point of absurdity (in a fun and good way). Also the much more dour Secret Invasion (which I didn’t mind at first until I realised most of the “meat” of the story was in the finale episode) was meant to tie into The Marvels and yet both their presentations are like oil and water further clouding my perception.

In any case, I really did prefer the lighter tone as a way to spend my time at the cinema. I don’t know if I was in the mood for super serious even if it was under two hours.

In a post-Endgame pop-culture landscape, it was always going to be difficult to blow away, let alone simply impress, audiences. As I’ve said previously, Marvel Studios has been putting out great movies (as well as some underwhelming work) but none of it is as bad as the naysayers have claimed. If anything the pandemic is mostly to blame for any dip in quality rather than “franchise fatigue”, a phrase that has been thrown about ever since the first Avengers movie in 2012. If you have outgrown these films then that’s perfectly okay, that’s expected, that normal. But for those who want to stick around there needs to be a managing of expectations.

I went into this film hoping for a fun and engaging time and that’s what I got. The Marvels provides plenty of action and thrills as well as lots of sweet and endearing moments and laughs. It’s an exciting adventure, a great sequel, and a curious set up for the future of the MCU. I’m definitely getting the 4K UHD.

By the way, there’s ONE mid-credits scene and one unimportant but amusing audio Easter egg of sorts after the credits (if anything, the ending felt like a mid-credits scene and the mid-credits scene felt like a post-credits scene).

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