The Marvel Cinematic Universe, once considered an unstoppable juggernaut thanks to an unprecedented series of commercial and critical success stories, has struggled to find its footing in a post-Avengers: Endgame world. A massive expansion into streaming television meant to bridge the gaps between films has resulted in numerous entries that have felt like inferior products, while also diluting the storytelling; my pal Josh Spiegel calls the MCU shows “pop culture homework,” and he’s not wrong. In fact, if you haven’t seen WandaVision or Ms. Marvel, then expect to be introduced to several new characters both major and minor in The Marvels, hitting cinema screens this week.
“It’s lonely out in space,” Elton John once sang, and Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is living proof, floating somewhere out in the cosmos with no company save for Goose, the sweet and cuddly housecat from Captain Marvel that’s actually a carnivorous alien. Little does she know that back on Earth, a 16-year-old crimefighter from Jersey City named Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) is dying to become “besties” with her superhero idol, imagining their potential escapades with elaborate sketches in her notebook. Elsewhere, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), now under the employ of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), still grapples with losing her mother and tries to untangle her complicated feelings toward Carol, whom she hasn’t seen since she was a child.
When a Kree leader (Zawe Ashton) unearths a powerful artifact and sets in motion a plan to restore her people to glory, while simultaneously exacting revenge on Carol — whom the Kree have dubbed “The Annihilator” — the powers of all three heroes become entangled, causing them to swap places with one another whenever their powers are used at the same time. At first, this notion is played for laughs: Carol attempts to throw a punch and winds up in Kamala’s closet, while Kamala appears on a spaceship just in time to witness Goose devour a squadron of attacking guards. But as Carol, Monica and Kamala get on the same page (and into the same physical space) and learn to work together as a unit, director Nia DaCosta leverages the swapping to create some of the most enjoyable and inventive fight sequences the MCU has served up recently.
The villain is bland and the script is something of a mess, which is to say it’s akin to a lot of recent Marvel fare, but the film is grounded by the core relationships at its center and the chemistry between its three leads. Overexcited and overzealous, Kamala brings an endearing light-heartedness to nearly every scene; Vellani remains one of the studio’s all-time best casting decisions, and it’s a joy whenever she’s onscreen. Carol seems unsure how to conduct herself with allies after being alone for so long, and it takes awhile for her to relinquish her “I can do it myself” approach to every conflict, but when she finally lets down her guard and opens up about her regrets over past decisions, it’s a genuinely emotional moment. Through Carol, The Marvels points out that not every decision made by a spandex-clad superhero is the right decision, and that’s something I’d prefer to see more of; even beings with unfathomable cosmic powers could use a little self-reflection now and again.
Some of the film’s sillier elements aren’t likely to sit well with a certain subsection of the MCU fanbase, particularly a second-act journey to a remote planet whose culture is, as Carol describes, “very specific.” But goofy moments like this, along with a hilarious approach to evacuating a space station during the finale, are precisely the kind of thing comic book movies should attempt more often; ditto for the adventure being mostly self-contained and not having far-reaching effects for the rest of the MCU (with the exception of the mid-credits tease, which elicited audible gasps in my theater). The characters and performances are strong enough to offset the film’s shortcomings, most of which can be hung on the studio’s approach to production rather than any of the talents involved here. Judging by the countless headlines about lackluster ticket presales, the film’s box office prospects may not be the “higher, further, faster” that studio execs are hoping for, but numbers be damned: The Marvels is a ton of fun, and unlike several of the recent MCU offerings, I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing it again.