The MCU Charges into the Light.
DIRECTED BY NIA DACOSTA/2023
A new dire threat has emerged, one that not even Marvel Studios’ most cosmically charged beings are likely to defeat. Worse than Thanos, worse than the mounting multiverse madness, and even worse the ballooning legal challenges of Jonathan Majors lurks the MCU’s gravest threat yet: Superhero fatigue.
Even from a vantage point of deep outer space, we all saw it coming. (Not unlike how you quite likely saw the above punchline coming). Even when there was still time to apply the brakes, the Disney-owned super-entity chose to power on, all but hanging up a “Welcome, Existential Demise!” banner and striking up a marching band to greet it. Once a dyed-in-the-wool (or, more appropriately, dyed-in-the-spandex) Marvel zombie, here I sit at age fifty having not picked up any new Marvel comics in nine years, and harboring zero desire to tune in to the new season of Loki or to catch up with Secret Invasion. Or finish up She-Hulk. Or, yes, Ms. Marvel. I realized the other night that for the first time, I didn’t care whether I saw the new MCU theatrical release. My geeked-out patronage should be a no-brainer. But if I’m feeling done, we all know what that means for the essential moviegoing “normie” contingency. Yeah… this is a bad spot for Marvel Studios. One far bigger, I should add, than the new film in question, director Nia DaCosta’s The Marvels.
Seriously, don’t blame this movie for any specific blips in the popularity of on-screen comic book-based adventures. Both a sequel to 2019’s hit Captain Marvel (starring Brie Larson, whose test pilot-turned-galactic champion has been turning up here and there in the MCU ever since), a continuation of the Disney+ tween-skewing series Ms. Marvel (starring the engaging Iman Vellani), and a proving ground for Monica Rambeau’s (Teyonah Parris) long-brewing powered persona (originally also called “Captain Marvel” in the comics before switching to the code name “Photon”), DaCosta’s film is attempting to be nothing if not efficient.
When a Kree villain called Dar-Benn (a comics character gender-switched to female for this movie, played by Zawe Ashton) uncovers a glowy bangle just like the one Ms. Marvel uses on Earth, Dar-Benn decides she needs the other one for the greater glory her militaristic world. Somehow this very quickly results in the three titular heroines being made to arbitrarily swap places throughout the cosmos. As fun as this extended bit of shared action/chaos is, it’s hard to overlook the unintended actualization of the common complaint of MCU uniformity: Marvel’s The Marvels literally starts with a flashy prolonged sequence in which the lead characters become literally interchangeable.
Those looking to blow holes in The Marvels will easily find its weak areas and do so. (A few of the many VFX shots are wobbly. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is reduced to a delivery man for dorky one-liners. There’s entirely too much cat-sploitation. DaCosta’s intention to let the movie be “wacky” may go too far at times. Do we really need the stopover at a musical planet led by a handsome Prince played by Park Seo-joon? At times the screenplay seems to have been written on interchangeable note cards). In actuality, however, on the scale of “crap” to “classic” this film manages to score a firm “pretty good, I guess”. It entertainingly surpasses most of the recent MCU releases, including Black Widow, Quantumania, and Captain Marvel itself. (None of which I hated). Perhaps lowered expectations helped me, but if so, they only helped so much.
Larson appears far more at home in her role of Carol Danvers than she did in her 2019 film, looser yet appropriately burdened. Teyonah Parris, whose character was enamored with Danvers in her childhood, but disappointingly hasn’t seen her since, elevates the material with every scene she’s in. Young Iman Vellani’s Danvers-idolizing Kamala Khan is consistently fun, even as her prickly family (as seen on her TV series) gets caught up in the action and find themselves unhoused with on S.A.B.E.R., the satellite headquarters of S.W.O.R.D., which is basically the outer space S.H.E.I.L.D. S.W.O.R.D. is a good idea for these movies, it’s just unfortunate that its logo (a sword plunging through an “S”) looks so much like a dollar sign. Everyone on that satellite (including S.W.O.R.D. agent Rambeau) running around with “$” on their belt buckles is just another unintentional reminder of what the glut of MCU content has become for parent corporations Disney and whomever else is only in it for the money at this point.
In the meantime, the end tag of The Marvels promises that intriguing developments are ahead. (As opposed to merely cutting to some new character that people have to go home and look up). Perhaps audiences and all parties involved on the inside will see the light before it’s too late?