Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits a fun MCU entry that sadly became the franchise’s least successful with The Marvels commentary.
It wasn’t too long ago that the only sure things in life were death, taxes, and the success of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies at the box-office. Oh, how times have changed. You’re still going to die and pay taxes for living, but Marvel movies? Well they’re no longer guaranteed to hit. The thirty-third entry in the MCU hit theaters last year, Nia DaCosta‘s The Marvels, is both the shortest entry (yay!) and the lowest grossing (boo!). There are lots of reasons for the film’s poor performance, from legit Marvel fatigue to the loud whining of online manbabies, but I still stand by my positive review.
The film is now streaming on Disney+, and — surprise, surprise — some viewers are loving it and wishing they had seen it in theaters. What’s done is done, though, so we’re moving forward with a listen to the film’s commentary track from next week’s home video release. It was recorded during the film’s premiere week, a pre-release recording being the unfortunate norm these days, but it’s a good, enthusiastic listen. Now keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for The Marvels.
The Marvels (2023)
Commentator: Nia DaCosta (director), Tara DeMarco (vfx supervisor)
1. DaCosta geeks out a little seeing her characters in the film’s opening Marvel logo. There’s a lot of cynicism surrounding these films, so it’s a nice moment to see.
2. They went through a few iterations of the dying sun that opens the film. An early version looked like an infrared image of a regular sun, but they weren’t happy until black pockets shared the surface with crumbling brightness.
3. The set for Kamala Khan’s (Iman Villani) house was rebuilt from the Ms. Marvel series in the UK, and they took the opportunity to make her obsession with Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) even more over the top.
4. DaCosta loves the little animated sequence that introduces Kamala and credits storyboard artist Noelle Raffaele who “went ham, and she conceived of this whole scenario.” Framestore London and the film’s creative director helped bring it over the line.
5. She tried getting a bit of the X-Men theme into Kamala’s early scene, but it wasn’t to be.
6. They had debated how much of Carol’s past, primarily scenes from Captain Marvel (2019), actually needed to be included here. It was decided that since this movie is focused in many ways on where she’s been since the earlier film, the scenes were necessary. There was an equal debate as to how dark Carol needed to feel. “I wanted her to be lovely, and grounded, and human, but I also wanted her to be a bit disillusioned and kind of the worst in ways.”
7. Larson came to set wearing Crocs for rehearsal, and DaCosta decided they were perfect for Carol’s lazy days on the ship.
8. The shot where Carol first arrives at MB-418 was originally much longer as DaCosta was “getting into my cinematic bag.” It was quickly shortened, though, as she was told “girl, get a grip.” She’s probably paraphrasing there, although I love the idea of Kevin Feige saying that.
9. DaCosta fought the idea of using a split screen in the film from the very start, but “eventually I lost.”
10. Her pitch for the job was that the Khan family “was the heart of the film, the foil that helps us navigate the themes of the movie.”
11. She’s “a big comic person,” so she was constantly looking to the original comics for details on the Kree, the Accusers, and more.
12. Viewers who pay close attention will notice that incoming/outgoing switches — the moments when the three leads (Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and Monica Rambeau) use their power and swap places — are identified by color.
13. They wanted to build the entire space elevator, “but budget, you can’t pay for everything,” so they instead just built a section of the circular set and just used camera tricks to keep reusing that same part.
14. The sit-down in the Khan house — right after the oner of everyone cleaning up, one of the few oners that DaCosta shot that didn’t cut cut down in post — sees six characters sharing a scene. Numerous elements, though, are taken from different takes, sometimes to the point of inserting an invisible split screen. The film’s editors (Catrin Hedström and Evan Schiff, and let’s be honest, Feige too) picked and chose the best takes per character, not per scene, and the single shot at 23:35 is actually stitched together from six different takes. Actors must love this.
15. “This is another example of when I was trying to go really hardcore and have Carol be the worst,” says DaCosta, during the sequence where the Skrull planet is destroyed. “It was really important to me that we see failure, Carol’s complete failure, and that Kamala sees it as well so that she learns how hard this really is.”
16. They use the Volume to display what’s outside the ship windows, and it was their first time with the tech.” The Volume is an LED bank of panels that sit outside the windows of a given set, so we can create visual effects content ahead of time and the actors can respond to planets or jump points or Earth.” It’s a huge step up from green screens which add the image in post-production.
17. “She’s a villain, she’s doing terrible things, she’s stealing resources,” is a succinct way to describe Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), and DaCosta makes a direct comparison there to Europeans who did the same everywhere they went. That anti-imperialist/anti-colonization message was important to her.
18. DaCosta loves the Double Dutch sequence with the three women experimenting with the switching, but the UK crew had no clue what the hell was going on. “They kept calling it skipping rope,” and DaCosta and DeMarco had to go out to the parking lot to show the locals what it is and how to do it.
19. “When I read that they were like “we’re gonna do a musical planet!’ I was like, are you sure,” says DaCosta, but she quickly got really into the idea. She shot a single-take musical number that she loved, but once again, “I had to get a grip.” You can see why the film ended up being the MCU’s shortest at just under an hour and forty-five minutes, and while I love the lack of bloat, it’s a shame that DaCosta’s vision was apparently kneecapped more than once. To be clear, she never phrases it that way herself.
20. DaCosta was “obsessed” with Park Seo-joon after seeing him in a K-drama, and she was thrilled to get him into the film as Prince Yan. Everyone else agreed, adding “wow, what a beautiful man, inside and out.”
21. One of the big controversies of the day is studios “requesting” digital scans of performers to be used, essentially, however the studio sees fit. DaCosta and DeMarco don’t speak to that directly, obviously, but they do talk about the pros of having facial scans of the cast. They took scans of actors making all manner of facial expressions and performances, and then used it to add their face to a stunt performer playing that character. “It wasn’t like we just replaced them, we replaced them with them.” Usually they hide stunt performer faces with hair or clothing, but this way the actual actor stays at the forefront.
22. DaCosta praises the film’s 2nd Unit Director, Peng Zhang, for being “brilliant, amazing, a legend.” She shares how 2nd Unit work is assigned, basically the action elements that are highly time-consuming, but adds that any worry that it wouldn’t match her own intentions were non-existent with Zhang’s professional talents.
23. For all the film’s visual effects, DaCosta adds that some of the best work is basically invisible to viewers. From erasing wig lines to stopping Prince Yan’s wings from flopping while he walks, there’s far more to the art form than CG creations.
24. “I really want to talk about this needle drop, because it’s probably my proudest achievement in directing,” says DaCosta when Barbra Streisand’s “Memory” plays over the big cat herding scene.
25. When it came to the various visuals dealing with space-related phenomena, they both agreed that they wanted to start “with hard science and then following that down a story path to the point that sometimes you have to walk away from hard science and lean into the comics.” They also had to defer to the MCU as a whole sometimes and choose the comic/film version of something rather than the more realistic one they had wanted.
26. Feige wanted to “blow S.A.B.E.R. to smithereens,” but they kept his aggression at bay. DeCosta seriously wants to make/see a Disney+ series set on the space station.
27. DeMarco points out that Carol is wearing one of the bangles in the scene where the Khans move into Rambeau’s old place, and she asks DaCosta if she knows where that leads. “I have no idea,” she replies, and they both laugh. Sneaky!
28. “I’m really into the multiverse,” says DaCosta, and that means the mid-credits scene was a huge deal for her. ” i mean guys. Guys. I feel so privileged.”
Best in Context-Free ‘The Marvels’ Commentary
“What do heroes look like when they’re not saving the world? They’re wearing Crocs.”
“This was also a much longer, really, really fun fight scene, like Captain Marvel being a badass moment.”
“I’m a scientist, boo.”
“It really shows when you have a real set, it just makes me feel better.”
“Everything’s a collaboration.”
“This hat was very controversial.”
“This was another long shot [laughs nervously] that was cut down a little bit.”
“Brie was not here on the day, we added her later, and it looks absolutely amazing.”
“Please do Young Avengers.”
Final Thoughts on ‘The Marvels’ Commentary
The Marvels is a fun flick. It’s a lot of the usual nonsense, but the film avoids the expected MCU bloat and keeps things moving with a light touch more often than not. The commentary track reveals two talented filmmakers celebrating both the art form and the skill sets required to bring a feature film to life, and they’re equally enthusiastic about the entire cast and crew and what they’ve helped create. Fans will want to give it a listen to catch additional stories from the set, explanations of various choices, and more.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.