Spend much time around the virtual watercooler these days, and you might be hearing lots of doom and gloom regarding the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some are claiming that the MCU, and superhero films in general, have lost favor with audiences while others predict a Marvel reboot is imminent. The one thing everyone agrees on, though, is that the current run of MCU films is something of a goddamn mess. Blame the pandemic, blame Disney+, blame Kevin Feige for flying too close to the sun, but the MCU has seen far, far better days. What are the odds that the thirty-third feature in the MCU can change that? Slim to none, which is a shame, as The Marvels is a fun time at the movies and ultimately just fine.
Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is enduring the doldrums of self-reflection from the safety and isolation of space. Truths she discovered in 2019’s Captain Marvel led her to destroying an A.I. called the Supreme Intelligence, and the Kree planet of Hala is suffering in the wake of the ensuing civil war. Consequences come calling in the form of Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), the new Kree leader and a woman with a plan to tear holes in the universe to fix her homeland. Complicating things even further is an anomaly that inextricably ties Captain Marvel to two other power-imbued young women. Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Miss Marvel herself, Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), swap immediate places with someone else in the trio any time any one of them uses their powers. Chaos ain’t got nothing on these ladies.
The first thing you walk away from The Marvels with is an appreciation of its hour and forty-five minute running time. That’s not a knock, it’s a sincere appreciation for the shortest entry in the entire MCU (and one of only eight to clock in under two hours). The film gets into its story quickly, sets its goals, and gets out before the usual bloat begins to settle on your brain. To be fair, the film has its issues that keep it from approaching the best that the MCU has to offer, but taken on its own merits this is a light, sweet, and entertaining visit to the house that Feige built.
While too many MCU films are overflowing with threads, ideas, and setups for future features, The Marvels keeps most of that to the fringe (or the end credits scene). The script — by director Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, and Elissa Karasik — instead focuses on the situation at hand. It’s a refreshing change, but more than that, it helps keep the film’s energy popping. The highlight on that front is a wildly entertaining and frenetic action set-piece kicked off by the first location swap incident.
The three women begin hopping through space between Kamala’s house in Jersey City, Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) space station, and Captain Marvel’s space adventure, all of it set to a hoppin’ Missy Elliott tune. The jumps coincide with Kree attacks meaning fights are unfolding with characters swapping mid punch, leap, fall, etc, and DaCosta and friends deliver some creative choreography bringing it all to the screen. Later action scenes don’t land with the same level of thrills and fun, but they’re kept lively enough thanks to the personality of those involved — specifically Vellani.
Vellani is a bubbly wonder playing a teen hero who’s just happy to be in the room with Captain Marvel and Monica — another bonus here is that unlike, say, the most recent Ant-Man sequel, these actors feel like they’re actually interacting together in the same place — and that enthusiasm is infectious for viewers. Her excitement becomes ours as the action and banter keep things light between them. They work well together, and that bleeds into their dealings with Dar-Benn as well as they recognize her situation and Captain Marvel’s culpability in it. She’s the kind of movie villain whose cause is wholly understandable meaning you agree with her argument even as you take issue with how she goes about dealing with it.
That does play havoc with the tone of The Marvels, though, as part of Dar-Benn’s plan leads to genocide on at least two planets. The film’s light feel — there are lots of cat shenanigans, and we even get a visit to a planet led by K-drama star Park Seo-joon where people communicate through song (because James Gunn’s “weird” Guardians of the Galaxy influence is strong) — allows a brief cry against one genocidal incident while the other happens with barely an acknowledgement. An entire world wiped out, characters we’ve just met and spent time with now gone, and minutes later our leads have completely moved on. It leaves the more serious elements in the film feeling inconsequential, but while that hurts the weight of it all it allows the fun, feminine camaraderie to shine.
As mentioned above, The Marvels doesn’t spend much time with material that’s here solely to set up a future film, but it does rely heavily on previous events — from Disney+ streaming shows. Both Kamala and Monica are characters whose superhero origins unfolded on the small screen via Miss Marvel and WandaVision, respectively, and a cameo late in the film will only make sense to viewers of a certain other Disney+ show. That last one, by the way, is the rare scene here that feels entirely like a precursor to an upcoming show that will probably be called Young Avengers or Little Avengers or something equally descriptive.
So where does all of this leave The Marvels? Unlike too many of its predecessors, this is a fast-moving and fun entry in the MCU. Yes, homework is required to get the full enjoyment, but even without television knowledge there’s enough moving and shaking here to keep you entertained… for one hour and forty-five minutes.