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film review
  • The Marvels
  • Directed by Nia DaCosta
  • Written by Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik
  • Starring Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris and Iman Vellani
  • Classification PG; 105 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Nov. 10

In their exhaustive and occasionally exhausting new book, MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios, journalists Joanna Robinson, Dave Gonzales and Gavin Edwards paint an impressive and ultimately terrifying portrait of a blockbuster behemoth that has altered the course of our world more than even a super-powered cosmic titan might be capable of.

Over the course of 500-plus pages – most of them rigorously reported, though some lacking the necessary skepticism when it comes to celebrating Marvel’s fortunes of war – the three authors chronicle how one studio, specifically one producer named Kevin Feige, has gone from scrappy hero to power-mad villain, turning fun and sharp cinematic adventures into the kind of nonsensical hubristic goop that has seeped into the dream-factory floors of all its Hollywood competitors.

But it would take a moviegoer more blind than Matt “Daredevil” Murdock to not recognize that Feige and his acolytes are increasingly losing their Infinity Gauntlet-strong grip on the Marvel Cinematic Universe they’ve created. The vaunted “Phase Four” of the MCU (they’ve got both phases and acronyms!) was a mixed bag of entertaining fan-service (Spider-Man: No Way Home), faux-ambitious stabs at prestige cinema (Eternals) and overstuffed nonsense that only exists to serve as connective tissue to the next disposable adventure (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder).

And then there’s the current “Phase Five” era, which has so far given us one abomination (if not the Hulk bad guy called Abomination) after another, up to and including this week’s new release, The Marvels. What was once whiz-bang imaginative and sky-high thrilling – disarming despite its armaments – has imploded spectacularly. And Marvel – and The Marvels – has no one to blame but themselves.

Technically a direct sequel to 2019′s Captain Marvel – a dastardly military recruitment ad dressed up in the guise of feminism that still managed to feature charming performances from Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn – The Marvels arrives four years, two MCU “phases,” and way too many forgettable Disney+ series later.

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Brie Larson as Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers and Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan in The Marvels. The talented Vellani delivers the kind of contagious enthusiasm that buoys every single second of her screen time.Laura Radford/Disney

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Directed by Nia DaCosta – like many MCU recruits, a promising young American indie director seemingly lured into Feige’s industrial machine by the promise of a big payday – the film pairs Larson’s unstoppable Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (a human air-force pilot imbued with cosmic strength) with the similarly super-powered space-scientist Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and the teenage hero Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), who goes by Ms. Marvel and idolizes Carol. Compelled to join forces with Avengers honcho Nick Fury (Jackson, back again) to stop a powerful alien warrior (Zawe Ashton) who holds a personal grudge against Carol, the three “Marvels” kick as many anonymous butts in choppy action scenes as they gaze at glowy CGI thingamajigs (this time called “quantum bands”).

Blessed be any casual MCU-goer who can piece together exactly what is happening on a scene-to-scene basis, as a full understanding seems to require Talmudic study of not only the many Avengers films that have since followed Larson’s first superhero outing, but also at least three Disney+ television series (WandaVision, Ms. Marvel, and Secret Invasion are key texts) plus one other movie that [redacted on pain of being excommunicated by Disney]. The Marvels is just that kind of production, a white board of sticky notes that magically coalesces, slowly and grudgingly, into a feature-length motion picture that merely acts as a long advertisement for the next.

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Flerkittens in Marvel Studios' The Marvels.Marvel Studios/Disney

Still, not every element in The Marvels reeks of such rank corporate zealotry. While Larson looks to be eyeing the exit every other scene and the rather flat Parris has even less enthusiasm for her role, Vellani delivers the kind of contagious, just-happy-to-be-here enthusiasm that buoys every single second of her screen time. Not every one of her comic beats lands – and there are just a few too many scenes featuring her parents and brother that elbow, instead of tickle, the ribs – but the talented young actor gives it her absolute all.

There are also two quick gags that hint at either DaCosta’s comic ambitions or the sly wit of one of the film’s three credited screenwriters. The first involves an alien planet where everyone communicates through song (try to speak without rhythm or pitch, and no one will understand you), while the second imagines an abandon-ship moment in which a litter of kittens are used as life-preservers in a moment that could only be conjured by H.P. Lovecraft. Yet both instances are only momentarily inspired – DaCosta doesn’t seem to have the verve to embrace or amplify the musical conceit (it’s executed with an energy halfway between Bollywood and Off-Off-Way-Off-Broadway), while the cat bit doesn’t make that much sense when you spend half a second to think about its mechanics.

Thinking about things, though, is the wrong way to approach The Marvels. If it absolutely must be endured, then just lie back and think of Kevin.

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