This applies to how the movie attempts to awkwardly weld its characters and story threads together, too, by way of a clever but underwritten setup. Due to comic book mumbo jumbo that the movie is no more seriously concerned with explaining than this review, a space MacGuffin (magic bracelets subbing in for the gauntlets of yesteryear) has caused a triumvirate of Marvel heroines to be caught in a Freaky Friday triad. When Captain Marvel uses her powers on a distant moon, she winds up in suburban New Jersey! When Ms. Marvel does the same thing, she’s now in space! And when astronaut Capt. Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), the third and least well-served by the script of the film’s three leads, likewise goes marvelous, she too is displaced to wherever Kamala or Larson’s Carol Danvers just were. It’s superhero Three Card Monte.

This is an amusing idea, and by the time that a wackadoo montage plays with the gimmick to the beat of the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” halfway through the picture (if it worked for the Guardians of the Galaxy…), it gets pretty fun. But by and large, the effect is clunky and key details feel like they were left on the cutting room floor, as it is never clear why it is that when any of the women use their powers, they sometimes get teleported to where the other ones are, and in other sequences they do not. Even the first action scene, which introduces the concept, feels cut to the bone in post-production with the mechanics of how, or even who, they’re fighting left incomprehensible.

But despite being a movie leadened by an overabundance of exposition, this isn’t really a plot movie. The main villain, Zawe Ashton in the thankless role of Dar-Benn, is obligatory as a Kree alien insurgent who wants revenge on Captain Marvel; the emotional speeches about Carol and Monica’s estrangement following 2019’s Captain Marvel are perfunctory; and even the typical third act beat where our motley heroes briefly contemplate breaking up is rushed through and abandoned mid-scene. Instead of committing to any one bit, The Marvels is a collection of them, stitched together possibly by a threadbare script credited to Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, and Elissa Karasik or (more likely) a post-production Frankenstein situation where a combination of ideas are thrown at the wall by reshoots and reedits.

Still, it is worth noting that some of those ideas work and that the movie is far from the nadir of the MCU. The best sequence in the movie, in fact, is one of the more inventive things the studio has done in the 2020s, with the trio of superheroes winding up on a planet where all the aliens communicate via song. With a spark of creative inspiration, director DaCosta pulls liberally from the aesthetic of Bollywood musicals as well as old school Broadway toe-tappers when Carol is forced to reveal she can carry a tune while practicing sung-through diplomacy with a prince (Park Seo-joon). That also could’ve been a movie!

Similarly, the chemistry between the three leads crackles when the script stops forcing exposition dumps on the actresses and finally just lets Larson, Parris, and Vellani bounce off each other. There is an air of resignation in early sequences where Larson is acting off blue screens and possible regrets of what she signed on for, but she comes alive when the movie just lets her play off Vellani nerding out as her biggest fan. More than anything, The Marvels probably should’ve been that movie—the one where the kid sidekick gets to finally ride along with her hero. Unfortunately, we only get that moment, where Larson and Vellani interact as humans, for a scene. It’s also the best non-musical one in the film.

There will undoubtedly be recriminations about why this film didn’t work overall, creatively or apparently commercially, but to be clear, it is not the worst Marvel movie. It’s not even the worst Marvel movie this year, with The Marvels being lightyears better than the soulless pits of CGI hell that was Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. In fact, you can feel DaCosta’s hand most tangibly in how many sequences during the film’s first two acts aren’t shot in front of blue screens where the details can be figured out later. Much of the film is shot on actual sets, the early action sequences rely on at least a modicum of physicality that isn’t animated, and when DaCosta gets her musical sequence, the art direction and style of the movie finally hums.

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