The Marvels, review: the superhero franchise sinks to a new low

Brie Larson in a scene from The Marvels
Brie Larson in a scene from The Marvels - Laura Radford/Disney-Marvel Studios via AP

The villain in The Marvels’ diabolical plan involves robbing entire planets of their atmosphere: perhaps if she’d wanted to speed things up, she could have screened the film there instead. Quake ye, mortals, for here is the 33rd feature in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise – or, including the streaming works, 44th piece of “content”, which at this point is exactly the status to which these things have sunk. Despite being the shortest of the films yet, it is also the most interminable, tying together five largely unrelated properties into the sort of knot of nightmares you find on a kite-string that has just spent the winter in the attic.

Should you be inclined to do the homework, your reading list begins with Captain Marvel, the perky 2019 science-fiction romp which brought Brie Larson’s turbo-charged cosmonaut – human name Carol Danvers – roaring into the MCU, only to become instantly bogged down in a (partly self-inflicted) culture-war squall over identity politics.

But you’re also expected to be across three of the recent Disney+ series – most crucially 2022’s Ms Marvel, which introduced Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), a teenage Avengers super-fan (and Pakistani Muslim to boot) who acquires special powers of her own via a bangle from space. Given the character’s largely squinting- and simpering-driven performance here, though, it’s hard to imagine more casual viewers falling over themselves to catch up with her solo exploits afterwards.

The Marvels’ unusually slight running time makes sense within minutes: the entire opening half-hour feels cut to shreds. What emerges from the jumble of half-scenes is that Larson’s Carol, Vellani’s Kamala and Teyonah Parris’s Monica Rambeau (from the 2021 series WandaVision) have for some reason started switching places every time they use their powers, which bring the trio crashing into each other’s adventures.

Once the trio are united, this place-swapping gimmick becomes largely pointless – it’s never more cleverly deployed than to tag-team baddies – and the film descends into the usual CG-driven dustup with an alien tribal leader called Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton, wasted), who wants revenge on Carol for destroying her planet’s ecosystem at some point in the past 20 years. Much civilisation-threatening carnage ensues, which also turns out to be utterly pointless, since Carol eventually just single-handedly fixes said eco-system herself: a job she completes in roughly 30 seconds without breaking a sweat.

Comedy is attempted in a sequence which uses the song Memory from Cats almost as badly as Cats did, and on a visit to a planet whose population’s native tongue is song and dance. This potentially funny idea is scuppered by wincingly slapdash execution, including some awkward visual effects work which makes the three stars look cut-and-pasted into the musical number as an afterthought. Who knows, maybe they were: the franchise’s now-trademark VFX sloppiness is back with a vengeance here, with flying scenes that resemble souvenir photographs from a sky-diving simulator, and digital backdrops rendered in 50 shades of sludge.

“Higher, further, faster” ran the original Captain Marvel’s rousing tagline. “Have we reached the bottom yet?” would be an apt one for this.

In cinemas now