Marvel has reached a crisis point – caught in a thunderstorm of its own making, its profits dwindling in the face of exploitative labour practices and overstuffed production lines. So, isn’t it ironic that the project that the studio has publicly shown the least amount of faith in is the one to provide them with a blueprint for their own survival? And isn’t it just a little questionable that the first Black woman to direct a Marvel film has been so pointlessly thrown under the bus?
Despite delays, and a reportedly significant amount of reshoots, Nia DaCosta’s The Marvels is, well, marvellous. It’s sweet and funny, yet in no way brainless – a comic book film that chooses to be cynical about heroism, yet places uncynical heroes at its centre. It’s certainly beneficial to have some familiarity with its trio of leads going in: Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel (whose solo film debuted in 2019), Iman Vellani’s Ms Marvel (who had her own Disney+ series last year), and Teyonah Parris’s Monica Rambeau (who acquired her powers in the 2021 series WandaVision).
But DaCosta’s script, written with Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik, does an admirable job of getting audiences up to speed: Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, is an intergalactic icon, saving planets ever since she liberated herself from the fascistic Kree empire. Ms Marvel, aka Kamala Khan, is a New Jersey native, has a magical bangle and happens to be a Captain Marvel super-fan (she’s introduced here through an adorable bit of hand-drawn, animated fan fiction). Monica Rambeau, who shuns nicknames, is an astronaut and the daughter of Carol’s best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch).
Enter villain-of-the-day Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton, a fabulous combination of cheekbones and evil power struts), who used the Kree power vacuum to rise up on a strictly anti-Carol Danvers agenda. She acquires her own magical bangle, which mysteriously causes all three women to body-swap every time they use their powers.
The Marvels is a multi-planet yarn, one that DaCosta’s littered with fun, surprising eccentricities (the world of Broadway musicals intrudes on this story not once, but twice). Yet, more crucially, it’s a film that platforms its trio of heroes and invests meaningfully in their relationships.
Here, Carol is a human being struggling with the fact that she’s become a symbol of heroism, and finds herself crumbling under the gaze of the women who idolise her. When Kamala, her eyes as bright as diamonds, reassures a young refugee that, “Captain Marvel will fix this, I promise,” the phrase hangs uncomfortably in the air. While the modern fairytale film may show us what happens after the princess marries the prince, the modern superhero film is now showing us the not-so-perfect aftermath of when the hero saves the day – and Dar-Benn’s grievances aren’t without merit.
This is a story aimed squarely, in a way, at millennial and Gen-Z audiences, generations routinely chastised for being too messy and too easily led by emotion in their eagerness to fix the world. “Nobody cares more than Captain Marvel,” Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury laments at one point. “And nobody gets more grief for it”. It’s also, perhaps, a sly bit of commentary on the way 2019’s Captain Marvel, the first solo film for a female character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was expected to serve as some sort of litmus test for the future of every super-powered woman in the franchise. She wasn’t allowed to be anything less than perfect.
The Marvels is, technically, a sequel to Captain Marvel. Equally, it’s a team-up film that gives as much care and space to its two (sort of) newcomers. While its action scenes are fluid and well crafted, especially when it comes to capturing the team’s body-swapping antics, the real charm of the film comes to the fore when these women get to – gasp! – hang out with each other. That’s a frustrating rarity in this genre. Larson’s shedding of her character’s supposed stoicism similarly allows her natural warmth to better bounce off of Vellani’s boundless enthusiasm and Parris’s razor-sharp comic timing.
Kamala’s family, led by matriarch Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff), adds a welcome note of joyous chaos, as do the film’s army of tiny, ravenous space kittens (otherwise known as flerkens). While Marvel’s been busy flooding us with endless, exhaustive content, DaCosta’s movie offers us the one thing that made this franchise work in the first place – heroes we actually want to root for.
Dir: Nia DaCosta. Starring: Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani, Zawe Ashton, Park Seo-joon, Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, Saagar Shaikh, Samuel L Jackson. 15, 105 minutes.
‘The Marvels’ is in cinemas from 10 November