As someone enjoying the latest disjointed phase of the MCU, The Marvels is possibly the most fun I’ve had since Black Widow. Yes, I had a blast with that movie; I saw it twice in theaters; lick me.
Nia DaCosta has taken the cue from James Gunn and finally made a Marvel movie that doesn’t feel ashamed of being a Marvel movie. Earnestly goofy, DaCosta and her co-writers Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik deliver polished big-budget fun, which the MCU is famous for but oddly seldom delivers.
As a bonus, DaCosta is also one of the few directors to turn in an MCU movie that doesn’t look as if the camera lens was smeared in mud throughout the entire production. Sean Bobbitt’s camera, bright, colorful, and visually inventive for an MCU blockbuster, gives what could have been a CGI eye-sore a buoyant sense of personality and joy. DaCosta and Bobbit try to make the action scenes move with visual fluidity, mainly due to Catrin Hedstrom and Evan Schiff’s editing.
DaCosta isn’t afraid to let Carol (Brie Larson), Monica (Teyonah Paris), or Kamala (Iman Vellani) be corny. It’s a good thing since Kamala is a massive Captain Marvel fan and can’t help but fangirl when she meets her idol. She even draws fan comics of her adventures, a sequence in which DaCosta animates, showing imagination and self-awareness usually lacking in MCU movies.
Sadly, the film’s villain, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), suffers from the all too pervasive curse of a boring villain. Known as Supremor, her mission seems to be to destroy everything Carol loves because Carol destroyed the Artifical Tyrant of her homeworld, while also destroying other planets and plundering their resources for the Kree. The very model of “cool story, bro; still genocide.”
But, thankfully, DaCosta, McDonnell, and Karasik have somehow managed to make the gayest MCU movie to date. For those who don’t know, Carol and Monica’s mother, Maria (Lashana Lynch), were what historians would call “very close friends”. Monica may call Carol “Aunt Carol,” but there are moments that strongly hint that she views her as a mother figure. Her line “I needed my…Aunt,” is one such line. This a line that anyone except the Disney shareholders hears and thinks should end with “mother.”
More than that is the amount of girl-crushing that DaCosta allows. The radiant Tessa Thompson shows up briefly as the very QueerTM but totally straight Valkyrie. She even kisses Carol… on the cheek. Kamala looks out the window to see Carol aflame in her hero pose and all but has heart eyes as she raspily says, “Oh Captain, my Captain.”
Who could blame her? Larson looks good even on a bad day, but DaCosta and Bobbit make her pop off the screen in a way that neither the Russos nor Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck could. Granted, Larson infuses Carol with a cock-sure confidence with a hint of awkwardness that sets her apart from her sister heroes in the MCU.
Carol doesn’t have the tortured past of Natasha, Nebula, or Gamora. However, she does use a Kree torture device on herself to try and regain her memories from before she was brainwashed. A bit of information that Larson tosses off so offhandedly that it is clear that it doesn’t register how deeply unhealthy it is for her to mentally re-live all her trauma so frequently.
Thankfully, she has Monica and Kamala Khan. Ah, Kamala, a breath of fresh air if ever there was one. Vellani’s Kamala is the Peter Parker we’ve always wanted. With her working-class Muslim family, she’s a Jersey girl and proud of it. Unlike Monica, who works for S.H.E.I.L.D. under Nick Fury, Kamala is a street-level superhero graduating to cosmic class next to her idol in a “pinch-me” kind of dream scenario.
I giggled when Dar-Benn asked where Kamala got her Quantum Band. “My grandma sent it to me…in the mail.” Vellani is a ball of sunshine in flesh form that never mugs for a laugh. She plays Kamala with a hyperactivity that never feels over the top or forced.
But then there’s Monica. Like Mother like daughter. Sorry, I mean like Aunt like an adopted daughter. Either way, Parris plays Monica as both in awe of Carol and resentful. Parris possibly has the most challenging role because she has to play both excited fangirl and estranged daughter-niece. The Marvels is self-aware enough to know that Monica’s tendency to touch the bright, glowy thing is not dissimilar to her mother-aunt’s.
But the real reason The Marvels won me over body and soul was because of the scenes on Aladna. A planet where Carol is a Princess and all the inhabitants communicate through song. For a brief period, The Marvels becomes a musical, and that, dear reader, is when I fell in love with an MCU movie in a way I haven’t felt in a very long time. Comic books are so often goofy and weird in a way that MCU movies are so often not. DaCosta and her team have chucked aside all attempts at being cool and, blessedly, have embraced the cheese.
The MCU is all the better for it.
The Marvels is a team-up story that, unlike The Avengers, isn’t about selfish people who would never get along. Instead, it’s about three women with varying ideas of personal space coming together and solving a common problem. I.e., Thanos/Ronan the Accuser/Den-Barr.
As far as the film’s politics, I’m mixed. On the one hand, DaCosta and her writers attempt to interrogate Carol’s interventionism but never all that deeply. If anything, DaCosta and her writers shy away from discourse by instead focusing on Carol, learning her powers can create as much as they can destroy. In other words, Monica and Kamala show Carol that she need not be a hammer to all the problem nails in the universe.
Still, surface level or not, DaCosta and her writers attempt to grapple somewhat with how intervention may have ripple effects, and perhaps Carol could benefit from thinking of the bigger picture. Easily the most powerful superhero in the MCU thus far, Captain Marvel is a rebuke to those who claim Superman is overpowered. The key to writing characters like these is giving them problems they can’t punch their way out of.
It’s not that hard. DaCosta and her writers recognize this and even make the climatic battle somewhat anti-climatic in how it plays out. As someone who often finds the climatic spectacle of the final action scene in superhero movies tedious, I enjoyed this one only because how can I hate a film with a song from “Cats”?
The Marvels is cinematic fluff, a joy ride with occasional bouts of emotional earnestness. I didn’t cry, but I didn’t jeer either. Finally, a comic book movie that feels like a comic book.
Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
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