The difference between what is stupid-bad and what is stupid-fun is a deeply personal one. For me, it’s the difference between an octopus playing the drums in Aquaman and a litter of cats vomiting tentacles set to an Andrew Lloyd Weber song in The Marvels. It is impossible to objectively explain why the former made me want to eat calamari out of spite and the latter made me giggle the rating you’ll see below up a full letter grade.
We’ve been in the throws of a comic book movie boom since RDJ encased his face in iron in 2008. Fifteen years later, it is clear many filmmakers and audience members still don’t grasp the fundamental core of the genre. It is stupid. That’s not necessarily an insult, but an essential truth that can’t be hushed beneath Nirvana songs or outshouted by villains who ask sixth-grade philosophy questions. Superhero sagas are silly and exaggerated, to their virtue at best and their detriment at worst.
This long preamble is to say that many people are going to incorrectly put The Marvels in stupid-bad when it is, in fact, stupid-fun.
Picking up immediately after the Ms. Marvel TV show, an evil and angry alien named Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) activates a cosmic bracelet that “entangles” the powers of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Ms. Marvel aka Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), and Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris). Whenever the trio use their powers at the same time, they swap places. Stupid? Yes. Fun? I don’t see an octopus drumming.
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is now the Earth’s first-line of defense against extraterrestrials. He’s here to basically help coordinate the ragtag team and make one-liners, and he’s all out of ragtag team coordination. The action zips, zaps, and zops from planets where the only form of communication is singing to the edge of the space-time continuum. It all basically boils down to “don’t let the bad lady get the matching bracelet,” but there are some delightful montages along the way. Stupid-fun! Stupid-fun! Stupid-fun in space!
Considering that this is technically a sequel to Captain Marvel, it’s not awesome that Captain Marvel is so very easily the worst part. She’s been in five movies, and yet nobody has thought to actually give her a personality yet. It feels like she’s been described by adjectives in a Mad Libs filled out by the world’s least creative person who has a broken thesaurus. It’s not all on Larson, but it’s also not not on her at this point.
It also becomes obvious how blah the lead is when contrasted with Monica and Kamala, both of whom shine brighter than their light-based superpowers. In particular, Vellani is a supernova. Her performance is all the good things inherent in comic book stuff made flesh. She is at once sincere and goofy, self-deprecating and awesome: a bad-ass doofus. Parris is given less marble to carve but still cuts a definable figure, an uptight and brilliant military brat hungry for family. Captain Marvel…sometimes smirks?
Yes, writer/director Nia DaCosta and cowriters Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik scribble within the lines of a Marvel-mandated legal pad but still manage to make something that feels more unique than the film is being given credit for. No, it’s not a game-changer for the MCU, but not every entry should be. It is a fairly self-contained, family-friendly, female-forward fantasy that doesn’t buckle to the bro-y burden of self-importance. The Marvels is a good time with some great moments, which is a perfectly wonderful thing for it to be.
If you go to a comic book store, you will see so many more issues than you can ever reasonably read. Not all of them are for you. The idea that every chapter containing every character to ever wear spandex has to be next-level spectacle is a kind of pressure we don’t apply to, say, yet-another Martin Scorsese retread of mafia themes or a paint-by-numbers hitman noir from David Fincher. The Marvels is a galactic goof, a cosmic kerfuffle filled with interstellar inanity. Call me Major Tom, because I’m all aboard for this space oddity.
Grade = A-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Katie Smith-Wong at Flick Feast says “While Ant-Man and Thor’s standalone adventures try too hard to be funny, resulting in some forced comedy, The Marvels isn’t afraid of looking silly so the fun factor exudes from the screen.”
Kathia Woods at the Philadelphia Tribune says the film is “a celebration of sisterhood, with three women of different generations and backgrounds coming together to save the universe. This powerful message will resonate with young girls who are looking for role models to look up to. Contrary to popular belief, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is for everyone, not just hardcore comic book fans.”
Sarah Gopaul at Digital Journal says “writer-director Nia DaCosta produces an impactful picture that skillfully weaves together these features in a snappy hour and 45 minutes, while adding a delightfully surprising musical element.”