The Marvel Cinematic Universe marches on, whether we viewers want it to. Whether or not creative or bureaucratic control still has a say. And whether the finances can perpetually justify an ongoing soap opera now susceptible to burnout. Just like General Hospital, but much more encompassing and devoid of any natural drop-off point where plot threads hinge on overwhelming degrees of context. The realms this franchise has delved into as of late have certainly made a complicated rigamarole out of entering its second generation. An ecosystem persistently defined by never-ending growth and biting off more than chewable. With all this in mind, I’m sure I, like many, was either dreading or fervently anticipating The Marvels, a sequel that almost doesn’t feel like a sequel, as it is more of a rest stop in between eras. A marker signals a chance to breathe, take in the sights, and rearrange the table ahead of something larger.
If only it all could’ve stood more on its own instead of being so tethered to the storylines preceding it. The way director Nia DeCosta (Candyman) engineers and operates this ship, aided by co-writers Megan McDonnell (WandaVision) and Elissa Karasik (Loki) traps it in a mixed bag. One where its gonzo storytelling is a boon, but coexisting with previously occurring mythos from a different medium is a crutch. I might not be the only person who nowadays finds the recent stretch of Marvel TV series nothing less than homework. I certainly never bothered with Ms. Marvel before this film. They were more amusing and accessible when the novelty aspect was still in effect. To see them further integrated into the film side of things is either an unwelcome curse or an inevitable evil. When the difference between the two is better defined, the larger plan may finally make sense.
Not everything occurring here is destined to make much sense, either. It’s all quite off the wall, even lackadaisical, but its heart is mostly in the right place continuing the story of Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). Years or so have passed since she conquered and put the Kree in their place. Once employed under their pilot force, she’s now slowly regaining the memories taken away by her work, while also trying to mellow her mind in the wake of a civil war between her home world and the Skrulls. An awkward reunion with adoptive niece Monica (Teyonah Parris), now an astronaut working closely with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), only escalates that clutter before Carol takes further initiative.
As the war escalates, new Kree leader Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) vows to restore her now-desolate home planet of Hala to former glory. Accomplishing this goal requires a great deal of cosmic energy utilized by a pair of quantum bands and a series of fraying jump points to travel galaxy-wide. That much attracts the unneeded attention of the current Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), wearing the band like it’s a wrist decoration. Through simultaneous contact – Kamala with the band, and Monica with the jump point anomaly, they switch places instantaneously. After some standard hijinks and all hell breaking loose, the trio eventually find each other, and team up to restore universal balance.
All these hoops, among others DeCosta jumps across would all be incomprehensible if the plot weren’t so tight and buoyant. Whatever course of action The Marvels promote seems to stick. What she’s working with isn’t perfect, but she’ll make the best go of it anyway, resulting in a yarn that’s not boring or cringe-worthy. Seeing both Parris and Vellani break out on screen with unrelenting gusto and empathy under DeCosta’s guidance more than breaks that cycle of monotony. All the while, Larson and Jackson are flexing dusty joints as the pic’s “old guard,” and Ashton is attempting to shatter the recent trend of below-mark comic baddies. It’s often with mixed results, same for reestablishing Carol’s messy backstory, now a mere afterthought.
What this cast helps to set up for the future might be a sigh of relief to some, with one of the better mid-credit mic drops to occur in a couple of phases. And whatever clever, brake-skidding deviations the film undergoes succinctly weave their way into the script without derailing momentum. Examples include a six-minute song and dance exchange in a Bollywood planet setting where Larson exercises a likely “Disney princess” contract clause. Or a montage where Carol’s pet sidekick Goose and a host of fellow flerkins raise hell to the strains of Memory from Cats. Such random or bizarre deviations shouldn’t happen in a Marvel movie. They’re better off as episodic, sitcom-y plot devices if nothing else. And yet, their presence here indicates the franchise’s ability not to take itself too seriously and to maintain a steady thematic grip has not faded with time. It is a welcome result after three of the last four films couldn’t be bothered to try. Once more, those alien felines do plenty to steal the show.
Over such a fleeting period, the only choice is to move quickly and efficiently, taking nothing to chance with maximum effort. How that can happen with a scattershot script better tailored for streaming is near herculean, but it gets done all the same. DeCosta knows she’s capable of all these objectives and wastes no time proving it to the audience. Even as juggling different sectors and moods of the same universe clouds any manner of comprehension, her directorial leadership screams a sharp deftness worthy of momentarily calming that anxiety. And 80% of the time, it’s all done with familiar style notes echoing either 2001, Starship Troopers, or John Sturges’ Marooned, blended and dulled with an eye-catching genericism. Only Lindsay Pugh’s (The Matrix Resurrections) costume work and Sean Bobbitt’s (The Rhythm Section) overly precise shot composition can speak to the contrary, often when not called for.
The bar was already drastically lowered for The Marvels to achieve at least a faint shred of success. The recent hit-and-miss pattern won’t sway back into a specific direction soon. Neither is the glut of small screen side stories only now hovering closer together like strange bedfellows. To be so dependent on them to help further the big-screen lore now feels like a headache, and what DeCosta inherits is not exempt. The moment she can briefly detach the tether, that’s when this adventure flies high. High enough to roll with its punches, poke some witty jabs, play around with sci-fi aesthetics and punk girl empowerment, and show even the weariest of fans that there’s still reason to pay attention to this franchise, and what it wants to do next. If only the rest of Phase Five could try and do that too. (B-; 3/5)
The Marvels opens in theaters November 10, previews start 3 PM November 9; rated PG-13 for action/violence and brief language; 105 minutes.