Director: Nia DaCosta
Writers: Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, Elissa Karasik
Cast: Iman Vellani, Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Zawe Ashton
Duration: 104 mins
Available in: Theatres
When the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU) first descended upon audiences with Iron Man (2008), no one would have imagined that 15 years later, this franchise that began as overwhelmingly white and male-dominated would need women and people of colour to rescue it. Superhero fatigue is as real as global warming and after two disappointing films and two underwhelming shows in Phase Five, the hopes and dreams of the MCU rest upon The Marvels, which turns to a Canadian-Pakistani actor and a Korean superstar to rescue it from the dumps of unpopularity.
Good news: Iman Vellani is utterly delightful as Kamala ‘Ms. Marvel’ Khan. Bad news: Park Seo-joon is completely wasted in a role that is effectively a cameo (watch the K-drama Itaewon Class instead). Also, Samuel L. Jackson saying “black girl magic” is not enough to abracadabra Teyonah Parris’s bland Monica Rambeau into someone charismatic. The worst news is that The Marvels is so shoddily written and generally lacklustre that most of the film feels like a setup for the mid-credit and post-credit scenes, which drop broad hints about the direction in which the MCU plans to go. The first of these scenes shows Ms. Marvel doing what Nick Fury had done in Phase One when he started gathering superheroes into a collective. The second confirms that the X-Men (recently acquired by Disney) have entered the MCU. (None of this is a spoiler, mostly because the content of these scenes was leaked earlier.)
But first, here’s what passes for plot in The Marvels.
When evil Kree leader Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) finds another bangle like the one Ms. Marvel inherited from her grandmother, she becomes the beta version of Ronan the Accuser (she even has a hammer similar to his) and Dar-Benn’s new powers include the ability to create jump points that connect different points in space. These new jump points also set off another curious phenomenon: When either Captain Marvel or Monica Rambeau or Ms. Marvel use their powers, they physically change places with one another. For Kamala, this is a dream come true because she gets to meet Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the superhero with whom she’s “twinsies”, Captain Marvel. For everyone else, these new wormholes are bad news because the universe (like the plot of the film) is in danger of collapsing because of the number of holes in it.
Dar-Benn is a rebel leader from the ravaged Kree planet of Hala, where Captain Marvel is known as the Annihilator because she destroyed their world. Armed with the bangle (which everyone other than Ms. Marvel calls a quantum band), Dar-Benn dreams of restoring her homeland by stealing natural resources from other planets and channelling them to Hala. Apparently, natural elements can be isolated and sucked out, just like boba from boba tea, with jump points acting like a cosmic straw. The first element Dar-Benn secures for her people is clean air, whooshing it out of a planet that is a refugee colony for a different group of Kree (in case you missed it, there was a civil war and it was bad).
If you were looking for an escapist retreat from the horrors of the real world, this early section in The Marvels unwittingly offers a terrible parallel to the war and genocide currently unfolding in the Middle East, particularly when Captain Marvel orders the Kree refugees to evacuate the planet immediately and the Kree leader replies, “We have nowhere to go.” For no fault of their own, the world of the Kree refugees is devastated by Dar-Benn who is unperturbed by the genocide she’s unleashed. The plight of the Kree and the horror of being forced to leave people behind in a place that has become a death trap because of a rival’s greed or ambition has too many real-life parallels in our world today.
For better and for worse, The Marvels doesn’t let you linger with the Kree, dispatching them with a star cameo to what is hopefully a better place. The focus is on the new superhero trio of women, who must learn to use the challenge posed by the jump points to their advantage. We get a fun little training montage that offers a nice contrast to the equivalent in so many other films, where the (boy) superhero is trained by a senior (who is almost always a man). In The Marvels, the three women treat each other as equals despite the age differences that could have been a valid basis to establish a hierarchy. If you’re in the mood to overthink, it’s nice to see a story in which the universe tries to see women as interchangeable, but the women in question establish themselves as unique, distinctive and as a team rather than a homogenous blob of femininity. Unfortunately, Larson and Parris are both so emphatically dull that they might as well be interchangeable.
After brainstorming with Monica and Kamala, Captain Marvel realises that Dar-Benn’s targets are not randomly selected, but chosen carefully partly for their natural resources, but also because they’re home to people Captain Marvel holds dear. The trio conclude Dar-Benn will next target Earth’s sun and the water from a planet named Aladna (more on that later). Monica, whom Kamala wants to dub “Professor Marvel”, warns the universe may not be able to survive so many ruptures. To save both the people they love as well as the universe, these three women (a.k.a. The Marvels) will have to strip Dar-Benn of her powers.
And that’s why the climactic fight between the arch villain and super-est of superheroes ends up being two women, floating in space, clawing at each other, while fighting over a bangle. It’s as though a jump point opened up between a Hindi TV serial and the MCU.
Even though it wasn’t actually written to be her story, The Marvels ends up to be the story of how Ms. Marvel evolves from being an endearing teenager from New Jersey, who draws comics and feels like a spiritual cousin of friendly neighbourhood superhero Spiderman, to the successor of Iron Man’s mantle, establishing herself as a leader who packs as many punches as one-liners. This is a welcome development because Vellani is fabulous as Ms. Marvel and she single-handedly holds The Marvels together, with a little help from the kitten-faced flerkens who don’t make any sense but are so darn cute that we’ll forgive the lapse in logic. (The scene in which the flerkens both terrorise everyone and save the day plays out to the melancholy warbling of “Memory” from the Cats soundtrack, and it is a rare moment of bonkers genius in The Marvels.)
Unfortunately, nothing other than Ms. Marvel and the flerkens actually works at either a narrative level or in terms of entertainment value. Most of the characters are under-written — Dar-Benn, for instance, never feels like a genuine threat. She radiates visual effects rather than menace — and the film tries different tones and moods, attempting everything from earnest family drama to a Hollywood attempt at Bollywood-esque song-and-dance routine. You’d think Marvel Studios would have had the good sense to bring in Farhan Akhtar or Fawad Khan (both actors showed up in the Ms. Marvel series) if they were going to set a scene in a planet where everyone communicates in song and melodramatic flourish, and whose people are as good at group dancing as they are at fighting. Instead, we get Larson stiffly dancing with Park Seo-Joon, who has so little to do in The Marvels that they could have easily replaced him with a cardboard cutout of his character.
Yet for all its flaws, The Marvels is actually marginally better than the drivel that Marvel Studios has dished out of late. The villain is forgettable, the tone is confused, the resolutions are idiotic and absolutely no one has the energy to see yet another rehash of MCU’s formulaic superhero story, but the kittens are adorable and provided she gets the kind of backup she deserves, Iman Vellani is good enough to be Marvel Studios’s next Robert Downey Jr. Given how low the bar is for the MCU, for now, that’ll do.