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Is Captain Marvel pressuring you in any way?

Movie

The Marvels
(2023)

In contrast, it seems, to many, I didn’t have a strong beef with Captain Marvel. It simply felt a tad tepid, going through the motions in “punching up” a formulaic plot with a functional retro-nostalgic (’90s) setting and an overpowered but really rather dull superhero(ine). It was the first example of an MCU title that felt entitled, one that had done nothing to earn its status, either through preceding reputation or by dint of star power/personality. Which was doubly injurious to its rep, trumpeted – belatedly, given it arrived a decade down the line – as the MCU’s “first female-led superhero film”. 

From such can’t-fail, performative progressivism, you have the rumours of Disney mass-buying seats to inflate Captain Marvel to a billion-plus grosser. And subsequently, the non-rumours – since they were strategically entirely transparent – of the mass-wokification of the Marvel brand. The signposting was there in the sisters-are-doing-it-for-them-selves line-up during the Endgame climax, a sequence that succeeded only in being faintly embarrassing. The tack since has, in almost every instance (ie, not necessarily afflicting the dwindling legacy titles), seen a doubling down on a presumption of diversity appeal through C and D-list superheroes, performers and inheritors to the throne(s). And they have, inevitably, floundered. 

But by the time we reach The Marvels, the capsizing of the entire franchise, past the disastrous Phase Four and halfway through the equally derelict Phase Five, one has to conclude the self-immolation is intentional. As I’ve suggested in previous reviews, it’s quite evident at this stage that, for crimes perpetrated on a horrifying scale (but likely not to come out for some time), Disney must die. And the best way to achieve that right now is to destroy their brands: Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm. They’re all stinking up the Magic Kingdom.

The Marvels isn’t especially woke – in an overt, conjugated sense; that battle has been won/lost just by it being there, with a trio of peerless femmes no one wants to see – but it’s a paceless, directionless, unengaging mess in much the way Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was earlier in the year. At no point do you grasp just why you’re supposed to care about any of this. It isn’t as if the MCU has historically ridden on the crest of great villains – Dar-Benn, plankishly performed by Zawe Ashton, may represent a new low in utterly forgettable bad guys/gals – but such a situation wasn’t necessarily such a crime, as long as you were rooting for the heroes. There’s no such luck here. We’ve got three superpowered sisters and only one of them, junior (Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan/Ms Marvel), has any kind of screen presence or personality. That doesn’t necessarily mean Kamala’s schtick – basically Peter Parker fanboy-ing over Tony Stark, but directed, mystifyingly, toward Carol Danvers – isn’t overfamiliar and often rather lame, but you can’t fault Vellani’s enthusiasm and effervescence.

I didn’t watch Ms Marvel – I’ve also made it a point to miss out on She-Hulk, Secret Invasion and Loki Season 2 – but I can readily discern that the cute stylistic conceits there (animation, splashy graphics, monologuing, meta-sense) are identified and summarily discarded in the first few minutes here; there’s consequently a clash of styles that isn’t really resolved, little helped by the quip-smart MCU approach turning to ashes in the mouths of two of the three leads. Kamala’s family members, there to contrast with the cosmic events occurring, represent a trope we’ve had to suffer since RTD gave the Tylers, Jones and Nobles front seats in nu-Who, but at least they’ve all got personalities. Maybe they should just have made a Ms Marvel movie instead, because such episodes are the only times, amid frenetic cutting back and forth between the “epic” and the attempts to paper over the cracks in an evidently shredded plot, that The Marvels can muster a modicum of fluidity.

Brie Larson just isn’t interesting or engaging in the lead, and attempts to “defuse” her unpopularity – the backlash is right there in the title – by making her part of a trio simply don’t work. Not least because Teyonah Parris is equally tiresome as Monica Rambeau (I had to remind myself I had indeed seen her imbued with superpowers in WandaVision. She certainly doesn’t have any “black girl magic”). There’s some lame “You left me” shit for them to resolve – we learn Carol was so overcome with guilt over events we didn’t see until now that she couldn’t face Monica as a non-superheroic superhero – but that’s marginally more in their wheelhouse than attempting to do Komedy (with quantum entangled location switch ups when they power up). Sparky Vellani does her very best to pep such labours up, but none of this is fun.

The plot revolves around another artefact required for an evil scheme to reach fruition, one unknowingly held by a good guy (Ms Marvel’s bracelet is needed by Dar-Benn to go with her matching one, which she is using to return atmosphere, ocean and sun to Kree home world Hala, the one evil Annihilator Captain Marvel decimated). So the girls heroically have to evacuate the Skrull refuge colony on Tarnax (the atmosphere is being thieved). Which actually amounts to a lot of gesturing to Skrulls who probably need no encouragement that they should get aboard a lifecraft. Tessa Thompson, the unforgivably dull Valkyrie and equally dull “king” – because she’s a lesbian? – of Asgard, so entirely fitting for an appearance here, is on hand to help the Skrulls. “I’ve been on some unintentional teams myself” she advises, giving Carol a kiss because, you know, LBGTQMCU. Then there’s a godawful (Disney-princess-“spoofing”) singing planet interlude on Aladna – it’s got the water – where Brie gets to show off her lightness of touch… yeah. It’s toe-curling. No prizes for guessing who’s in possession of the sun Dar-Benn is after.

Carol’s all regretful of past deeds, namely that aforementioned Annihilator rep (she recounts these events, shown as a flashback, which gave me the impression it was in the first movie – it might have been for all I recalled, the negligible impression it left on me, even having seen it twice –  but it wasn’t: we learn the Kree were ruled by an AI for a millennium, and Carol believe the only way to stop it was to destroy it “but I just made it worse”). This is in the prevailing subtextual line of morally suspect superheroes, designed to elevate villains as a bit misunderstood, of course (see also Cruella and Maleficent). Just as long as you recognise anyone, with a bit of perseverance, can attain Luciferian superhero status, that’s what’s important. Notably, the AI infestation is reserved for human/oids rather than the reptilians (Skrulls), who have perversely been afforded honourable and misunderstood status (you know, unlike the Draco).

Nick Fury is on hand to provide comic asides and a conspicuous absence of heroics (and comment of mass surveillance that “Surveillance is a strong word”). This is a girls’ movie, so that’s only appropriate; he’s funny uncle Nick. Monica is first seen astronauted up and boosting NASA space – Carol will even jump start a sun, difficult to do with something made of plasma – but more authentically, much of the plot revolves around a universal teleportation/wormhole network (portals to you and me). 

Monica, about whom no one gives a fig, nobly sacrifices herself to close a tear in space-time, ending up in a multiversular universe where mom is alive (but clearly not the mom of an alt-universe Monica) and a new, “improved” CGI the Beast/Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammar). I doubt the promise of the latter will get any bums on seats (and further, it’s bizarre that Disney keep reminding viewers of Fox legacy characters instead of getting on with the reboot that was surely a key to their grand plan in buying Fox). Monica’s transported not-yet-corpse isn’t cold and the Khans are cheerfully moving into her house, which seems a bit rude. Zenobia Shroff gets most of the best lines – not difficult as there are very few – as Kamala’s mother: “Kamala, you are not going on any space adventures”; in response to Monica explaining her superpowers, that she can “manipulate and see all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum”, she says “I’m very happy for you”.

There are also numerous, one-note attempts at Flerken humour – ie, it hasn’t been funny since the first reveal in Captain Marvel – and much as I’m in favour of felines being granted positive exposure in the movies, only the Zero G to the sound of Mr Barbra Streisand’s – deceased – rendition of Memories made me laugh (and that joke wasn’t even allowed to play, cutting away as quickly as possible). The Marvels reportedly went through various reshoots – easy to believe, given the rushed yet listless, exposition-heavy slender running time – ballooning its price tag to the $270m range. It’s looking like a costlier bomb than The Flash. How the mighty have fallen. Director Nia DaCosta pretty much seemed to disown her involvement as defeated by Marvel’s by-committee, factory-farming methods, which is refreshingly honest. About the only visual of note is the split-screen “Marvels in action”, which can be chalked up to the movie’s redundant attempts at a fun vibe (their connection is that they all possess electromagnetically altered light-based powers, it says in there somewhere). 

The other credits scene offers the promise/threat of a new group of super teens (with Kate Bishop and Ant-daughter and, presumably Ironheart). Cos that’s going to get a huge audience. I see Ironheart finished filming a year ago. Hmm. What’s the story there, then? What with Daredevil being retooled, Brave New World undergoing extensive reshoots (perhaps to bring Chris Evans back? Because a Cap who can fly – with the aid of a cumbersome retractable wings – is hardly super). And Blade is getting another new script because the last one had him playing third fiddle. It’s all a disaster. Like this movie, pretty much. When it isn’t dull, The Marvels is frenetic. Mostly, its forgotten as soon as it’s over. At one juncture here, Nick Fury claims “Hey, Captain Marvel will fix this. I promise”. I don’t think anyone can fix Marvel. 

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