THE MARVELS Refreshingly Brings Marvel Back to Basics

The piece below was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Nia DaCosta’s creative brevity is the film’s secret superpower against MCU fatigue

Still courtesy of Marvel.

Once a perennial pinnacle of the box office, recent entries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have increasingly felt like pop culture’s end-of-semester exams. There’s an increasing litany of storylines to keep up with in the wake of what once built to a singular, thrilling conclusion back in 2019 with Avengers: Endgame, which has led to diminishing returns that (hopefully) reached their nadir with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. That film subjected one of the MCU’s most affable heroes to over two hours of what amounted to an Act One for a franchise in increasingly perilous territory, a film full of empty promises without anything fun or meaningful to cling to for dear life. With many of the MCU’s original roster having jumped ship and these latest installments feeling more like setup with payoffs an increasing rarity, the hype has been markedly muted for The Marvels.

Yes, Nia DaCosta’s film does depend on the emotional buy-in of not just 2019’s Captain Marvel, but also multiple Disney+ series like WandaVision and the criminally underrated Ms. Marvel. However, DaCosta and her three excellent leads (Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, and a radiant Iman Vellani) do their damnedest to keep whatever Cliff’s Notes Marvel neophytes may need to what’s cursory enough to care. With remarkable efficiency, we’re downloaded on what we need to know to keep up with DaCosta’s universe-spanning yet intimate (and less than two hours!) blockbuster, one which prioritizes important qualities that more recent MCU installments have recently lacked. 

In what should be an important pivot for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Marvels is majorly self-contained and efficiently told, full of a warmth and sincerity that doesn’t rely upon an encyclopedic knowledge of over 30 other films and TV shows to care about its charismatic leads and brisk, fun story.

Teen superhero Kamala Khan (Vellani) has come into her own as New Jersey’s Ms. Marvel, who can turn light into physical matter; Monica Rambeau, infused with the ability to manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum, has fulfilled her departed mother’s dreams of becoming an astronaut aboard Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) Earth-guarding space station SABER; and Carol Danvers continues to spread herself thin across the cosmos as Captain Marvel, saving whatever worlds she can. An encounter with rogue “jump points” bridging points in space causes Kamala, Monica, and Carol to swap places every time they use their powers. Now, the three Marvels must band together to disentangle their abilities, while pooling their abilities to fight Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), an idealistic villain from Carol’s former homeworld out to bring a forcible end to a universe-spanning civil war.

Much like how Ms. Marvel provided much-needed levity and intimacy to an increasingly complex and cold cinematic universe, The Marvels wisely strips down the emotional scale of the MCU to something much more immediate and worthwhile for its center trio. Having spent most of her appearances as a seemingly godlike figure in a universe already populated with gods, Captain Marvel has been criticized for never being where she’s needed most; here, Larson’s Carol is someone fittingly haunted with the consequences of being both all-powerful yet frustratingly non-omniscient, cornered into a dubiously heroic pragmatism built on a body count she tries in vain to prevent. Parris’ Monica is one of Carol’s emotional casualties, forced to face multiple installments of personal tragedy on her own–both stronger and weaker for her efforts. Both women are stuck in a state of arrested development, locked in either their compulsive heroism or grief, with the other both the solution and cause of their misery. Enter the miraculous Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan, who’s very much embraced her newfound powers as a superfan entering the inner circle of her idols–and while Monica and Carol teach Kamala the bitter truths behind being a superhero, Kamala becomes the key for both women to overcome their trauma and shake off the gritty self-seriousness that seems to be par for the course for heroes with the multiverse on their shoulders. All three leads have revelatory chemistry together as Larson and Parris embrace Vellani’s infectious joy and enthusiasm, particularly as the three figure out the mechanics of their powers-based teleportation. 

DaCosta, who also co-wrote alongside Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik, brings long-needed brevity to the action and drama of the MCU, skirting fan service for thrilling action and actually emotional character beats. The film’s opening act closes with one of the franchise’s best action sequences, deftly spinning plates across three galactic set pieces while playing into the key quirks and flaws of her heroes, all with terse, thrilling writing and creative editing by Catrin Hedström and Evan Schiff. DaCosta’s uncanny knack for efficient characterization also allows many of the film’s supporting cast to shine–notably the returning Khan family (Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, and Saagar Shaikh) and Jackson’s Fury, who seems to finally be having fun with his decades-spanning role arguably for the first time since Endgame

Most importantly, DaCosta seems to have used this skill for succinctness to shake off the shackles of needing to signpost future sequels and side-quests ahead for Marvel at large. Harkening back to Phase One films like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, The Marvels’ larger plot feels far more self-contained to this film alone. While the film may have a central MacGuffin pursued by villain and hero alike, there aren’t larger ambitions at play like infinity stones or further portentous multiversal mumbo-jumbo; such notions are even often skewered by someone like Vellani, eager to finally get in on the game she’s been sidelined from for most of her life. Rather, The Marvels is refreshingly smaller scale despite its impressive visual scope, back to a simpler foundation of “stop the villain from completing evil plans.” From there, DaCosta is free to build a far more satisfying story wrestling with heroism, responsibility, grief, and consequence in the spirit of Marvel’s most exciting short-term arcs. For the more rabid fans eager to see where the MCU goes from here, yes, we do have an exciting mid-credits stinger. For once, though, it’s amazing to have a Marvel film where the preceding hundred minutes isn’t as much a trailer for coming attractions as its post-credits scenes.

This isn’t to say that The Marvels isn’t a film without its drawbacks and lulls. Those who are less than fans of Marvel’s irreverent sense of humor may grow impatient with how the three leads grate against one another, or how some of the film’s setpieces revel in random absurdity while hamstringing what plot or urgency there might be. I may be in the minority regarding how much these segments worked for me–while not every joke or character may land, it’s these diversions that provide the spontaneity I enjoy most particularly within the MCU, and offer opportunities for creatives to flex their muscles and get weird with whatever random IP they’re given. 

After nearly four years’ worth of films and TV shows seeking a Thanos-level setup with a patience-testing lack of payoff, it’s ironic that one of the best Marvel films in years is one where such world-building never becomes the focus. Rather, Nia DaCosta skillfully and gleefully brings Marvel back to basics with The Marvels, showcasing the ingenuity and efficiency that makes these blockbusters such satisfying experiences while leaving behind the baggage the franchise has built up since 2008.

The Marvels hits theaters on November 10, 2023 courtesy of Disney and Marvel Studios.

(Also, DaCosta’s Candyman rules.)

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