There’s a quote from filmmaker Howard Hawks that has stuck with me over the years. It was introduced to me via Roger Ebert, who would often refer back to it whenever he saw a film that was enjoyable, but unexceptional. It was a witticism that always made sense to me:
“A good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes.”
It was always food for thought. What else is there to say about something that’s entertaining, but otherwise unexceptional? That it was a bad movie because it didn’t do enough? Or do you simply praise the things that work and just accept things for what they are?
That baseline assessment from Hawks about what makes for a good movie was on my mind after watching The Marvels, the latest superhero movie from the Marvel Studios behemoth that needs no introduction, but I feel inclined to give it one anyway. It wasn’t on my mind because The Marvels fits neatly into Hawks’ definition of a good movie, but because it speaks to a different kind of moviegoing experience that crops up from time to time.
How does one properly talk about a film like The Marvels, where there are three really exceptional things going for it, and a truckload of bad things to offset them? Furthermore, what if that truckload of bad things still doesn’t outweigh the power of the three good aspects? I guess what I’m saying is that The Marvels is a film that does ten things wrong for every three things it gets perfectly right, but in the grand scheme of things it still remains rather light and likeable.
When Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), new leader of the once AI worshiping Kree, discovers a mystical bangle somewhere in space, she uses her powers to gather resources capable of restarting their planet’s sun and restoring the atmosphere to breathable conditions. But the discovery of this powerful artifact creates a power surge in the universe that captures the attention of a trio of superheroes capable of harnessing the power of light and energy. Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), a.k.a. Captain Marvel, is the hero responsible for the decimation of the Kree in the first place, and is now working as an interplanetary peacekeeper and diplomat. Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) is an astronaut working in space with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the daughter of Carol’s deceased best friend in the military. And eager, energetic sixteen year old Kamal Khan (Iman Velllani) of Jersey City, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, has the power to manipulate light into physical matter, is a Captain Marvel, and maintains possession of the other bangle that makes a matching set with Dar-Benn’s new mystical toy. The power surge created by Dar-Benn inadvertently causes the three female superheroes to spontaneously swap places whenever any two of them uses their abilities at the same time.
Although it clocks in at a “paltry by Marvel standards and thankfully brief by all others” 105 minutes, The Marvels is a lot to take in, and anyone without an encyclopedic knowledge of the MCU would be better off trying to read a repair manual for a 1984 Pontiac Firebird from cover to cover and then trying to rebuild an engine from junkyard parts. It would make just about as much sense. This is probably the biggest of The Marvels’ many glaring issues. It’s not a stand alone movie that anyone could jump into and enjoy, and while Marvel has been doing this thing for quite awhile now, The Marvels has the highest barrier to climb. Not only do viewers need to remember in vivid detail everything that happened in Captain Marvel, Larson’s first major outing with her character, but also no less than three full on streaming series, two of which introduce Monica and Kamala.
If I mention what that third series is, it kind of gets into spoiler territory. It’s actually a minor miracle that I know about those developments because I haven’t see any of the Marvel series that have arrived on Disney+, and I was at a severe disadvantage throughout The Marvels, especially where it pertains to investing in and getting to know who these characters were on a granular level. I saw Captain Marvel, at least, but apparently I retained absolutely none of what happened in that movie. I remembered enjoying it when I saw it, but if I knew there was going to be an advanced placement level exam on what happened in it (outside of knowing what a Flerken is), I would’ve studied it harder. As for Monica (who had a prominent role in WandaVision, a show I never would’ve expected to be a prerequisite here having not seen it and only knowing a little about it) and Kamala (whose show I never got around to due to only having so much mental bandwidth to take on another streaming series, but I do plan on watching someday), all I know is that they are good people with curious relationships to Carol. Monica is mad at Carol for abandoning their family like a deadbeat dad going out for smokes and never coming home, and Monica worships Captain Marvel without any chill whatsoever.
The uninitiated won’t know what to do with The Marvels because director and co-writer Nia DaCosta (best known for the underrated Candyman side-quel) throws everyone and everything she has into the deep end immediately. Context is out the window. If the viewer doesn’t have any of that ahead of time, The Marvels doesn’t want to slow down and explain it. There’s maybe sixty total seconds of recap that happens here, and beyond that, you’re on your own. The viewer gets to see where Carol is in her life now (lonely, isolated, and kinda weird), but there are also entire developments to her character that are wildly under explained or just taken for granted. All the viewer will know about Monica if they haven’t seen the character before is that she’s an astronaut who’s mad at Carol. And all they’ll know about Kamala is that she’s a pretty typical, fawning teenager with a doting family and an eagerness to please her idol. That’s not a lot to go on, but at least they aren’t the film’s villain, one of the most boring and stock baddies in comic book movie history. There’s nothing all that ruthless, menacing, or original about Dar-Benn, meaning The Marvels sometimes comes across like three basic heroes fighting a very basic villain. The villain never feels like a threat, and the heroes barely feel like heroes.
Making matters worse, is the fact that The Marvels is another superhero movie about holes being ripped in the space time continuum, a plot device that’s as played out now as “impending intergalactic annihilation” was around the time the first Avengers cycle was wrapping up. By about the ten zillionth time someone in The Marvels brought up the concept of “jump points” (a dumbed down type of wormhole), I was about ready to scream or tap out in agony. Drinking games for The Marvels built around this term alone will send untold hundreds of unwitting dupes to the hospital.
At this point, sending characters to other timelines, realities, and galaxies has become the new way to cheat death in these movies. The deaths of comic book characters have already been notoriously meaningless and unable to stick, but now they can just hop these people over to a new universe to chill out for awhile, just to spring them on viewers again at a later date. And the seriousness with which these shifts are handled borders on the ludicrous. It’s flat out exhausting to try and keep track of where the winds have scattered all of the characters in the MCU, and I am ready to stop trying to figure it all out. Life is too short for that. (It’s also too short to wonder how these people eat, breathe, or survive in space without proper protections, but if you follow Mystery Science Theater 3000 logic and don’t question any of that, it will be fine and your enjoyment of this will increase exponentially.)
But the constant shifting of the MCU as a whole is only a part of what makes The Marvels so confusing. The other side of that confusion coin is an issue exclusive to DaCosta’s film: the concept of the trio of heroes popping in and out of each other’s fights and dramatic situations is clunky and unimpressive. Instead of being dazzlingly integrated into the action, the main idea the story has been built around comes across as rather ho-hum. The fight choreography is impressive in bits and pieces, but it always looks and moves like someone new has been tagged in from off screen to take over fighting and not something grander or better thought out. Everyone does their part to the best of their ability to forward the idea that anything could happen at any moment without the characters knowing about it, but the spontaneity never fully lands. It all adds up to a deeply flawed film where the scenes themselves aren’t the problems, but everything around them creates too many issues to keep up with.
I realize that to this point I have complained at considerable length about all of the negative aspects to The Marvels. But this is a spoiler alert for anyone who has read this far (thank you for that, btw), and not for anyone who just skipped to the end to see the numerical grade or came here from Rotten Tomatoes. I still kinda liked the movie. In spite of everything that can be picked apart, and all the greater problems inherent in the MCU at the moment, The Marvels is still fun to sit through on the whole, and indeed a lot more viscerally enjoyable than a lot of the things the comic book empire has put out into theatres and onto streaming as of late. The three great things that The Marvels has going for it, in addition to a handful of smaller touches, are enough to set it apart and help it clear a bar that has been lowering with each passing instalment of this mega-franchise.
The biggest overall asset to The Marvels is its core trio, and to a lesser extent a laid back and amusing performance from Jackson (who delivers one of the best line readings in any film this year with a perfectly nonplussed reaction to the resolution of a deadly situation that puts Kamala in mortal danger). Larson, Parris, and particularly Vellani are so charismatic and sharp that they’re able to keep The Marvels upbeat, watchable, and engaging through sheer force of will. On their own, each is a perfectly capable performer that can make almost any scenario work. When they finally come together as a team – not when they’re randomly crashing into each others lives – their chemistry as superhero colleagues and performers is playful and full of joy. They are bringing out the best in each other, and in turn, pulling every nugget of entertaining gold from the muddled screenplay.
The leads are helped immensely by the fact that DaCosta isn’t taking all of this too seriously or from a dour perspective. From the opening sequence where the villain sets up the story, there’s a subtle, but noticeable level of campiness at play in DaCosta’s direction. While the screenplay she helped pen with WandaVision staff writer Megan McDonnell and Loki staff writer Elissa Karasik gets continually bogged down in the bigger picture plot points that have been forced upon them by the Marvel behemoth, DaCosta’s direction certainly suggests that this is a project that’s wholly in touch with its own overall silliness.
This lighter tonal approach helps to push The Marvels in enjoyable directions, and allows DaCosta the chance to mount her requisite “three good scenes.” There’s a gleefully bonkers set piece where the heroes have to communicate with an alien race that only communicates through the power of song. There’s a moment where mounting tension and rising stakes are cut via the implementation of a creative escape plan. And the first quiet moment where Carol, Monica, and Kamala are able to finally catch their breath and get to talk is positively delightful. These moments stick around in my mind far more than the scenes that don’t work, which thanks to DaCosta’s lightning quick pacing, means they pass by as if they’ve been blipped out of existence seconds after happening. Again, that’s a good and bad thing, but The Marvels inexplicably ends up coming out ahead in the end.
The Marvels also corrects one major issue that has plagued MCU entries as of late, and it’s one that even some of the studio’s biggest fans have been taking notice of. The Marvels is a good looking movie that has polished, completed, and working visual effects. Setting aside the fact that the world jumping mid-fight doesn’t totally land, everything else in The Marvels is rather dazzling; something that looks like it has been created with love and care over time. Given the film’s well documented post-production issues and Marvel’s constant valuing of hitting release dates over giving filmmakers enough time to turn in completed projects, it’s kind of a minor miracle that The Marvels has a great amount of visual gloss to it. The input of renowned British cinematographer Sean Bobbitt probably also helps in this respect, but while the material is C-grade, everyone behind the camera is bringing their A-game.
So where does that ultimately leave The Marvels? It’s an infuriating bit of entertainment, but those good vibes, brisk pacing, and winning performances can’t be denied. It’s not a huge part of the MCU problem, nor is it remotely part of the solution, but if one can step back from the bigger picture long enough to take in the finer and better points, The Marvels is pretty decent. It’s almost a shame that it comes handcuffed to such a lumbering oaf of a franchise, because if it had been allowed to simply exist on its own merits, this would be an outright blast. It’s like watching a television series in its fifteenth season, sticking around out of some sort of obligation because it was once great, but it hasn’t been good in years. And then suddenly, the show drops an episode that reminds you why you invested so much time in the first place. Then you kinda get upset that things couldn’t be this good all the time. But hey, it still had three great scenes that you’ll remember. It’s just enough for the slightest of passes.
The Marvels opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, November 10, 2023.
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