When the TV series Ms. Marvel premiered in 2022, a lot of traditional Marvel Cinematic Universe fans were surprised and delighted to find that the protagonist, Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), was of Indian descent and lived in a family that was wrestling with balancing the culture of “the old country” and modern America. She was funny, unsure of herself, a comic book fangirl, and deeply obsessed with Captain Marvel. It was also one of the first Marvel shows that seemed to be aimed more at a teen audience than at the traditional adult community of The Avengers, etc.
A year has passed and somehow Kalama has been pulled deep into the Marvel world. She’s been wearing a jeweled cuff that her grandmother gifted her, so when it starts to glow, she’s rather startled. Then every time she tries to use her powers, she mysteriously changes location with either Captain Marvel herself (Brie Larson) or with Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris). In fact, when any of the three women utilize their superpowers (yes, Monica’s been given superpowers too) they switch. What up with that, eh?
That’s the intriguing starting point for the entertaining, but rather shallow The Marvels. There’s an antagonist in the form of the surprisingly chatty Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), who is also somehow connected to the three heroes of the story, along with everyone’s favorite administrator Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, thankfully recovered from his dismal portrayal in the downer series Secret Invasion).
The actual story is a confusing tale about the Skrulls vs the Kree, revolving around some bad choices that Captain Marvel (Larson) made many years prior. An MCU tale about revenge? With a villain who might not be so villainous when the full story is revealed? Yep, because everything’s nuanced nowadays, even (not so mean) antagonists.
There are plenty of great special effects, space scenes, and multiple planets including one where the local citizens don’t quite convey their ideas and concerns like the rest of us do (leading to one of the more delightful, if wacky, scenes in the film). A fair amount happens on a SHIELD space station too, one that’s soon overrun with ridiculously cute kittens hiding a little secret of their own. ‘nuf said on that topic!
Fundamentally, though, The Marvels is held together by the infectious enthusiasm and fangirling that Kamala (Vellani) demonstrates every time she’s on screen. She really likes Captain Marvel and is thrilled to be part of the Marvel universe, even if inadvertently. Her parents? Not so much, though they are surprisingly okay when their modest New Jersey home is suddenly the center of an alien vs. superhero battle. One presumes they have good insurance, I guess.
By this point in the MCU, it does feel like most of the actors are just walking through their parts, particularly Larson, who remains entirely unconvincing as Captain Marvel, ostensibly one of the most powerful of all superheroes. Perhaps Vellani can offer acting classes to the rest of the crew before their next on-screen outing?
The story is also disjointed in a way that makes me wonder if there were different writers assigned to different acts of the film. IMDb only credits three writers (Nia DaCosta, who also directs, Megan McDonnell, and Elissa Karasik) but if they secretly had a staff of twenty, I wouldn’t be surprised. The result is a movie that’s entertaining but would have been perfectly fine being released direct to streaming.
Because of Vellani’s central role in the story too, The Marvels comes across as a true comic book adaptation (notably in the terrific early animation sequence) targeting a teen audience. In fact, the final scenes reinforce that the MCU management team (lookin’ at you, Kevin Feige) is indeed considering a sort of Teen Marvel universe too. But… no spoilers!
Finally, I enjoyed The Marvels but as with so many recent MCU releases, it’s going to fit square in the middle of the film library, nowhere near good enough to crack anyone’s top ten. Unless, perhaps, you’re as big a fangirl of Kamala Kahn as she is of Captain Marvel herself.
Oh, and stick around for the mid-closing-credits scene. It’s a pretty big deal. The post-credits? You can skip it without missing anything.