THE MARVELS – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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The Marvels is the loopiest Marvel Studios movie this side of The Guardians of the Galaxy films, with three leads whose company is a joy. It’s also the kind of film where it’s best not to overthink. The villain’s murky motives take time to gel, and there’s word salad for some dialogue, but at its best moments, it’s an entertaining lark with genuine humor and endearing enthusiasm.

The Marvels is the first full-length adventure for Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), a.k.a. Carol Danvers, since Carol’s 2019 debut Captain Marvel, although she’s popped up in Avengers: Endgame and a handful of other spots. I’ve had mixed feelings about Carol, a prickly test pilot turned galactic troubleshooter whose light-related abilities often make her the most powerful one in the room. The Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t seemed to know what to do with her (or the Oscar-winning Larson), using her in small doses. Part of that’s out of necessity; her skillset evaporates any stakes the moment she arrives. But the result is that she pops by for a few moments, then jets off again, as if she has someplace better to be.

Directed and co-written by Nia DaCosta (Candyman), The Marvels humanizes Carol, showing her reasons to stay on the go, but it also gives Larson more range to play and a team with whom she interacts well. It’s especially nice to see her old-friends chemistry and zingers with Samuel L. Jackson, Marvel’s longtime superspy Nick Fury.

Typically a loner, except for her pet, Goose—an alien that looks like a cat but spews gobbling tentacles from its mouth—Carol cruises through space, responding to distress calls. An energy surge in a network of wormholes for intergalactic travel accidentally links her powers to those of two other women, each with a connection to her.

Astronaut Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris, They Cloned Tyrone), a child in Captain Marvel, considers Carol her aunt because she and her mother were best friends. Monica hasn’t spoken to Carol in years, partly because of her mother’s death. The third hero in all this is Ms. Marvel, a.k.a. Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), a Pakistani-American teen and Captain Marvel fan who lives in Jersey City.

The power link means the three can unwittingly and physically swap places—sort of a riff on Freaky Friday. Some of the best bits in The Marvels occur as the women blip in and out of fights and settings, from a space station to Kamala’s cozy home. (Her parents and brother, who know of her superhero side, are relatable comedic MVPs.) The variety of wide and medium shots and editing makes the action here easy to follow, and the actors’ reactions, such as when Carol smashes into Kamala’s fangirl-decorated bedroom, are priceless.

The three also have a fun training montage set to the Beastie Boys’ Intergalactic, where they try to maintain whatever they’re doing—juggling, playing double dutch—when they blip into another’s shoes. The script, co-written with Megan McDonnell (WandaVision) and Elissa Karasik (Loki), gets clunky when explaining the power link (Parris unfortunately has the brunt of the nonsensical lines), but it briskly fills in the gaps for anyone who missed Monica’s and Kamala’s backstories on Disney+.

It also gracefully works in some emotional moments, many due to the effervescent Vellani, whose character wears her heart on her sleeve. Carol and Monica’s relationship can’t stay frosty when the sweet-hearted teen is quick to give hugs.

The Marvels is less successful in crafting its villain, the Kree leader Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton, The Handmaid’s Tale), who uncovered a bangle identical to the one Kamala wears. Dar-Benn wants to use this to siphon resources to save her home world, which has been dying since Carol’s actions years earlier, earning Carol the nickname “The Annihilator.”

The Marvels presents an intriguing idea about how one person’s hero is another’s destroyer, but that’s ultimately deeper than the film wants to go. That said, its comedic rapport, colorful settings, offbeat developments, and cameos make it diverting. The Marvels is no supernova, but it’s tough to quibble with its light touch.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.