Recent Movie: The Marvels

The Marvels is the first movie that makes me think the MCU might actually be over. Not because it's bad—it is, in fact, quite charming and enjoyable, solidly mid-tier Marvel, and near the top of the pack for a post-Endgame movie. And not even because it has been a box office disappointment—though in the conversation surrounding this underperformance, not enough has been said about how it represents less a reaction to the movie itself, and more the accumulated fatigue of an audience burned out by Eternals, Ant-Man 3, and a slew of underwhelming Disney+ shows. No, the reason I think The Marvels might be the beginning of the end is that, beyond litigating its dismal box office performance, no one is talking about it. And there is, to be clear, a lot to talk about here. As little as five years ago I think this movie would have unleashed the kind of discourse tsunami that we saw in the wake of Winter Soldier, Age of Ultron, Civil War, or the first Captain Marvel. But now, crickets. This franchise might be able to survive a few underperforming movies; I don't think it can survive movies that nobody is interested enough to talk about.

Fittingly for a movie that more or less requires familiarity with not just its prequel, but the TV series WandaVision and Ms. Marvel, The Marvels begins in media res. Somewhere in deep space, a sinister-looking woman, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), uncovers a bangle that appears to be the twin of the one that unleashed the powers of Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), a New Jersey teenager who idolizes Carol Danvers and has modeled her superhero persona on her. In other parts of space, Carol (Brie Larson), and her goddaughter Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), a former SWORD agent granted superpowers by Wanda Maximoff, are investigating damage to the network of space gates that, apparently, we were meant to know exists in the Marvel universe, when both they and Kamala are blasted by some energy. The blast entangles the three women, causing them to switch places whenever they use their powers. In short order, Kamala is floating in space in Monica's spacesuit, Carol is surprising Kamala's family in their living room, and both Monica and Kamala are repeatedly dropped into a battle Carol was having with Dar-Benn's Kree soldiers.

It's all rather rushed, even before it becomes clear that Carol has a history with Dar-Benn that is also related to her failure to return to visit Monica and her mother Maria (Lashana Lynch), as she promised at the end of Captain Marvel. But The Marvels's fleet-footedness is actually one of its assets. The feeling of being dropped in the middle of the action seems fitting given the predicament our three heroines find themselves in, and results in some extremely effective and exciting action scenes. It's particularly rewarding to see Kamala segue almost instantly from panic, as she's plunged into a fight scene in three separate locations, to enthusiasm—like Vellani herself, she seems more than ready to be called up to the big leagues. (Monica, alas, is relegated to the role of the film's straight woman, reflecting Kamala's enthusiasm and Carol's troubled history without developing much personality of her own.)

There follow a whole host of extremely satisfying set-pieces, of the comedic and thrilling variety. Kamala's protective, no-nonsense, deeply loving family (Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, Saagar Shaikh) end up roped into the action, striking a perfect balance between awe and practicality. A training montage sees the three heroines—or, the Marvels, as fangirl Kamala insists they should be called—learning how to fight when at any moment they might be pulled into a completely different situation, which involves a lot of juggling and jump rope. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) regains the more laid-back, sardonic personality he had in Captain Marvel, cheerfully supporting all three women, whether by giving Monica some tough love when she struggles to use her powers, or visibly delighting in Kamala's entry into the fray. In a reminder that a character like Carol, whose stories are set on a cosmic scale, would encounter a lot of weird settings and situations, the trio visit a planet whose inhabitants communicate only in song, where Carol had previously made a diplomatic marriage to the heartthrob prince (Park Seo-joon)—a pulpy touch that reminded me of comics runs like Tom King's recent Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow, but which the MCU has largely avoided.

It would all be a lot of fun, if not for the genocide. Every act break in The Marvels is punctuated by Dar-Benn showing up to steal the natural resources of another planet, culminating, of course, with Earth. But instead of being a hissable, larger-than-life villain, Dar-Benn's evil schemes turn out to have a dark geopolitical grounding. Her homeworld, Hala, is dying after decades of civil war—a war launched after Carol destroyed its ruling entity, the AI known as the Supreme Intelligence, as she promised to do at the end of Captain Marvel. The Marvels eventually comes to seem like a litany of Carol's failures. She shows up on a Skrull colony in pursuit of Dar-Benn, and scuttles peace talks that might have saved the planet. She promises the singing prince to protect his homeworld, but is quickly overwhelmed and forced to flee. (At the end of the movie, after Dar-Benn's defeat, we are reassured that both planets have been saved, but this feels like a last-minute addition, in recognition of the fact that viewers will have been sitting uncomfortably for half an hour, reeling from the tonal whiplash of going from planetary destruction to an amusing scene involving Carol's pet flerken and the soundtrack to Cats.)

Misbegotten as it was, the recent Secret Invasion at least paid some lip service to criticizing Nick Fury for cavalierly interfering in the running of whole societies with seemingly no thought given to the long-term consequences of his actions. No such criticism is passed of Carol. When she confesses to having caused a war that impacted the lives of billions, it's in the context of explaining why she bailed on Monica—which is to say, it's treated as a source of trauma for her, not something she did to others. Another movie might have done something with this revelation and Kamala's until-then uncomplicated idolization of Carol, but instead she is used—like much of the younger generation of Marvel heroes—to normalize the more established hero's flaws, concluding that she should "let Carol be a person" instead of fangirling all over her, as if that were the problem. It's a choice that also further shortchanges Monica, who might have offered a counterpoint to Kamala with her own, more mature take on her former idol, but who instead merely offers Carol comfort and understanding—all the more troubling given that she was introduced enabling another problematic white woman.

When you consider the uproar that greeted even the possibility that the first Captain Marvel might function as air force propaganda, it's stunning that there has been simply no discussion of how the character's second movie reveals her to be a war criminal—a particularly hapless one at that, who needs to be reminded by Monica that she has cosmic powers that can be used for more than just fighting, and which might be relevant to repairing the damage she's responsible for. In some ways, however, this silence is understandable. It mirrors the attitude of the film itself. Which ends up making The Marvels seem inessential—not because it's comedic, but because it won't take its characters seriously. Like most recent MCU projects, The Marvels is full of promise for what's just around the corner. At its end, Kamala contacts Hawkeye's Kate Bishop (Hailey Steinfeld) with the offer to form a junior super-team; Monica ends up in an alternate universe; and the X-Men rear their heads yet again. But that proliferation of potential characters and story—which feels, by this point, almost overwhelming, so many promised movies and storylines that it will take a decade to pay them all off—means nothing if the MCU can't handle the heroes it's already got. I think audiences are beginning to sense that. 


Retlawyen said…
Thank you for pointing this out. I felt like I was taking crazy pills. Captain Marvel's got more people killed than ever lived on Earth and this comedy movie can't even be bothered to sternly shake a finger at her. The Fury comparison is apt.
Trevor said…
I agree. I feel like there's just been less discourse in general about pop culture because there are so many fewer longform websites on which essays (like this one) can be written about movies. And when any essay gets put on Twitter, immediately a blue check pipes up to say "It was because it starred too many strong women" and that really chills discussion.

I've been fascinated by all the talk of the box office numbers. It just seems so sports-y. When Team X signs Player Y for however many millions of dollars and Player Y doesn't score that many goals, you get chatter about how the Player is bad and the Team is idiotic for signing him. It's a weird way to talk about sports and an even weirder way to discuss movies since my movie ticket costs the same regardless of how much the studio spent making it, and my enjoyment of the art is completely separated from how much or little the studio stands to make (or lose) off of it.
I agree with Trevor's point-- it seems "the discourse" on pop culture doesn't have the same home online it did five years ago. Twitter, sites like AVClub or io9, they're a shell of what they once were. And youtube essayists tend to be voices shouting into the void, with only the most toxic getting any sort of algorithmic boost.
Mr K said…
I feel like the discourse such as it is is confined to youtube these days. And while there are plenty of interesting channels out there there's a lot of nasty poisonous nonsense too that have made the existence of women in films into a culture war

Regarding Captain Marvel, I think the film does not regard her as a war criminal, but more someone realising that her power by itself does not solve problems. It must be applied correctly. After all, while the state of Hala is a consequence of her actions, she didn't exactly lead the civil war. I suppose the closest metaphor for her behaviour are the coups done by the United States, although I think Carols actions can be seen as more righteous.

Similarly, while the Skrill did not welcome her intervention, it didn't really seem like Dar Benn was going to spare the Skulls before she came along.
Chris said…
"But instead of being a hissable, larger-than-life villain, Dar-Benn's evil schemes turn out to have a dark geopolitical grounding. Her homeworld, Hala, is dying after decades of civil war—a war launched after Carol destroyed its ruling entity, the AI known as the Supreme Intelligence, as she promised to do at the end of Captain Marvel."

Hang on: the planet Captain Marvel wrecked was the *Kree* homeworld?

What I've seen on social media so far simply says "Captain Marvel wrecked a planet by overthrowing its government, why does nobody care she's a war criminal?" If you're saying that that planet was the capital of the Kree Empire, that feels like a pretty big piece of context. Because everything we've seen in the MCU so far has shown the Kree as the heavyweight fascist/colonial superpower of the known universe. They're the guys who spent a thousand years at war with Xandar and considered a peace treaty a reason to let Ronan "go rogue" and continue the war for them, they're the guys who treated Earth as a testing ground for genetic experiments that ultimately created the Inhumans, they're the guys who've been waging a war of extermination against Skrull refugees.

In that context, "I need to decapitate this empire or it's simply going to continue conquering or exterminating one planet after another after another" seems like a much less crazy or indefensible choice.
Chris said…
"And when any essay gets put on Twitter, immediately a blue check pipes up to say "It was because it starred too many strong women" and that really chills discussion."

That's certainly the impression I get from the most mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Twitter; it's basically impossible to discuss any piece of pop culture that's at all successful, or tied to any notable franchise, without it instantly descending into a sewer of alt-right talking points. (Often from people who clearly don't even know or care much about the product in question: it's just another stop in their crusade against all things Woke).

Talking about pop culture on the Internet these days is like going to American town hall meetings at the height of the health care debate (and largely due to the same people): there's no point, you can't even really ask questions or engage in conversation because all good faith attempts to do so will be drowned out by the mob chanting Fox News talking points.

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