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Yeah, 'The Marvels' is pretty bad.
Two key takeaways from the gossipy new book MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios: Kevin Feige really IS that important to Marvel Studios’ success, and the production company’s creative process is, as one screenwriter in the book puts it, “iterative.” They shoot a version of the movie, they get into the editing room, they figure out what is and is not working, they do re-shoots, they go back to editing… they keep on working right up until the last minute, and there’s a “best idea wins” ethos. It’s much closer to the way Pixar makes animated films than the way most big budget studio blockbusters are made, and it’s a substantial part of the reason that, for the first decade or so of its existence, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was, at its worst, still pretty solid.
It’s already apparent that Feige, who has gone from producing a few Marvel movies a year to a few Marvel movies a year and a few Marvel Disney+ shows a year and overseeing all of Marvel Entertainment, is spread too thin these days. But worsening matters is that The Marvels, the latest addition to the MCU, never really got to go through that iterative process. Directed and co-written by Nia DaCosta (the Candyman reboot), The Marvels was initially due to be released earlier this year, but Feige et al. pushed it back to the fall in order to do reshoots. Then the writers’ strike happened, followed shortly thereafter by the actors’ strike, and those reshoots never happened.
Unsurprisingly, then, The Marvels feels very much like a first draft, with all the dots in their place, but only some of them connected: The plot doesn’t make much sense, subplots get dropped, there are set-ups with no payoffs and payoffs with no set-ups, emotional beats don’t land, character arcs feel incomplete, ideas that might have taken the movie someplace more engrossing are quickly brushed aside. Hype around the movie has been that it’s awful, and for about half of its runtime, you’ll likely think, “Okay, this isn’t great, but it’s not as bad as I was lead to believe.” And then the flick goes completely off the rails into a rushed, inchoate finale, and you’ll likely think, “Okay, now this is pretty goddamn bad.”
The story, such as it is, involves three superheroes - Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani), and Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) - whose powers all become intertwined, courtesy of some incomprehensible sci-fi mumbo jumbo. As a result, using those powers causes them to physically switch places; if Captain Marvel is on a spaceship fighting bad guys and Ms. Marvel is in her room doing homework and Captain Marvel uses her powers, then in the blink of an eye, Ms. Marvel will find herself on the spaceship fighting bad guys while Captain Marvel will magically appear in Ms. Marvel’s bedroom.
So now the three women have to work together to fight Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), a generic villain with a longstanding grudge against Captain Marvel, explained via a brief flashback which feels like a highlight reel for a Captain Marvel 2 that was never actually produced. Of course, the trio have some internal obstacles to overcome, too, like the familial tension between Captain Marvel and Monica, and the fact that Ms. Marvel can’t stop fangirling out all the time. Also, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is there sometimes.
It’s clear that Marvel knows they’re on unsure footing from the moment the movie begins: There are multiple extended flashbacks, each akin to a “Previously On…” segment before the new episode of a television series, to make sure everyone in the audience is up-to-speed on who’s who. That’s the kind of thing Marvel hasn’t really done since their first big cross-over movie, The Avengers, in 2012. Avengers: Infinity War, released six years later, begins literally moments after the conclusion of Thor: Ragnarok, with no explanation whatsoever as to what’s going on. They knew everyone saw Ragnarok when it was released the autumn prior; they’re not counting on that kind of knowledge with The Marvels because Captain Marvel made a lot of money but no one really liked it, WandaVision aired almost three years ago already and Monica Rambeau hasn’t shown up in anything else since, and people largely skipped Ms. Marvel despite it being truly excellent.
But honestly, the fact that ten of The Marvels’ 105 minutes are devoted to telling us things we theoretically already know is the least of this movie’s problems. The issue is really that the details haven’t been shaded in it, like, even a little bit. As I said, it feels like a draft, not a finished product: There are loose thematic connections - Captain Marvel righting her relationship with Monica kinda helps her learn to be a mentor to Ms. Marvel, and Ms. Marvel’s admiration for Captain Marvel kinda helps Captain Marvel strive to be the hero people think she is and right her own past shortcomings - but it’s all so undercooked that it feels like a placeholder. The whole movie is like the cork board full of scribbled-upon index cards screenwriters use to outline stories. “Just say Ms. Marvel has to reconcile her ideal of what it’s like to be a superhero with the difficult reality of actually being a superhero for now, we’ll figure out how that actually happens later.” But then no one ever figured out how that actually happens. You will wonder, more than once, what the fuck is going on, why the fuck it’s going on, who the fuck is doing it, and why the fuck you’re supposed to care.
Still, The Marvels isn’t a TOTAL wash. Vellani’s star power shines bright even through this muddiest of narratives - she is by far the best reason to see The Marvels. There’s also a few spry action set pieces in which they wring fun from the heroes constantly swapping places, with a training montage scored to the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” being especially enjoyable. And some of the jokes land pretty well - the heroes spend time on a colorful planet where everyone sings instead of speaks, and the audience with which I saw the movie applauded approvingly at the apex of sequence involving kittens and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory” from Cats. There’s also a final scene and a mid-credits scene which both hint at much cooler things to come in the MCU’s future, and while that won’t quiet critics who assert that all Marvel movies are just ads for future Marvel movies, they still instilled me with hope that Marvel Studios isn’t down for the count just yet.
None of that makes The Marvels worth seeing, though - this is not good movie that’s just misunderstood, like Eternals - it just means that if you do see it, you won’t be checking your watch every five minutes, counting the seconds until it ends. So. That’s something, I guess.