3 out of 5 stars

Captain Marvel (2019) was a massive $1.3BN hit, but its timing played a significant role in its success. Released between Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), it rode a wave of audience excitement for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that was at an all-time high.

The Marvels, a sequel set in a wildly different cultural landscape, now faces waning interest amid a string of disappointing films and a glut of hit-and-miss TV projects. The film even pairs Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) with two characters who’ve been primarily developed on the small-screen: Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), who gained her light-manipulating powers in WandaVision, and fangirl Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), who’s fresh off her own Ms. Marvel series.

The Marvels is a mini-Avengers, as three heroes share the responsibility of shouldering the movie. This could be due to Marvel’s uncertainty about Brie Larson’s star power, or perhaps just the studio’s tendency to cram even its “standalone” films with supporting players. Fortunately, there’s a compelling and entertaining reason for Carol, Monica, and Kamala to join forces, which is more interesting than anything else happening in the film.

Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), the new Kree leader, seeks to restore her war-torn homeworld, Hala, by obtaining two Quantum Bands, which each hold immense power. One band is held by Kamala Khan on Earth, which granted her the ability to solidify light. However, Kamala’s powers become entangled with her childhood hero Captain Marvel and Monica Rambeau, meaning that whenever any of the three women use their powers, they switch places. This leads to chaos as Carol fights aliens on a distant planet, Monica investigates a space anomaly for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and young Kamala suddenly finds herself amidst all the action.

The Marvels presents a slight challenge for those who haven’t kept up with the Disney+ shows. Some may have forgotten who Monica Rambeau is and haven’t met Kamala and her quirky immigrant family yet. The film does a decent job of catching everyone up, especially by reintroducing Kamala as a Captain Marvel super-fan and highlighting her personality as a geek who’s thrilled to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Nick Fury. Iman Vellani’s infectiously happy and adorable screen presence is irresistible and goes a long way in making every scene she’s in work.

I also appreciated the contrast between Carol Danvers’ two friends’ relationships with her. Kamala, who only knows the “Captain Marvel” persona from TV and her own imagination, sees her as a huge celebrity and not a flawed human being. Monica, on the other hand, sees Carol as a difficult family member, her “aunt” who missed her childhood. And Carol herself is someone who struggles with being a symbol and role model, always being held to a higher standard.

The Marvels’ core trio of Carol, Monica, and Kamala is the film’s greatest success. The actors deliver winning performances, bouncing off each other with ease and showcasing their characters’ growth as they each overcome individual challenges and find greater strength through unity. It’s a familiar trope about different people learning to become a cohesive team, but it’s executed well and the characters’ contrasting personalities mesh brilliantly.

The downsides to The Marvels are familiar ones. Superhero movies often involve stopping a villain from acquiring a dangerous or powerful object, and this tried-and-trusted approach has become tiresome. Dar-Benn is therefore a forgettable antagonist, even with her morally ambiguous goals (she wants to steal natural resources from other planets to revitalise her own). Zawe Ashton is a talented actress given a wasted opportunity, as Dar-Benn is neither a frightening presence nor an interesting villain—despite having an intriguing perspective on Captain Marvel as a bogeyman the Kree refer to as “The Annihilator”.

Directed and co-written by Nia DaCosta (Candyman), The Marvels isn’t a total misfire, but it suffers from repeating a stale formula. It benefits from appealing performances and entertaining action sequences (especially when the Marvels learn to switch places during their three-pronged attacks ), but the story isn’t fresh enough to get excited about. Even Marvel’s brand of self-mocking humour has become so predictable it only elicits a few smiles along the way.

Overall, The Marvels starts promisingly but falters with a weak middle section (including an interlude with aliens who dress like they’re in a Bollywood musical and only communicate through song), and a general feeling of déjà vu. I appreciated a shorter, snappier MCU film that’s more of a “vibe” focused on the fizzy interplay of its female characters, but I wish they were on a better adventure.


Cast & Crew

director: Nia DaCosta.
writers: Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell & Elissa Karasik (based on Marvel Comics).
starring: Brie Larsen, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani, Zawe Ashton, Gary Lewis, Park Seo-joon, Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, Saagar Shaikh & Samuel L. Jackson.