The Few Charms of ‘The Marvels’ Get Lost in Another MCU Entry on Autopilot

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is at the point where it is whipping back to where comic book movies used to be before it changed the scenery. Take away all the franchise expectations and “The Marvels” is your basic superhero romp. This studio has defined so much of pop culture for over a decade and so every new entry is saddled with hype. As it tries to define its current trajectory, Marvel’s output has been an uneven crop of titles as of late. No one is trying to be groundbreaking anymore but simply hoping to cater to a loyal fanbase. Despite the strong cast, you can predict every move in this movie since it never does much more than fly on autopilot.

The plot slightly bridges to 2019’s “Captain Marvel,” but as all MCU aficionados know, a lot has happened since then. Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) has been floating around space still helping the alien race of the Skrulls. Also up in the cosmos and working with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is astronaut with superpowers Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), the now grown daughter of Carol’s bestie from the ‘90s. Down on Earth, teen Captain Marvel superfan Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) is learning to maneuver her own powers. The three are thrown into a strange body-swapping crisis when Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), the new leader of another alien civilization, the Kree, captures a Quantum Band in her quest to break open space and time, and get revenge on Carol. It turns out when Carol helped the Skrulls defeat the once imperialist Kree, she helped render the latter’s world into ruin. Dar-Ben needs one more Quantum Band, which is the bejeweled bangle Kamala wears that once belonged to her grandmother.

To the growing annoyance of general audiences, Marvel has become an expansive franchise tree where you need to get a Disney Plus subscription in order to comprehend where all these stories are going. Sometimes, it’s just for the smaller details. If you watched the series “WandaVision,” you will understand how Monica gained her light-manipulating powers after stepping into the hexed zone created by Scarlet Witch. Kamala’s entire backstory can be seen in the show “Ms. Marvel.” Technically this year’s “Secret Invasion” is another link, although Nick Fury does nothing in this movie other than stand around a space station. It’s all adding up to a franchise that has been struggling to find sure footing since doing away with the original, classic characters that everyone recognized. The sudden death of “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman has no doubt also left the trajectory of the MCU disoriented. No character has provided a good anchoring for whatever grand design Kevin Feige has in mind. 

“The Marvels” is overall a tighter film than recent, overly bloated entries like “Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Thor: Love and Thunder.” Alas, director Nia DaCosta (2021’s “Candyman”) faces the same challenges of other respected directors tapped with Marvel gigs in trying to keep it all coherent while catering to the cliché beats. The screenplay by DaCosta with Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik is a blender of half-explored ideas and teases. A lot is introduced and never followed through. Carol is struggling to retrieve her memories. Monica is haunted by the loss of her mother. Kamala is dealing with her powers and living at home with two lovable parents and quirky older brother. And what exactly is the full backstory of the villain? For that matter, where’s Nick Fury’s wife from “Secret Invasion”? The story’s different angles are brushed aside to focus on the usual involving stopping Dar-Benn from transferring the Earth’s sun to her home planet, the arid Hala. Now these movies truly feel like they’re repeating themselves.

The directing is pretty standard Marvel fare. Only a few directors like James Gunn, Taika Waititi and Chloe Zhao have left unique stamps, everyone else follows the usual visual and tonal mold. Steve McQueen’s regular cinematographer Sean Bobbitt is credited here, but to what end? It looks about the same as every other MCU movie with at least two decent shots that wink at movies like “Gravity” and “The Right Stuff.” What works better than the plot is some of the genuinely funny gags involving Kamala’s Pakistani family (Mohan Kapur, Zenobia Shroff and Saagar Shaikh) adjusting to space travel. Remember the adorable cat from “Captain Marvel” hiding a devouring alien? It barely registers in “The Marvels,” but in the third act there’s a hilarious use of various, similar cats rampaging around a space station to the tune of “Memory” from “Cats.” The funniest bit finds the three Marvels landing in Aladna, a planet where everyone speaks in song. Carol apparently married a local prince (Park Seo-joon) for political convenience. Once the heroes acquire the ship they need, we never see the planet again.

A strained feeling is now prevalent in recent MCU titles. “The Marvels” has entertaining performances from a trio of strong actors, but it lacks actual joy in its making. Even the soundtrack is bare bones when compared to “Captain Marvel,” which knew how to celebrate ‘90s grunge. Once everyone starts punching each other through hovering craft and infrastructure, you can easily take a bathroom or snack break, return and miss nothing. Admirably, there are a few ideas lurking around the script about colonialism and wars for resources. They just don’t last long. MCU artists must also be growing tired of recycling the same CGI grassy landscapes. Yes, there is a bonus end credits scene and it might just be the one moment in the movie that truly feels like classic Marvel in its fan-servicing cameo of a certain blue scientist. The rest is filler and pretty much just another comic book movie.

The Marvels” releases Nov. 10 in theaters nationwide.