Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Even the most hardcore Marvel fans have been experiencing dissatisfaction with the recent slate of films and TV shows. Every project still receives its fair share of praise, but that positivity no longer carries to the next one like it used to. Some attribute this to the concept of ‘superhero fatigue’, but that’s not the true reason, considering that films such as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023), Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023), The Batman (2022) and Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) were still critical and commercial successes. This proves that superhero films will still hit big if the quality is maintained. Thus, the less than stellar release of the new Marvel film, titled The Marvels (2023), has more to do with its individual merits, than it does any kind of genre fatigue. However, one has to wonder, are The Marvels’ failings really that bad?
Set directly after the events of the TV show Ms. Marvel (2022), the new teenage superhero, Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) notices some strange activity from her magic bangle. Before she has time to fully examine it, she suddenly switches places with Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), the world famous Avenger known as Captain Marvel. Meanwhile, government agent Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) is conducting top secret work in space with Colonel Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). She too has recently acquired super powers, following her appearance in the TV show WandaVision (2021). As fate would have it, Monica is also body switching with Danvers and Khan, given that they’re all linked by their light based powers. At the same time, a revolutionary warrior named Dar-Benn (Zawedde Ashton), is out wreaking havoc in space, intent on restoring the home planet of the Kree race (which was nearly destroyed by a civil war instigated by Danvers).
For the most part, the Marvel films have succeeded in feeling rather self contained, despite all their characters and stories intersecting. This is key as to how the studio managed to maintain its staggering popularity, as the hardcore fans could follow every thread, while casual viewers could be more selective, and still have a good time. For example, the original Avengers (2012) was built up over five previous films, yet viewers didn’t necessarily need to watch them in order to appreciate it. Regardless of how convoluted the storylines became, Marvel Studios was able to have nearly every film work on its own, without the need for homework. The Marvels might be the first film which truly abandons this, as there’s at least four unrelated projects (one movie and three TV shows) needing to be viewed to fully grasp everything. This isn’t to say The Marvels is hard to follow, seeing as it’s a film for 10 year olds, and is straightforward from a storytelling perspective. The thing which may be lost on many viewers is how the world building and lore works. It seems as though the studio has given up re-contextualising every detail for the casual fans, which is odd because casual fans are who make up the bulk of the box office.
With that in mind, The Marvels rushes through every story beat at a highly brisk pace, ensuring the film doesn’t have a chance to flesh out the themes, plot, characters and details. From an editing perspective, the first draft is always too long, the second draft is always too short, and the refined third draft is somewhere in the middle. The Marvels feels like it’s still in its second draft, meaning it has all the plot points intact, everything functionally fits together, and it’s mostly cohesive. However, the extremely tight structure, results in many of the most interesting ideas being barely touched on. They are definitely present and can be appreciated when analysing character arcs and motivations, but compressed runtime makes it difficult to become fully invested. This also extends to the legitimately great set-pieces, which are fun, funny and creative, but sadly don’t commit to their full potential. The final result feels like the studio was scared that viewers wouldn’t embrace the insanity, so they cut it down to the barest minimum. In reality, it’s more likely The Marvels would’ve soared if it was allowed to be itself.
Regardless, none of this takes away from The Marvels perfectly adequate entertainment value, which is the film’s major saving grace. While there’s definitely superhero films with more artistic integrity, thematic power, heavy emotion, grounded intimacy, epic grandeur and cultural relevance, The Marvels isn’t really aiming for those aspirations. It’s providing simple, clean and harmless fluff to be enjoyed for 100 minutes. There’s no rule which states that every comic book film needs to be a game changer. The audience has just been trained to expect it, seeing as so many iconic, influential and highly acclaimed films are in the genre. The Marvels isn’t trying hard enough to fall hard enough, making it a watchable and unchallenging experience. As such, don’t ask it to measure up to the likes of Superman (1978), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Dark Knight (2008), Logan (2017) or Black Panther (2018).
This expectation adjustment is easy enough to achieve when taking a close look at the performances of Iman Vellani, Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris and Samuel L. Jackson. The entire cast seems to be having a great time, enjoying each other’s company, having a laugh and not letting the weight of the action bother them. It can be strange at times, considering some of these characters were in a dark place the last time we saw them, but it’s not as though Marvel films haven’t jumped between conflicting tones before. Vellani is the clear standout, injecting much needed energy into every scene she’s in. The most underserved cast member is Zawe Ashton as the villainous Dar-Benn, who is given very little to work with. Ashton is an extremely talented actor and does what she can with the role, but there’s only so much she can achieve with such a thinly written antagonist. Granted, Marvel films have had their fair share of underdeveloped villains, so this is nothing new. The studio puts a lot more effort into making its heroes likeable, and that is still achieved here.
Nevertheless, there is one major issue which is probably the main thing holding the film back, and that is the wasted potential. While it’s true that The Marvels is under no obligation to be an amazing film, it does put itself in a position where the viewer may wonder what might have been. This is most evident in the film’s narrative backstory, which outlines a new status quo for our main hero, Carol Danvers. Between now and her previous film Captain Marvel (2019), it feels as though the character has been through an entire trilogy’s worth of adventures, all of which seem like far more exciting, interesting and memorable stories than this one. Additionally, The Marvels’ final scenes hurriedly set up massive implications for the ongoing story, but the film itself isn’t really worthy of the revelations, as they feel like last minute additions thrown in to make this essential viewing for the hardcore fans.
In the long run, The Marvels will probably be most comparable to Thor: The Dark World (2013), meaning it’s a competent, unremarkable, yet harmlessly enjoyable popcorn movie, which many people will hate a lot more than it deserves. That being said, even the most forgiving viewer would say The Marvels is only a mid-tier superhero film.
Best way to watch it: Let your inner 10 year old out to play.