The Marvel ship is sinking, and The Marvels (in theaters Nov. 10) won’t keep it afloat. Director Nia DaCosta’s sequel to 2019’s financially successful if creatively ho-hum Captain Marvel is the first big-screen Marvel Cinematic Universe entry to require significant knowledge of the series’ Disney+ efforts, thereby tethering it to the middling fare that has helped get the franchise into dire straits. Another in what’s become a long line of stakes-free adventures that neither stand on their own nor contribute to a compelling overarching serialized saga, it’s an irrelevant B-team affair which further suggests that the MCU can’t survive, short- or long-term, without the active participation of its most famous characters.
(Warning: Minor spoilers follow.)
Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), alas, has never been one of those, and she remains a generic bore in The Marvels—a hero of unmatched power who has the personality of drywall. When DaCosta’s film first locates her, she’s floating through the cosmos in a ship, using a device to recover some of her still-MIA memories. The flashes she witnesses aren’t particularly illuminating for her but they at least remind viewers that Jude Law and Annette Bening co-starred in her maiden theatrical outing. Her reveries don’t last long, however, since she soon receives a call from old buddy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) asking her to check out some weird energy signature.
At the same time, right outside Fury’s window on his S.A.B.E.R. space station, astronaut Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) notices a comparable strange occurrence in the distance and investigates. When both Captain Marvel and Rambeau touch their respective mysterious tears in the fabric of time-space, they magically switch places with each other, as well as with the third member of their soon-to-be team, teenage Jersey City do-gooder Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani).
The cause of this anomaly is Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), a Kree warrior who’s recently procured a magical bangle that’s identical to the one that gives Khan her powers, which like Captain Marvel and Rambeau have something to do with “light.” Written by DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, and Elissa Karasik, The Marvels doesn’t define its protagonists’ abilities, nor does it adequately introduce Dar-Benn or explicate, until much later, her motives. Instead, it commences with a harried body-swapping set piece and rarely lets up, racing through every scene, jokey punchline, and emotional beat at a pace that makes it seem like it’s eager to wrap itself up posthaste.
That’s a mercy considering the scattershot quality of these proceedings. Frenetic and slapdash, the film appears to have undergone considerable post-production patchwork renovations, albeit to no avail; at multiple points, DaCosta cuts between mismatching shots, implying—as does her zig-zagging plot—that vital material was left on the cutting room floor.
Only those well-acquainted with WandaVision and Ms. Marvel will know much about the adult Rambeau and the adolescent Khan, the former the daughter of Captain Marvel’s deceased best friend, who received her powers by walking through a “witch hex,” and the latter a Pakistani-American high-schooler obsessed with Captain Marvel. Khan’s dorky fangirling is The Marvels’ only source of amusement, this despite repeated attempts to turn her overbearing family—mom Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff), dad Yusuf (Mohan Kapur), and older brother Aamir (Saagar Shaikh)—into comedic-relief sidekicks. Nonetheless, her clumsy-adorable shtick is rather one-note, and a few gags involving Captain Marvel’s hungry mutant cat Goose become similarly repetitive in short order.
The Marvels moves at such a blazing speed that nothing sticks: Captain Marvel, Rambeau, and Khan’s interpersonal dynamics are rushed; their flip-flopping, energy beam-heavy battles are incomprehensible; and their mission’s parameters and particulars are a lot of meaningless gobbledygook. The action refuses to catch its breath, thereby obliterating any narrative rhythm or cohesion, as well as neutering the emotional impact of Captain Marvel and Rambeau’s fraught reunion after decades apart. Worse, aside from Vellani, no one exhibits more than a single character trait; Rambeau looks like she’s too busy trying to make heads or tails of her sci-fi predicament to exhibit any individuality, and Captain Marvel continues to be the blandest figure in the MCU, devoid of a distinctive attitude, worldview, or desire.
The Marvels zips and zaps about in search of inspiration, sending its central trio to a colony populated by the Skrulls (a race of green, pointy-eared shapeshifters) and, then, to a water planet where everyone communicates through song and dance and looks like a cheery Cirque du Soleil reject. During that stop, it’s revealed that Captain Marvel is a princess married to Prince Yan (Park Seo-joon)—a marriage of convenience that might have complicated her rapport with Khan (whose infatuation resounds as pretty sapphic), if the film were willing to dive headfirst into such waters. Unsurprisingly, given the studio’s general conservatism, it isn’t, and Captain Marvel’s union proves to be merely one more trivial detail in a fiasco full of them.
Speaking of tossed-off elements, Dar-Benn competes vigorously for the title of Least Interesting MCU Baddie, thanks to stock grievances and a scheme that hinges on “time jumps,” “wormholes,” and other concepts the proceedings can’t be bothered to explain or develop.
Just as The Marvels’ story is hurried, some of its signature CGI shots look half-finished; putting a glowing outline around a flying Captain Marvel, for example, does not offset the film’s chintzy green-screen effects. Everything wraps up in a flurry of skirmishes that don’t adhere to the previously established body-swapping rules, deaths that happen for no discernible reason, and sacrifices that resonate as unnecessary. Even if it’s not the MCU’s worst (that dubious honor still belongs to Thor: The Dark World), it’s arguably its shoddiest, which isn’t much better. There’s an aimlessness to this endeavor that’s become common for the franchise, whose multiplex-conquering knack for concocting reliably entertaining spectaculars has all but vanished.
Consequently, it’s no shock to find that, following nearly 105 minutes of helter-skelter flying, blasting, punching, bickering, and hugging, The Marvels falls back on the MCU’s most reliable trick: cameos from popular existing characters and teases about exciting new horizons. Its big post-credits scene may be enough to keep die-hards hooked and prevent mainstream moviegoers from completely signing off. Yet despite the promise of that extraordinary future, there’s desperation in the air, and it’s slowly choking the life out of the once-mighty cine-behemoth.