What utter joy The Marvels brings to the Marvel Cinematic Universe! For a blithe 105 minutes, we get all the requisite action and hilarity we’ve come to know and love from the best of the MCU, but we also get a playfulness that escaped even the most lighthearted of the 32 films preceding it. It’s not simply a comedic playfulness (although The Marvels has that in spades), but rather the fun of acknowledging these films for what they are and how we, as an audience, are wowed by the characters that have fueled the multiplexes for fifteen years.
At this film’s heart is Kamala Khan, played preciously by Iman Vellani, reprising her titular role from the Disney+ miniseries “Ms. Marvel.” No more than a teenage girl saddled with homework – and the ability to turn light into physical matter – Kamala is what Mark Wahlberg’s Chris Cole from 2001’s underappreciated Rock Star was: “A wannabe who got to be.”* Vellani gives Kamala the raw, unabashed spirit of someone pricking around the edges of a larger world who finally gets invited into it, and she couldn’t be more thrilled.
Well, “invited into it” might be a tamer description of how she’s yanked into the Marvel consciousness, as a rip in the very fabric of space and time causes her to suddenly switch places with her idol, Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson)… who’s currently in the middle of a full-on fight on a Kree space vessel. Also pulled into the switcheroo act is scientist Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), last seen receiving light-bending capabilities in “WandaVision.” The fantastic opening twenty minutes contain some of the most eye-popping, radical action as these three – all with the ability to use light in different ways – are forced to deal with how their powers are chaotically intertwining.
This isn’t the only thing this trio has to figure out; among other things, Carol and Monica’s familial relationship finally comes full circle. The last time Monica saw Captain Marvel (who was Monica’s mother Maria’s [Lashana Lynch] best friend) was as a little girl, watching as “Aunt Carol” flew into space with the promise that she’d “be back before you know it.” What we knew as “The Blip” – supervillain Thanos’ cataclysmic snap that halved all of life on Earth – gets more of a personal examination through Monica’s lens. Having lost her mother to cancer before she returned from The Blip and with Aunt Carol gone, no one was there for her when she came back. Monica’s had to fight for every inch of her life and career, but she’s not sure how to tackle this emotional reunion.
Likewise, Kamala also has to learn the difference between fantasy and reality when it comes to being a superhero. She’s saved from serious harm by both Captain Marvel and Photon, but it’s in seeing who Carol and Monica are as people that gives her arc growth and meaning. Especially after it’s revealed that one of Captain Marvel’s benevolent actions – at least it was thought to be benevolent – left a Kree planet and its citizens in abject ruin. Now, one of those citizens, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), is out to avenge her planet’s destruction, an unusual spin on the standard Marvel warp and weft of “Big Bad On A War Hell Ride.”
(Pour one out for Wesley Willis.)
The script by director Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, and Elissa Karasik balances the Marvel sturm und drang with effusive wit and strong emotional ties. But it also enjoys rolling in a certain knowing silliness and, as I mentioned before, playfulness. I honestly have never had as good a time at a Marvel movie as I have with The Marvels. Between the mix of Iman Vellani’s characterization of the ultimate fangirl, Brie Larson’s steady aura of assurance (like there’s nothing under any sun she hasn’t seen), Teyonah Parris’ eagerness and bravery, and Zawe Ashton’s unyielding wrath, the human factor and the foibles that come with it are played up in a way that defies most of the other MCU films where everyone struts around like the cock of the walk.
Da Costa – fresh off an astounding reboot of Candyman – makes an electric entry into the MCU with The Marvels. She has a unique eye for controlled chaos, and she is capable of funneling disparate personalities into a singular stream. This script demands us to not only focus on the superhero trio; it also asks us to internalize the consequences of actions big and small. We could have been given a stock-standard Marvel film where the righteous are just and the villains are true evil, but the lines are a bit more blurred here. A hero to us might be an “annihilator” to others; likewise, a villain might be someone’s savior. DaCosta gives even weight to these considerations and guides us to believe in the better angels of our humanity, the conflict of anger, and the wide-eyed wonder of youth.
You honestly can’t help but smile and laugh at Kamala’s reactions to things she’s never seen, like a world where singing and dancing take the place of normal conversation, or a cat suddenly devouring two humanoid beings via the large tentacles shooting out of its mouth (as I’m writing this, I’m searching up the trailer on YouTube to find that exact bit). There are more moments in The Marvels like these that remind us of our own humanity; not everyone’s made a superhero, nor is everyone expected to be. But those who are given the opportunity and have the courage to step up and take it? That’s a marvel in and of itself. And that’s why we watch these movies – to see courage in action. To see people like us become extraordinary. And that’s what The Marvels is: extraordinary.
(* – Of course, it’s later revealed that Kamala is not a “wannabe” at all – watch “Ms. Marvel” for further explanation. It’ll make you smile.)