By owie 14 Comments
This is a spoilers-riddled review of and essay on The Marvels.
The Marvels has become the nexus of a variety of conversations around the MCU, both in fandom and the general populace. It ties together questions about the long-term viability Marvel’s movie dominance with tensions and aspirations around race and gender.
But beyond that, The Marvels was a delightful, character-centered action movie that brought the joy of the early Marvel movies back to me. Not everyone thinks so, of course. Other viewers may have reasonable differences of taste or evaluations of quality, or they may bring biases about who superhero movies should be about. We’ll talk about all that. But first we’ll just look at the movie.
Three scenes really popped out at me while watching. Each gave me joy and made me feel like I was watching a movie that was not beholden to the increasingly formulaic structure of a comic movie: the scene with the Flerkens swallowing the SABER crew, the scene where the three Marvels practice their powers/switching together, and the musical scene on Aladna.
These were all just fun scenes that didn’t necessarily have to happen. They were there for pure entertainment’s sake. And I was there to be entertained.
Each scene stood out from a standard comic movie in different ways. The practicing-their-powers scene was the most standard; lots of comic movies have a montage where the heroes practice their powers. What made this version stand out to me was its pure delight. It wasn’t really about powers. It was about the characters. It was about them getting to know each other. The humor—plus the Beastie’s “Intergalactic” soundtrack—was infectious, particularly the jump rope parts. The repeated “now”s that failed to entice Kamala to jump in were a nice bit of character-based humor and Brie Larson had some moments while jumping where she seemed to smile or crack up in a way that felt unrehearsed and real. Who knows if those were actually unguarded real smiles; maybe she’s, you know, an actor and can fake that stuff. Either way, they were compelling and human moments of the kind that make you want to actually hang out with these actors. So while this wasn’t a different scene in kind from other comic training montages, it was different in purpose, in that it was about the people, not the powers.
The musical scene is something you see in plenty of movies, it’s just that they’re all other kinds of genre movies, like Bollywood or classic Hollywood musicals of the ‘30s and ‘40s. This insertion of another genre was jarring in a good way—a wake-up call that anything could happen in this movie. It was a pull at your sleeve that you keep alert for what might come next. And it looked great, hypnotically utilizing color and movement.
Now, I just said we don’t see these musical scenes in comic movies, but that’s not precisely true. Captain America: The First Avenger put an uncomfortable Steve Rogers into a song and dance stage extravaganza, there was a music and informal dance bit in Black Panther when T’Challa underwent his first trial by the waterfall, Eternals had Bollywood dancing via a visit to Kingo’s film set, Clint watched a Broadway musical of the Avengers in Hawkeye, and the Guardians Holiday Special had a couple musical set pieces. Seen in that way, The Marvels' musical is perhaps the culmination of a Marvel lineage of musical interludes. Those last two examples (Hawkeye and the Guardians Holiday Special) are perhaps the closest to the feel of the one in The Marvels. That’s fitting because The Marvels' take on alien cultures as seen in Aladna’s “language” of singing is as creative as any alien culture in Guardians, perhaps only equaled by the third movie’s baroque scene on Orgocorp. For me, the Guardians Holiday Special is possibly the best of the Guardians movies/shows. Its own purely goofy scenes, like the visit to Kevin Bacon, or its musical numbers, especially the closer, have the same kind of sui generis feel that the Flerken or Aladna scenes have in The Marvels. They’re just a showstopping bit of entertainment. I totally get that some folks are not going to like it. But to me, the musical scene in The Marvels fits perfectly with the rest of its open-eyed adventurous perspective.
Finally, we have the cat scene, which is just unique. It’s not a new take on a classic trope, it’s not a scene borrowed from other genres. It’s just weirdness for weirdness’s sake. It’s bizarre and cute as hell. And that scene is long! They just run that joke down with Flerken after Flerken gobbling people up. But it’s funny the whole time. Really, I can’t get tired of Goose. The scene where he’s licking himself, and his one leg is stuck up, the way cats sometimes seem to forget they left it up there, and his many tentacles are licking around himself, curling and exploring his bodily nooks and crannies…oh that is damn disgusting and hilarious. I also enjoyed the fact that the eggs the Flerkens hatched out of came across like a reference to Tribbles in Star Trek. And, the music for this scene is “Memory” from Cats. That’s just over the top. I like that they thought to do that, and I’m shocked that they got permission to do it. In that way, good musical choices run through all three of these standout scenes.
Again, while I personally thought these scenes added a lot of joy to the movie, I’m very aware that you may have a very different take, depending on what kind of mood you come to the movie in. If you’re not into it, the cats could be too much and the musical could be grating. But if you’re in the right zone, those scenes can harmonize with and elevate the spirit you came in with.
A Tight Plot with a Sense of What It Wanted to Do
One of the big reasons The Marvels worked was that it had a tight plot and a relatively short runtime of less than 2 hours. So many MCU movies have become bloated—way too long, with too much that could be cut. For instance, the whole subplot about Martin Freeman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus could have been cut out of World of Wakanda without any injury to the movie. It seems like every movie is trying to be Endgame again. Endgame only worked because it was the final step of a long interconnected series of shorter movies that each stood on their own and usually had a clear sense of what story they were trying to tell. A movie like Quantumania, on the other hand, tried to be Endgame in its grand scale of war but forgot all the characteristics that made the previous two Ant-Man movies successful. The first two Ant-Man movies were heist/comedy flicks. They knew what they were and what they were trying to do. Quantumania had no idea what it wanted to do other than to badly copy Endgame’s everything-everywhere aesthetic. The Marvels tosses all that. It has one simple villain, whose motivation we can understand, and runs us quickly from one plot point to another while retaining the focus on the characters. It’s tight and it knows what it wants to be.
The Marvels connects directly to two key future plot points for Marvel. The first is the inclusion of the X-Men and (presumably) Fantastic Four into the MCU. We already saw them in Multiverse of Madness but those characters died and that particular universe didn’t seem like it would merge with the MCU beyond that movie. The Marvels, however, seems like the beginning of regular crossovers—at least—between multiple worlds of heroes.
I personally expect to see a 2015 Secret Wars style situation where all the dimensions are merged (rather than a 1984 Secret Wars). I appreciate the way multiple dimensions/timelines have been built up across various Marvel properties, including The Marvels, Multiverse of Madness, Loki, What If?, No Way Home, and Into the Spiderverse. To a degree I think these different movies/shows treat the concept of timelines, dimensions, time travel, and alternate selves differently, but it’s still good to see it all reinforced and, in essence, for all things to be possible when it comes to alternate selves meeting and different continuities connecting.
Seeing Kelsey Grammer as Beast was fun in a nostalgic sense, but honestly he was not the best Beast and I’d rather not be anchored in that one particular X-timeline. I’d prefer to just have all the characters recast at this point. That’s one of the advantages of this continuity merger. The mainstream MCU is already having to deal with the fact that its stars are getting older, either recasting them or having other characters to take on the role (Ironheart instead of Iron Man, etc.). Why not preemptively do the same for the X-folks?
The second plot point is the Young Avengers, or whatever they’re going to call them in the MCU. Kamala recruits Kate Bishop and asks her if she knew Ant-Man had a daughter—Cassie, who gained Statue-style powers in Quantumania. There’s also Eli Bradley, aka Patriot, who showed up as the grandson of Isiah Bradley in Falcon and Winter Soldier. America Chavez was in Multiverse of Madness. Wiccan and Speed appeared in WandaVision. They were figments of Wanda’s imagination there, but there’s no reason they can’t come back just as they did in the comics. There’s no Hulkling yet, but we have Skrulls and Kree so he would be easy to introduce. Iron Lad is an early variant on Kang, so he could show up as well. There was a Kid Loki in Loki. We could even possibly get Young Vision via the White Vision from the end of WandaVision somehow. The speculation about the Young Avengers has been around for a while and it’s great to see it finally start to happen.
The Marvels is notably inclusive but it doesn’t make the identities of its characters an explicit theme. They’re all women but the characters don’t comment on it and there are no explicit instances showing stereotyping or bias. The same is true for the people of color in the cast, including Kamala and her family, Monica, Dar-Benn, Nick Fury, and several secondary characters. The only instance when race is brought up is Fury’s line “Black girl magic!” which felt a little forced to me. Instead of explicit themes on diversity, the movie simply rests on the pure value of representation. The movie is stronger, and stands out, because of who is in it, who is valued, and who is getting their story told. It’s a story about family, bonding, and respecting others—for instance, think about the number of times someone hugs or apologizes, like Kamala apologizing to Carol for not seeing her fully as an individual human. You just wouldn’t see that, at least in that form, in an all or mostly male movie. Characters like Kamala, or Miles Morales, have been telling new stories we just didn’t see before. As an old white guy who’s been reading comics a long time, I have to say comics have been really reinvigorated by their much more diverse casts these days. It's just a fuller, richer scene than it used to be. The inclusion of more diverse characters has made everyone feel renewed, more real, and they provide opportunities for characters to interact that wouldn’t be possible with the old ways. Think of how the presence of a Muslim character like Kamala makes Marvel’s fairly Christian cosmology, with many of its demons named after Christian names for the devil (Mephisto, Lucifer, Satannish, etc.), not to mention a Christian-like God/heaven in various comics like Ghost Rider, much more noticeably awkward. In the movies, writing Namor with a Mesoamerican background totally changes the way we understand him—and in a way that actually enhances our existing understanding of Namor as an enemy of colonization. All of which is to say, The Marvels’ use of diverse characters provides a real value not only to women and people of color who may see themselves in those characters, but to everyone who wants a more complex story.
Other Random Good Moments
Valkyrie only appeared for a moment but her natural cool sparkled while she was onscreen.
The running joke about Monica’s codename, given her plethora of names in the comics, was funny, as were the gossamer wings from her ‘80s costume that she tossed off on Aladna.
The fact that they’re calling the bangles “Quantum Bands” gives me at least some hope that Quasar may show up some day. I actually appreciate that this explains Kamala’s powers a bit more: instead of making her a copy of Mr. Fantastic with her stretching powers like in the comics, they’ve decided to make her a copy of Quasar with his quantum constructs. Personally, I still like the stretching powers, but at least now I see where they’re going with this.
Kamala’s intro cartoon was fun and helped tie into both her D+ show and, in a way, to the Spider-Verse movies, which have a similar feel (not look) to an extent.
Kamala’s family, particularly her mother, continue to be charming and create a very real-feeling foundation for her life.
I got a kick out of the scene where Carol played with Goose with the laser pointer. I dunno. LOL cats.
Monica sometimes feels like a third wheel. She was the least-developed character with the least-defined powers coming into the movie, and while her character continues to expand her powers don’t become much more clear by the end. Sometimes when Carol and Kamala are switching places, Monica is too, but a big portion of those parts for her happen offscreen. Monica can be intangible and see energy. How are her other powers different from Carol’s? Seemingly both can absorb and project energy. My take is that perhaps Monica can’t generate her own energy, she has to absorb it first, while Carol has some base level she can project?
The reason for the three Marvels’ entanglement could be more clear. Basically they say it’s because they all have light-based powers and Monica and Carol both touched a jump point. That’s fine, but then what about Kamala? The best argument I can come up with is that she’s wearing the Quantum Band, which created the jump points in the first place. But then what about Dar-Benn, who also had a Quantum Band?
It was a little odd to me that the movie focused entirely on the Kree origin of the bangle/Quantum Bands and not Kamala’s connection to the Djinn/Noor dimension. I get that there was a lot going on already but I think a couple extra lines about it would have been helpful.
The initial shot of the movie was unnecessarily confusing. It was impossible to identify it as a sun. I don’t see any reason to open the movie with something that the viewers won’t be able to understand. It’s only much later that we figure out what it was. I get the idea of starting with a baleful presence that creates a sense of concern, but since we don’t know what it is, it doesn’t really go past “oh, there’s a weird creepy red-orange space thing.” I thought maybe it was another iteration of Ego or something at first.
There’s an awful lot of exposition at the beginning of the movie. This is probably necessary, but it slows the movie down a little and takes you out of the here and now. I think this is really one of the biggest factors in the low box office—that the three characters come from three entirely different origin shows/movies, and viewers would need to have seen all three to really know what’s going on. Lots of people will have seen Captain Marvel or Endgame. Many fewer would have seen WandaVision or remember Monica’s non-headliner character from it (or recognize her as a child from Captain Marvel), and even fewer than that would have seen the Ms. Marvel show. So while hardcore fans understand all of these characters and why they might interact, the movie has to engage in a heavy lift to explain it all concisely to a movie-going audience that may not be familiar with them. It does that reasonably well, but it still throws a bit of a speed bump in the start of the movie.
Some of the costumes and character designs were better than others. I thought Ty-Rone’s yellow eyes stood out to a distracting degree. In general, the main characters’ initial costumes had better designs than the ones they changed to after Aladna. Danver’s starting costume with the three-quarter sleeves had some nice details, like the little belt-catch in the back. It felt like a cool mix between a superhero costume and actual clothes. The later one (below) was more generic and too dark. Kamala’s costumes are both a little shiny and plastic-y for my taste but the first one was less so. Monica’s costumes were both a little ill-fitting but I preferred the first one.
I feel like if they want to base a movie character on a comic character, there should be some reason to do so. Dar-Benn was a pretty random character in the comics and there was no reason to bring him into the movies, especially if they were going to change almost everything about him (albeit for the better). To be clear, I’m fine when they change a character’s race or gender, it can often create interesting new relations between them and the other characters and their overall context, as I mentioned with Namor. My problem is more that nobody cares about Dar-Benn the comic character and that they should have either picked a more interesting and relevant comic character or just invented the movie villain from scratch. I get that they don’t want to use a major comics villain if they’re going to kill her off right away, so creating a villain from scratch would have made more sense. I did really enjoy her really weird, unpredictable line-readings, and the fact that as a villain, she had a clear, understandable motive you could sympathize with. I do think it's a little problematic that Marvel's three most recent movie Big Bads have been black: Kang, High Evolutionary, and Dar-Benn, all of whom were originally white characters. They all had great acting performances, but that trend feels more like it's starting to hang on to negative stereotypes about black criminality than increasing the diversity of its cast.
I thought it was interesting that the scene of the Kree removing their atmosphere masks seemed to be a reference to people removing, or being unhappy with, covid-related masks, but this wasn’t really followed up on. Similarly, there was obviously a climate-change analogy, but that fell apart, since in Hala’s case it was (as far as I can tell) brought about by the destruction of the Supreme Intelligence as a coordinating mechanism, not consumerism and corporate greed.
A FEW OTHER OBSERVATIONS, NEITHER GOOD NOR BAD
I think it’s interesting that Monica is in essence going through a second Blip by going to the other dimension.
I’m curious to see if people spend as much time doing the math of cloud dispersal in this movie as they did with Ikaris in Eternals.
I’m unclear on when Jump Points became a fairly normal thing for humanity to have access to? Seems like a big leap forward for humanity to have access to.
It was interesting that the Quantum Bands, like the Infinity Gems, can destroy their user if the user isn’t durable enough or properly attuned to them. I like the continuity of this concept and am curious whether that means the Bands have a connection to the Gems or not.
I think it’s kind of fascinating that Marvel keeps re-using the Statue of Liberty in shots so you can to some degree keep track of the timeline based on what it looks like.
THE BOX OFFICE
The box office was obviously not great. What were the reasons for this?
There’s clearly a campaign on behalf of a small but noisy contingent to argue that the box office happened because Marvel is using diverse characters and that’s somehow a problem—that (and some will say this overtly and others will use dog whistles) comic characters should stay primarily white and male, and that by straying from this historical tradition, Marvel courts the anger of audiences. I’m sure it’s true that some bigoted audience members will stay away for this reason, but plenty of research has shown that having more diverse characters brings in a more diverse and larger audience, on average.
However, we know the people who are against more diverse characters put a lot of energy into their efforts and that they have an effect. For instance, they engage in systematic review bombing, lowering the scores of movies before they’re even released. This bigoted backlash has happened from GamerGate on: there was a backlash to the temporary replacement of comic characters like Wolverine and Steve Rogers by more diverse characters in the 2010s and there was a backlash against the use of female and black characters in Star Wars movies. Some fans in the Battle Forums have an obviously misogynistic cast to their approach to female characters like Wonder Woman, Danvers, and Rey. To be clear, you can dislike The Marvels (or Wonder Woman or Rey) without being a bigot. I mentioned several weaknesses of the movie here myself. But it is also impossible to ignore the fact that bigotry plays a part in its (and their) reception within the forums and at the box office.
Even beyond what we might call “sincere bigotry,” there’s good research showing that Russian intelligence services employ people to intentionally create division among westerners through online comments. They’ve done this in political forums, amplifying a sense of both right and left extremism, but they’ve also done it in pop culture. For instance, a study showed that a good percentage of the negative social media comments about the Star Wars sequel trilogy--and in particular about Rey and Finn--were actually created by Russian bots and spammers in order to sow cultural tension.
That may seem a bit far afield, but the point is that problematic negative campaigns do exist and do have a negative effect.
However, I think there’s more to the box office than that.
As I mentioned above, there was a lot of backstory to this movie. Viewers had to have knowledge of three separate shows/movies, which is a lot to ask. Alternately, they had to know about three different comic characters. Danvers has been around for decades and is fairly prominent. Rambeau has also been around since the ‘80s and was a groundbreaking character as a black woman leader of the Avengers, but she has spent a lot of time underutilized and away from the spotlight. Kamala is one of the most interesting, entertaining characters to be created in the last 10 years, along with Miles Morales, but she only has so many appearances and viewers can be easily forgiven for not knowing about her yet. Other movies have also used minor characters and been a success—the Ant-Man movies, the Guardians movies. But it’s an extra lift. And unlike the Guardians movies, which introduced all their characters in the movie so audiences didn’t need to know anything ahead of time, The Marvels built on existing history and made it harder for people to jump in. I think there was a bit of weariness on the part of the audience, a sense of “what work do I have to do to get ready for this?”
This leads to what I think is the biggest reason, which is burn-out. Marvel has made a ton of movies and now a ton of TV content. It’s just too much for the average person to follow at this point. It was one thing when they just had to follow the movies. It’s another thing to ask them to watch so much TV content that just the last couple years of D+ TV are rivaling the amount of movie-time since 2008. When the Marvel shows were on Netflix (plus the SHIELD and Freeform shows), it wasn’t as a big a deal, because their continuity wasn’t important to the movies. You could watch the movies without any idea what was happening on the TV shows. That’s no longer true. I know from my immediate family and friends that people just don’t have the energy or motivation to watch all this stuff anymore, and that makes them care less about the movies.
Added to that, the quality of recent content has been spotty. Folks will disagree on the specifics, but I don’t think anyone thinks every Marvel property has been awesome recently. That’s always been true—Dark World, anyone?—but it has more of an impact when there’s so much content and it takes so much time to consume. To use my own personal take, it’s frustrating to take the time to wade through the imperfect Multiverse of Madness, Quantumania, What If?, She-Hulk, and Moon Knight while waiting on gems like Into the Spiderverse, Loki, and Guardians 3. The former list of productions often seem rushed, with poor writing and directing, while the latter are bursting with creative energy. Marvel needs to nurture the folks who follow in the footsteps of the latter.
So my sense is that the low box office is largely due to Marvel burnout due to too much content and inconsistent quality, amplified by characters that took a lot of work to know about, with a garnish of a bigoted troll campaign. Marvel can fix this for the future, but it will take more work. I think a slightly lower amount of product, a clearer movie/TV continuity split (they can relate but you don’t have to have seen one to watch the other), and consistently higher quality are the only ways to go.
I am interested to see whether The Marvels gains viewers on streaming, like Pixar’s Elemental. Elemental bombed at the theaters but has enjoyed a huge success on streaming. I could see The Marvels doing the same thing, since streaming provides less of a barrier to entry.
Finally, I want to emphasize that there’s no connection between box office and the actual quality or value of a movie. Terrible movies like Venom, Aquaman, and the Transformers movies have done very well at the box office, and conversely the arts are awash in amazing works that have limited viewership—The Marvels shares the title of box office flop with Citizen Kane and Fight Club, for instance. But bad box office creates negative cultural associations and makes it less likely for corporations to invest in similar products in the future, so I think it’s worth mentioning the causes here.
I was really inspired to write this by the unexpectedly buoyant feeling I felt when I walked out of the theater. I was energized, I was ebullient. That’s all I want from a movie, and it’s something I’ve felt less and less from Marvel products recently. And honestly, I didn’t expect it. I thought I’d like it but it gave me more than that. It wasn’t perfect; using my personal rating style, I’m hovering between “excellent—significant strengths and no major weaknesses” and “good—mostly strengths with some weaknesses.” But given the widespread media negativity around this movie, I thought it was important to say that people should be the judge. Go see the movie. Then decide what you feel about it. If you have an experience like me, you’ll step away with a feeling of exhilaration—of moving into the future of what comic movies can be.
The Marvels is the future because it returned to a tight, streamlined narrative structure. The Marvels is the future because of its embrace of diversity, along with several other movies and shows that are also doing that work. The Marvels is the future because it ebulliently experimented with superhero movie expectations, adding in wacky cat-gobbling and musical scenes, breathing new life into an increasingly-predictable structure. The Marvels is the future because it made the next big step in combining the Fox and MCU universes and because it formally started the Young Avengers. The Marvels is the future because it was fun.