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When the best part of a superhero movie is the screenplay, you know you’re in trouble. There’s enough going on in “The Marvels”—enough situations with dramatic potential, enough twists with imaginative power—to develop several decent movies. Unfortunately, they’re snipped and clipped, jammed and rammed, dropped into the movie (and swept out of it) with an informational indifference that doesn’t even have the virtue of speed. The heedless rush to splash the story onto the screen leads to an appalling waste of the formidable talents marshalled to depict it.
There are so many undeveloped elements here, but one of the most fundamental is dramatic morality: one mode of tragedy is a conflict of virtues, but there’s hardly any villainy in “The Marvels,” and everyone, more or less, has their reasons. The movie, directed by Nia DaCosta (who co-wrote the script with Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik), is a follow-up to the 2019 film “Captain Marvel.” There, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), a U.S. Air Force pilot who has gained superpowers (and the moniker of the title), was caught in a war between two space peoples, the Kree and the Skrulls. In the follow-up, Danvers, accused of accidentally extinguishing the sun that made the Kree and Skrulls’ planet habitable, is living in a guilt-ridden, self-imposed space exile. She’s called back into action by the Avengers’ handler Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to repair a so-called “jump point,” a kind of space portal. She’s joined in this mission by an astronaut named Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), who was a child in the earlier movie. Their work brings them into contact, via a strange intergalactic connection, with a Jersey City teen-ager, Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), a big fan of Captain Marvel comic books who also has secret superpowers and has a special glowing gauntlet to prove it. The gauntlet is one of a pair, the other of which is in the possession of a Kree warrior named Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton). She hates Captain Marvel for the destruction of her planet and seeks to maximize her powers by capturing Kamala’s gauntlet. Meanwhile, when Monica and Captain Marvel meet at the jump point, they and Kamala all switch places with each other, thus making one another’s battles suddenly their own as well.
The results include a handful of showdowns—one in the Khan family house, several in outer space—and some derring-do with spacecraft. There’s also some gentle family sitcom involving Kamala’s parents (Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur) and her older brother (Saagar Shaikh), who, to his parents’ dismay, is still unmarried. There’s some blunt and blundering comedy involving Captain Marvel’s marriage of convenience to a prince (Park Seo-joon) on a planet whose inhabitants communicate solely by song. There’s calculatedly sweet comedy in Kamala’s awkward fangirling of Captain Marvel. There’s the peculiarity of Captain Marvel’s cat, who has a mouthful of yards-long tentacles with which it can swallow creatures many times its own size and spit them back out intact. There’s the political wink of the efforts to help the Skrulls, now refugees, find a home. Best of all, there’s some mighty faux-scientific mumbo-jumbo involving a rip in the space-time continuum that could, and perhaps should, have been a movie all to itself, with special effects to match.
Any one of these many elements, obvious and familiar though they may be, could serve as the framework for a popular action fantasy. And the fact that none of the main characters is seriously in the wrong, that all are pursuing worthy ends in disparate ways, also sets things up for complexity. Another reason I had high hopes for this one is that DaCosta’s previous film, “Candyman,” the fourth film in a long-dormant horror franchise, was written with exploratory fervor and filmed with starkly simple yet dramatically supercharged special effects. But “The Marvels” doesn’t give her the leeway to do anything comparable here, and gradually sinks under the weight of convention, formula, and routine. The movie’s fight scenes are boilerplate, with no sense of the heroines’ vulnerabilities, no sense of what can be escaped from and what can’t. Notably, the best effects are the simplest—the sudden appearance of each of the three women in the place of the other, whether teleporting across galaxies or just across the room. (There’s nothing in such scenes that couldn’t have been done by Georges Méliès in the mid-eighteen-nineties.)
What happened to superhero movies? How did a genre rooted in astonishment, weirdness, and wonder become a byword for the normative, the familiar, and the mundane? The paradox of the superhero franchise is that it turns fans of a mythos into consumers of a brand—to the point that, often, behind-the-scenes stories about the brand and its place in the current media scene are far more intricate, impassioned, and engaging than anything happening on the screen. It never ceases to amaze me that the chief Marvel producer, Kevin Feige, with his lifelong love and deep knowledge of comic books, became the Man. Somewhere along the way, executives’ suits became more powerful than those of the superheroes they marketed.
You can see this in the way that the tight formatting of “The Marvels” gives actors as powerful as Larson and Parris and the newcomer Vellani (in her first movie role) little to do. The performances required of them are simply to emblematize emotions in an instant, like humanized emoticons. Larson does so with a steadfast sternness that’s one notch short of sheer camp, which I wish she’d unleashed. I’ve always found something essentially martial in her manner, going back to her performance as a caretaker for troubled teens in the 2013 independent film “Short Term 12.” I suspect that she finds a superhero role more artistically gratifying than many actors of her calibre do, and I wish that the movie gave her the space and the time to explore this. (That said, allowing the simple power of a dramatic performance to emerge in a film as confected as “The Marvels” might blow a hole in its own space-time continuum.)
One of the more recent developments in the Marvel franchise has been the embrace of highly distinctive filmmakers, such as DaCosta, Chloé Zhao, and Peyton Reed. This should have guaranteed an ever-expanding universe of cinematic inventiveness—with the budgets (and the hordes of skilled associates listed in the end credits) to back it. Instead, their individual artistry has been largely dominated and overwhelmed by the franchise’s systems of production. For all the efforts to widen and diversify the creative teams involved in superhero movies, their key creators are a specific bunch of stuffy and older white men. I’m referring, of course, to the United States Congress, which, in 1976 and again in 1998, extended the terms of copyright so that, under the so-called Mickey Mouse Protection Act, works published before 1978 may be kept under corporate control for ninety-five years. As a result, many of the classic comic-book superheroes remain, even now, decades away from the public domain, decades away from liberation from corporate rights holders. The sway and scope of comic-book stories—the extended universes they envision and the passionate devotion they inspire—arguably make them our contemporary equivalent of ancient religious texts. But, as long as individual studios retain the copyrights, it’s as if all representations of Biblical characters and stories were controlled by the Vatican. The result is to keep superhero movies, and much of Hollywood, in an artificial state of immaturity that’s indistinguishable from senescence. The movies’ extended universes are far narrower than life. ♦