Let’s get this out of the way: I have seen every single Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, all 33 of them—even the Ed Norton Hulk. Some of it is simply the sunk-cost fallacy: I’ve put in this much time already, might as well see if things get any better this time around. Some of it is inertia: They’re kind of the only game in town, budgetarily speaking. And some of it is the Nerd Tax. When I was in middle school, the sweaty comics magazine Wizard ran a monthly column called “Casting Call,” suggesting movie stars who were far too classy to lower themselves to the role of a comic-book hero. Timothy Dalton as Iron Man? Famke Janssen as Black Widow? Come on! But now, no star is too big for the world’s biggest franchise. Comics fans got what we asked for, so I guess I have to like it.

Like everybody else, though, I’m also ready for it to be over. The whole conceit of the MCU, that you could have a hacky comedy, a hacky action movie, a hacky high school romance, and a hacky space opera that all share secondary characters and thus fit together to make one big hacky family, was cool for a while. But what has it done for me lately? The company can game Rotten Tomatoes all it wants—and it has, trust me: Spider-Man: No Way Home is not as good as Killers of the Flower Moon—but every time in the past few years I’ve gone to see a new Marvel movie in the theater, I’ve emerged asking myself why I didn’t just wait to watch it on an airplane. They’re disjointed, shot for television, and slavishly referential to dozens of hours’ worth of even more unappetizing television shows. Every now and then, though, they’re also wonderfully inspired, for a few glorious minutes. One leaves certain that the Walt Disney Co. could very easily make a fantastic superhero movie. They just don’t bother to.

Which brings us to the brand-new The Marvels, a movie with two fantastic musical numbers, three compelling leads, at least four truly fun action sequences, as well a bunch of garbage-y CGI, boring lore-dump flashbacks, and scenes where we’re left staring at the back of somebody who’s definitely not Brie Larson while Teyonah Parris and Iman Vellani emote over her stand-in’s shoulder.

The film follows Carol Danvers (Larson), who has developed a weird side effect to her superpowers causing her to trade places telepa … televi … teleportationally (shut up) with two other characters with similar powers, Monica Rambeau (Parris) and Ms. Marvel—Kamala Khan, played perfectly by Vellani. It doesn’t make much sense, which is the primary quality shared by this movie’s good parts. For example, I’m delighted to say that the movie tosses out Carol’s terrible personality, as seen in 2019’s Captain Marvel et seq. I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to cast Brie Larson as a superbeing tortured by a sense of inadequacy, but Larson’s appeal has always been that she exudes confidence and kinda-quirky chill vibes; it’s not that she was bad in Captain Marvel, it’s that Captain Marvel seemed tailor-made to underuse her. The Marvels, set 30 years after its ’90s-period-piece predecessor, informs us that Carol has spent the intervening decades trying to atone for bringing an entire world to the brink of extinction. And yet, the fact that she nearly caused a genocide has somehow made her … more fun? Like much of The Marvels, it doesn’t ring true. But giving Larson a chance to bring out her inner goof definitely does.

Watching recent MCU entries now approximates the feeling of picking up a 1980s Marvel comic and realizing that you’re reading a chapter of a convoluted, universe-spanning storyline like Secret Wars II or Inferno or Acts of Vengeance. You have no idea what’s going on, the bottom layer of the story started a full generation ago and incorporates a bunch of uninteresting material that will nevertheless be integral to your understanding of the Next Big Event, but in between all that cynical, contemptible advertorial junk there is … something. In the comics it’s often the art—David Mazzucchelli’s beautiful hard values on a page of Daredevil, or Walter Simonson’s crazy rectilinear Asgardian spaceships. Lurking underneath a year’s worth of Chris Claremont’s 50-word thought balloons for each of the New Mutants is the work of Bill Sienkiewicz, one of the finest abstract painters working then or now.

The good news for those who made it through those comic-book sagas is: It gets better, and the films might, too. The comics then and the movies now are weighed down by their unwieldy shared universe, which requires a firm editorial hand if any of the intertexts—which are very much the point of both the Marvel Comics Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe—are going to make sense. That can and does stifle creativity: If every comic book is an advertisement for the next comic book, what am I spending my money on? But there’s a frisson of glee a devoted reader gets from seeing Spider-Man suddenly show up in an X-Men comic! and while that’s not everything, it ain’t nothing. DC Comics’ shared universe is an agglomeration of a dozen different companies absorbed by a series of piratical publishing executives, and its contrasts are much starker and weirder. A Marvel book, despite its relative dearth of fictional cities like Gotham and Metropolis and Keystone, feels much more like a single, uniform place.

But of course superheroes need something to be super about, and if you’re not careful—and Marvel’s execs haven’t been—then you have to answer the question, “What happens after we save the world?” Sure, you can save the galaxy, or the universe, or the multiverse, or the afterlife, but dramatically speaking, it’s roughly the same thing, mostly involving ever-weirder special effects. That’s why Sienkiewicz and Simonson, Mazzucchelli and Miller, Jim Lee and Jae Lee are so valuable to the comics. If their distinctive styles could ever have been duplicated or even imitated on screen, it’s not by the same amiable second unit that seems to shoot about a third of every Marvel film. Tonal continuity has its drawbacks, especially when you’re trying to differentiate between glowing, universe-swallowing monsters.

The Movie That Just Dethroned Barbie Offers Another Cure for Superhero Fatigue

Read More

What’s heartening about The Marvels is that there are definite places where director Nia DaCosta seems to have had a freer hand, and it’s exactly in those places the movie shines. The Flerkens, a litter of carnivorous aliens who look like house cats but have tentacles instead of tongues, make a reappearance and populate (and depopulate) the movie’s most purely delightful scene. There’s a lengthy sequence on Captain Marvel’s spaceship that is just Larson, Parris, and Vellani vibing, and it’s better than any of the freeze-dried set pieces that marred Wakanda Forever and Eternals and Thor: Love & Thunder. There’s a musical interlude. None of this stuff is of a piece with previous Marvel films, and that, after 16 years of CGI explosions, is what wakes us up and makes us pay attention. It’s not an accident that the best Marvel film of the whole bunch might be James Gunn’s final Guardians of the Galaxy, which has almost no commerce with the wider MCU.

Advance tracking predicts The Marvels to be a bomb, at least by MCU standards, making about as much in its opening weekend as The Incredible Hulk, which cost roughly half what Marvel spent making The Marvels. I don’t know what lessons the studio will take from its almost inevitable failure, but hopefully they’ll reconsider taking such a heavy hand. (They won’t. But it would be cool!) The company began its rise to cultural supremacy by taking a long-shot bet on a volatile star, Robert Downey Jr., that paid out big when Downey killed as the lead in Iron Man. The more recent bet they placed on rising star Jonathan Majors, scheduled to be the big bad of the MCU’s Phase Four, hasn’t paid off so well. The domestic violence charges filed against Majors, a year without any films during COVID, an insistence on incorporating TV series with no quality control, and a general aimlessness among the franchise’s recent installments seem to have greatly diminished public interest in the future of the gigantic project.

But it’s worth remembering that the first Iron Man isn’t exactly Citizen Kane. Success has come with higher expectations, and in contrast to the Dolph Lundgren vehicles that used to populate the Marvel Comics movie-adaptation catalog, the MCU is a big enough deal that Martin Scorsese gets asked what he thinks of them every single time he does an interview. People have begun expecting real movies from the studio, and the studio doesn’t have the luxury of Jack Kirby’s visionary bedrock to retreat to. The good news is that this unmooring also makes room for invention. There are pieces of a real movie in The Marvels. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 came dangerously close to being one.

Marvel steadfastly insists on hiring visionaries when it would probably have better luck with hacks; DaCosta’s next film is an adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 19th-century masterpiece Hedda Gabler with MCU veteran Tessa Thompson in the lead. That’s in keeping with the Marvel Comics ethos, too, and it’s time to let some freak flags fly a little higher. If Kevin Feige is going to take swings like having the French-Algerian director of Dead Set do a Blade movie, he might as well go all the way.

 There are pieces of a real movie in here.  Read More