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Silly and funny Marvels is a superpowered intergalactic treat

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Photo courtesy of Disney
Photo courtesy of Disney


It goes without saying that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a victim of its own success. Or its largesse. Or both. It's honestly difficult to tell. Especially post-Avengers: Endgame, some of the installments have been a little rudderless (Thor: Love and Thunder, Spider-Man: Far from Home), come at the wrong moment in the timeline (Black Widow), or spent so much time setting up future events that their central narratives suffer (Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantomania, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings).

The ones I've enjoyed the most — Eternals, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and especially Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 — have a few key elements in common: they all have strong directorial voices (Chloé Zhao, Sam Raimi, and James Gunn), they're not afraid to get weird and forge their own, unique path, and they feature mostly self-contained storylines that only branch out to the greater MCU minimally (and usually during their post-credit sequences, if at all). While they do vary in overall quality, I've still found all very easy to return to, and considering how many motion pictures and — thanks to the advent of Disney+ — television shows there are at this point, that's saying something.

In theory, The Marvels was going to inevitably end up as one of the MCU's missteps. Not only did this sequel to 2019's Captain Marvel appear as if it would be the catalyst that finally showcased what gigantic catastrophic event this universe was building toward during this particular phase, but it also had to incorporate storylines and characters from the Disney+ programs WandaVision and Ms. Marvel.

Director Nia DaCosta (Candyman) said the heck with all of that. While maybe the most inconsequential film Marvel has put out into the world (not including a post-credit teaser that is both crowd-pleasingly awesome and a little desperate feeling at the same time), it is also one of the fastest-paced and most humorously beguiling. When focusing on the larger-than-life chemistry of its three stars — Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, and the luminous Iman Vellani — this intergalactic, body-swapping adventure is terrific, and it's only when it is time for its heroes to finally save the universe from certain doom that things sadly fall somewhat flat.

It's impressive how simply DaCosta and the rest of the writing team integrate into the proceedings the post-Blip Monica Rambeau (Parris) and 16-year-old Jersey City hero Kamala Khan aka Ms. Marvel (Vellani). The film recaps their respective origin stories (outlined in the two aforementioned TV shows) quickly and concisely. These moments are orchestrated into the main plotline with minimal fuss, and any lengthy exposition is thankfully kept to a minimum.

Once that's out of the way, our heroes are off and running. Courtesy of a central McGuffin that barely makes a lick of sense, cosmic hero Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel aka The Annihilator (Larson) discovers that her massive powers have become inexplicably bonded to the ones utilized by Monica and Kamala. Whenever one of them uses their light-based abilities at full force, they suddenly take the place in space and time of one of the other two women. Carol fighting the Kree on a distant planet? Suddenly she's in Kamala's bedroom closet, while Monica takes her place in the middle of a battle, and the teenager is floating aimlessly in outer space, much to the understandable befuddlement of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

This forces the trio to team up to figure out what's going on and why. That way, they are all together when they inevitably start to change places. Their adversary is Kree warrior Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), who's trying to save her ecologically ravaged homeworld of Hala by destroying the planets that Carol has protected in the past. She's discovered a powerful artifact that can make this possible, but the cost is a fracturing of the space-time continuum that, once raptured, may not be able to be sewn back together.

It's utter nonsense, and with the film barely running an economical 105 minutes, it's not like there is a lot of time for DaCosta to connect all the dots. This produces an episodic feeling that doesn't allow all of the individual elements to work together in tandem. But it also introduces a freewheeling, anything-goes vitality into the mix that the MCU typically lacks. Directly because of this, the opening action set piece that brings all three women together is one of the more creatively exhilarating that Marvel has ever engineered.

But this slapdash, breezily chaotic aesthetic isn't always a plus. Scenes barely hang together, especially as events near their climax. The final showdown with Dar-Benn is frustratingly underwhelming, and the relative ease with which everything is resolved is equally so. As for that cliffhanger stinger during the mid-credits, it's very cool. It also feels like it was added at the last minute. Make of that what you will.

As for Dar-Benn, she has the potential to be one of the MCU's best villains, and Ashton is up to the challenge of giving the character life. But things happen so rapidly that her Kree warrior is never fully developed. She ends up being a one-dimensional baddie, so much so that the good intentions fueling her quest for revenge have zero emotional weight. This is unquestionably a problem.

Yet only a minor one. Larson, Parris, and Vellani make a stellar team, and the joy they obviously had interacting with one another while making the film bleeds over into the finished product. It's even better when Kamala's family gets into the mix, and much like she did on Ms. Marvel, the great Zenobia Shroff steals every single scene she's in as the teenage superhero's protective mother Muneeba. And don't let me get started on Goose and her adorable litter of Flerkittens.

Not every entry in the MCU needs to be an epic spectacular. In a series as giant as this one has become, it's okay that some of these efforts are tidily independent one-offs that cut loose, do something different, and — best of all — have some fun. While The Marvels doesn't quite fit that bill from start to finish, that it almost does is nothing to scoff at. DaCosta delivers a family-friendly interplanetary frolic (complete with an impromptu Gilbert and Sullivan—like musical sojourn) filled to the brim with colorful visuals, strong special effects, character-driven humor, and exciting action sequences. That's more than good enough for me.