Wednesday, November 29, 2023

On the woes of 'The Marvels'

Captain Marvel is unsure of what place to occupy in the universe or how to fix past mistakes. That's probably a metaphor for something.

Someone at Marvel Studios should have pointed out that being simultaneously a sequel to WandaVision, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel and Secret Invasion and providing two sequel teases was too much weight to load onto the shoulders of one movie. But we've played this tune before: Marvel movies are doomed to be mere links in a neverending chain, each forgettable villain is just there to get the pieces in position for the next entry, what you see isn't most of what the director intended, and so on. To keep going to theaters for a Marvel movie is by now a thoughtless habit, like grabbing one more potato chip when you know you're full.

Setting aside whatever big plan Phase 5 is about (am I sure? is this Phase 5 already?), The Marvels tries to bring together the plot threads of Kamala Khan's growth as a superhero and as a fan of a superhero, Monica Rambeau's abandonment issues, Captain Marvel's unfinished business with galactic politics, and Nick Fury's promise to find a home for the Skrulls. This movie's solution? Nah, let's just magically swap our characters' places in the universe and let them sort it out on their own. Add a couple lines of technobabble about damaged teleportation nodes and call it a day.

It's not the most elegant narrative device, and the chances for character interaction it opens are pretty much wasted. It turns out Captain Marvel has a completely nonsensical explanation for never visiting Monica and has zero interest to spare for Kamala's obsession with her. A third potentially meaningful relationship isn't even attempted: there could be much drama to write about between the opposite perspectives of Kamala and Monica, the former as Captain Marvel's enthusiastic fan and the latter as Captain Marvel's formerly enthusiastic, now disillusioned fan.

Even more regrettably, the gimmick of having our lead characters swap places could have been used to explore the theme of occupying one another's shoes. Captain Marvel could get over her self-loathing if she could see herself the way Kamala does, and she needs to understand what it was like for Monica to lose her aunt for so many years. Kamala needs to grow up a little and learn from Monica's hard clash with hero worship, and she could form a more grounded idea of superheroism by facing some of Captain Marvel's challenges. Finally, Monica could begin to heal her loneliness by experiencing first-hand the strong family ties built around Kamala, and she needs to see for herself what complications have kept Captain Marvel busy. There was ample space for character work here, but the gimmick's only purpose was to get the plot from point A to point B.

Still, with all the wasted opportunities, there's solid acting to be seen in Iman Vellani's pure joy as Kamala Khan, even if some of the lines written for her sound too much like the director inserting the DVD commentary track into the movie proper. She's the super-glue that holds the crumbling pieces of this movie together. Monica Rambeau is already known to viewers, but her character is yet to be defined. She spent half of WandaVision not even being herself, and the other half misguidedly trying to save the actual villain of the story. Here, she's just filling the slot of a third superhero. She's not a character with goals and choices of her own; she's a screwdriver clumsily wielded to attach more IP to the MCU. We don't even get a decent explanation of what it is exactly that her powers do. And Captain Marvel is supposedly the main star of the show, but the script implies she missed the obvious solution to her mistake for over thirty years, and in the meantime she lets entire civilizations be destroyed under her watch. But hey, look at the little cats! Aren't they adorable?

The Marvels not only has a serious problem with characterization, but also no idea how to handle its tone. Sure, Kamala Khan is always a delight, especially after more than a decade of watching every single male lead in the MCU adopt the exact same exhausting cocky-quippy style of dialogue. But superhero stories (not only from Marvel) have a long-established obliviousness to the implications of dropping a child soldier in the middle of bloody political disputes with death tolls in the millions. Together with Monica being cursed with nondescriptness, Nick Fury being reduced to ineffective comic relief, and Captain Marvel trying obviously too hard to still sound cool in this century, the background conflict struggles to matter. As Abigail Nussbaum put it recently, this movie is "a hilarious slapstick comedy featuring multiple acts of genocide."

And when you set aside all plot logic and focus on the action scenes, which at the end of the day is what Marvel Studios cares about, The Marvels chooses to go for emphatically meh. The choreography is OK, and it knows how to handle constantly teleporting characters with ease, but the staging is dismal. The problem starts with the design of the main villain, one of the most visually boring and lamentably miscast characters in the MCU.

Exhibit A:

We can see the costume design department chose as its inspiration an "insipid casual" look that pays homage to Marvel's signature "everything is gray slurry" aesthetic and smears it all over the actress's hair, clothes, and weapon. You can almost hear the director giving the instruction, "Make sure there's nothing that catches the eye," while telling the casting department, "Find me an actress with all the menacing vibe of a bowl of oatmeal."

Exhibit B:

You know you failed to make your big bad evil lady command any attention when you frame your shots in such a way that the audience's gaze is first drawn toward the big bad evil lady's nameless assistant standing in the background because he's the only one wearing any color.

Exhibit C:

What's lazier than green screen? No screen! Why invest in set design when you can stage your big, all-important fights inside a poorly lit spaceship where the audience can't tell the featureless walls from the featureless floor and the huge window to featureless space?

For all of Iman Vellani's superheroic efforts to make the viewers excited for the story, The Marvels is very confused about what it wants to be about, structurally haphazard, emotionally inept, morally unaware, and an easy excuse delivered on a silver platter for the usual suspects to keep maliciously badmouthing lady superhero movies.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.