The 2019 film “Captain Marvel” – a superhero origin story about the journey of fighter pilot Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) to adopt the mantle of the titular, cosmic-energy-enhanced champion – broke ground as the first woman-led feature in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Of course, it arrived two years after DC Comics’ invigorating “Wonder Woman” beat it to the punch, so to speak.) A new sequel, “The Marvels,” ups the representation ante by teaming Carol with two sidekicks: Pakistani American teenager Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), already known to franchise fans as the protagonist of the Disney Plus spinoff “Ms. Marvel,” about a Jersey City crime fighter who idolizes Carol’s alter ego, and Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), a Black astronaut who has somehow morphed from a little girl in “Captain Marvel” to a 30-something woman, while Carol, whom she calls her “aunt,” looks exactly the same.
Cosmic rays seem to be waaaay better than Clinique for the skin.
Anyway, this so-called team takes awhile to coalesce, with Carol repeating, “We’re not a team,” long after the three have been thrown together by a surge in something called the Jump Point system, a network of wormhole-like portals that facilitates rapid intergalactic space transit. Early in the film, before anyone (including the audience) can really figure out what the heck is going on, we watch as the three characters teleport from one location to another, swapping places with each other with the rapidity of a lightning bolt. It all has something to do with a kind of short circuit that occurs whenever they use their powers simultaneously.
Yes, all three have powers, each related to different forms of light energy. Kamala’s seem to derive from a wrist cuff she received from her grandmother. And Monica’s, as we’re helpfully told, originated when she walked through a “witch hex.” You’d already know this if you watched “Ms. Marvel” and “WandaVision,” another Disney Plus spinoff series about two characters from the Avengers franchise. Anyone else, good luck.
Here’s the thing: Despite its progressive bona fides, “The Marvels” is so fueled by fan service and formula, like pretty much everything in the MCU these days, that it gives short shrift to such basics as narrative comprehension. Watching the movie from the standpoint of a normie – that is, someone who doesn’t eat, sleep and breathe this stuff – can sometimes feels like you’ve become stranded on the wrong side of one of those closing wormholes, in a parallel universe where nothing makes sense.
So let me break it down for you: “The Marvels” is basically the story of four women (the aforementioned Marvels and the film’s villain, an alien named Dar-Benn, played by Zawe Ashton) who are fighting over – wait for it – jewelry. Not just any jewelry, mind you, but a mate to Kamala’s magical wrist cuff, a source of great power that Dar-Benn acquires in the film’s opening scene, and which she spends the entire rest of the movie trying to pair, forcibly if necessary, with the one on Kamala’s forearm. All the while, the Marvels are trying to wrest Dar-Benn’s bracelet away from her, as Dar-Benn moves throughout the cosmos stealing oxygen, water and sunlight from various worlds to replenish the ruined resources of her own ecologically devastated one.
This interpretation is overly reductive, I’ll admit. But once the thought had implanted itself in my brain, I could not shake it: These ladies are going to war over a couple of bangles (Kamala’s word, not mine). There’s a lot of fighting, and the fate of the world is said to hang in the balance. But when you look at the screen, all you see is a bunch of people trying to grab some shiny things from one another.
It’s not a good look, in a story that’s supposed to be all about empowerment. Try as she might to make this a tale of sisterhood, director and co-writer Nia DaCosta (“Candyman”) is hamstrung by the demands of the MCU machine.
I mean, it’s not like you’ll have much else to think about. The film progresses turgidly and mindlessly, with respite granted only by two delightful interludes. One is set on a planet where the people can communicate only by singing and dancing, leading to a musical production number that looks like something out of “Schmigadoon!” – as well as a surprise revelation about Carol’s relationship status. The other, set to the song “Memory” from “Cats,” features the progeny of Goose from the first film, an alien creature known as a Flerken that resembles a marmalade tabby but whose special abilities facilitate a critical plot development in “Captain Marvel.”
They’re deliciously silly, even surreal moments, and they briefly elevate this exercise in drudgery to the cinematic heights that something called “The Marvels” would otherwise seem to deserve.