Review: ‘The Marvels’ Is Exactly The Great, Fun Superhero Movie Marvel Studios Needs

Marvel Studios hopes to overcome negative narratives and a merciless 2023 box office environment this weekend with the arrival of The Marvels, a sequel to their billion dollar blockbuster Captain Marvel. While the box office outlook is unfortunately shaky at the moment, The Marvels is exactly the sort of great, fun comic book spectacle Marvel Studios, audiences, and superhero cinema need now.

After $6.5 million in Thursday previews stateside, The Marvels total Friday gross is coming in north of $20 million, surprisingly lower than even the already-troubling early estimates suggested. At this point, it would take some extra oomph on Saturday and a better Sunday hold than seems likely at this point for The Marvels to even reach the previous $60 million predictions.

$50 million domestic looks to be where it lands when the dust settles, but it’s still early. Maybe a combo of The Marvels’ stars Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani, Zawe Ashton, and Samuel L. Jackson being free to promote the film (the SAG-AFTRA strike ended this week), plus the weekend return of Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour and Swifties forming a top-two or top-three contingent at theaters, could provide some lift to help The Marvels fly higher.

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Sadly, so far we aren’t seeing much sign of that, and it could be too little too late to help. Most media coverage of The Marvels has for months focused on either the online backlash against Captain Marvel and actress Brie Larson (toxic fanboys got furious when she suggested more women should be granted interviews with her, instead of overwhelmingly just [white] men showing up for the interviews most of the time), or the question of whether the supposed Marvel tailspin into obscurity and failure would drag down the super-sequel.

Rumors, false accusations, and a heaping helping of racism and misogyny have been on display for months, both in overt statements and chronic subtext. When a reviewer complains that a film seems made for teenager girls instead of comic book fans, they’re saying teenage girls aren’t allowed in the clubhouse where the “real fans” reside. And that myopic, lazy, bigoted attitude is at the heart of a great deal of the eye-rolling and “meh” shoulder-shrugging of too many reviewers, including plenty of other men who can’t mask their reactionary contempt for the franchise, the character, or the performers.

Yes, I know there’s plenty of subjective opinion to art. And yes, I know some viewers might just be so used to the MCU that it’s actually become too easy to slide into the stories comfortably and go with the flow.

For these viewers, it simply gets boring eventually, no matter how well each new addition might be from a purely technical level, because of familiarity — consciously and subconsciously, we know the beats of storytelling and even the nuances of particular genre storytelling, so the more time we spend in any given franchise or world, our familiarity with the characters and world allows increasingly easier prediction of when beats will come, what those beats will likely entail, and so on.

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If you aren’t just excited and happy to visit this world again and reunite with these characters, then seeing the latest challenges to their world and their personal lives will lose its hook for you, especially if you spent a lot of your emotional energy being excited for its previous decade-plus overarching saga of nearly two-dozen films.

But there is quite a difference between the folks saying they’ve just seen so much Marvel and superhero stuff that they got their fill and want something different now, or folks who just don’t like the particulars of how superhero genre storytelling plays out, or folks who aren’t fans of Marvel for whatever reason so don’t really relate to their stories, compared to the folks who focus a lot of energy and aggression and hostility toward films specifically featuring women leads or racially diverse casts.

The latter can’t seem to pass up anyone else’s remarks praising the films, they are quick to argue with anyone who brings up the racism and sexism — perpetual whataboutism, “not all ____,” and other cliched excuses and denials abound in these discussions. And unfortunately, far too much of the discourse around The Marvels and about Marvels’ supposed “downward spiral” is predominantly rooted in and driven by both the overt toxic fans and those engaged in this more passive-aggressive denialism.

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But the backlash is only part of the equation, as 2023’s been a rough year for lots of reasons: the studios’ refusal to make a fair deal with the guilds until the last minute hampered the ability of projects to properly promote; the Covid pandemic era corresponding with dominance of streaming and evolving viewing habits that are upending theatrical and TV; and yes, valid points about struggles at Marvel and the extent to which the public has seen its fevered interest in superhero movies moderate to more sustainable levels. All of this, plus the backlash and other lesser but still impactful factors (like release date), is resulting in a downward pressure on The Marvels’ box office.

Which is too bad, because The Marvels hits like the summer popcorn blockbusters we want from Marvel — the problem being, it’s autumn of a particularly unfriendly year for cinema. I think a Christmas release might’ve given the film a better chance for word of mouth to spread and a larger audience to show up through the New Year.

The Marvels is full of earnest emotion and enthusiasm, with a cool straightforward sci-fi story and plenty of unique action spectacle, and sporting a charming cast with terrific chemistry. It’s loads of fun, feels perfectly paced, and demonstrates Marvel is at the point where it doesn’t need to explain things, it can tell its stories in a world we all know already or can figure out pretty quick, so that leaves more time for story and characters.

The characters generally correspond to ethos (Captain Marvel), logos (Monica Rambeau), and pathos (Ms. Marvel), and it’s fun watching how they interact and how even in action scenes they mostly stay within those roles in their arcs and bring those elements to the team dynamic.

Their interactions as they establish — or reestablish — relationships are the real engine driving the story, atop a foundation of the two adults overcoming suppressed grief over missing time and never getting to say goodbye. Captain Marvel had her memories taken, Monica Rambeau was “snapped” out of existence and lost five years during which her mother died, and both women are still coming to terms with what they lost.

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Meanwhile, Ms. Marvel is struggling with her expectations of meeting her idol Captain Marvel and fitting in contrasting with how things wind up transpiring, and yet her faith and determination as the heart of the team — when her teammates draw on experience and knowledge of disasters and battlefields to make hard choices about cutting losses to save as many people as possible, Ms. Marvel is the one who wants to risk it all to try to save everybody. Her family are also featured throughout the film, and it was impressive to see that thread hold firm and provide strong connective tissue for various elements.

Part of what makes The Marvels so enjoyable and fulfilling is precisely the fact that indeed, those girls and women some fanboys resent and want to keep out of fandom entirely are welcome and cheered by this movie. They are far more deserving of a place in the films and a seat among fans than the toxic, broken-record voices of pseudo-gatekeepers like the reviewers making smarmy, hateful remarks to perpetually dismiss and mock the very idea that girls and young women have anything of value to say or add.

Mothers, daughters, sisters, friends — this is what The Marvels is really all about, and the film finds ways to keep those themes alive even during action and transitions. The way the characters meet, come into conflict, bond, and find their rhythm together all seeds their eventual roles in the outcome, and the resolution of their own arcs is the path to the story resolution.

That might all sound like obvious things a story should do, but it’s surprising how often storytelling seems to forget — or never even knows to begin with. That it’s done so well here and looks effortless is all the more important, because if storytelling often forgets to even try, it’s equally frustrating how often even the actual attempts still wind up failing anyway.

But Nia DaCosta directs The Marvels with a splendid and joyful attention to these sorts of details that determine how much a story and its characters resonate with us and feel compelling and fulfilling. It’s like a magic trick that DaCosta somehow makes this film feel breezy and jam-packed at the same time, the one hour and forty-five minutes runtime passing quickly yet leaving you feeling like we just saw a much longer, detailed story.

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And the action is some of the most originally conceived and realized we’ve seen in the genre lately, with the characters swapping places — be it on separate sides of the galaxy, different parts of a city, or the other side of the same room — each time one of them uses their powers. First it’s during three separate but simultaneous fights, then during various other crises, and eventually a climactic confrontation, and the shifting perspectives and seeming randomness is complex but beautifully realized.

It reminded me conceptually of the amazing climactic backwards battle in Doctor Strange, a choreographed chaos with an internal logic the film slowly reveals so that it starts to make sense, as if we are listening to a spoken language that takes time to come back to us. As the characters understand it better and learn to coordinate and control it, we too gain better and better comprehension until we keep up with the switches like pros.

DaCosta is catching flack by some of the press and fandom, in ways men directors — and especially white ones — don’t get targeted, especially since supposed professionals are doing this despite the fact they are well aware of how disingenuous the claims really are.

DaCosta did what white men directors get praised for doing, but in her case it’s turned into a reason to accuse and insult her. And we can sit around pretending the reality of institutionalized racism and sexism, particularly visible in Hollywood again lately — it never goes away, external pressure and shaming just gets strong enough every so often that there’s an effort at PR blitz to pretend studios and awards groups are making efforts to “do better” until attention shifts away and things return to the racist sexist normal.

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So yes, much of the backlash and coverage and fan reactions surrounding The Marvels are rooted in racism and sexism, or are extensions of those institutionalized and foundational aspects in society and in entertainment and in journalism and in fandom. It started with the rage of toxic fans toward Brie Larson and hasn’t let up. It’s ugly, hateful, dishonest, self-serving, immature, and a stain on fandom and the entertainment press.

The Marvels deserves better. More importantly, the people who made The Marvels deserve better. Yet because this is a superhero movie, even the relatively small number of voices that might otherwise speak out and push back against such biases and overt discriminations instead egg it on, join in, or just smile that at least the racism and sexism are helping hurt Marvel.

Which also means those who just legitimately don’t like it and who aren’t sexist or racist about it at all, and/or who have other valid complaints about the studio and the film, wind up tainted by the shame of it all, and those conversations become hard to have or to hear, even when they’re worth having and add important context and points to the discussion.

The Marvels shows up at an inflection point for the genre, for the studio, and for fandom. It’s one of the best films of the Multiverse Saga, an excellent sequel to Captain Marvel, an all-around exciting, funny and eye-popping science fiction action movie that takes us all over the universe and back, and yet it will wind up underperforming to a significant degree as the press and fans take all of the wrong lessons from the outcome.

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