“What You Seek Is Seeking You.”
The words inscribed on the bangle worn by Kamala Khan (superhero name: Ms. Marvel) is a lovely phrase, with interpretations literal and metaphorical. The script from director Nia DaCosta (Candyman; Little Woods) and first-time feature writers Megan McDonnell (WandaVision) and Elissa Karasik (Loki) leans into the metaphorical, positing that what we aspire to find will come looking for us. However, and more interestingly, it may arrive like the proverbial monkey’s paw, giving you exactly what you wish for but with consequences that may give you pause. It’s here, in the latest in a 30+ run of films from Marvel Studios, The Marvels, that a film rife with joyful expression of heroism, also turns its eye to what happens the day after the battle is won and all the days after, leading to a sense of bitterness and loneliness. If not for the incredible chemistry between leads Brie Larson (Captain Marvel; Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), Teyonah Parris (If Beale Street Could Talk; WandaVision), and Iman Vellani (Ms. Marvel), and a runtime that moves along at a rapid pace, the skepticism would overwhelm and what finds us may very well cause too many to question the role of the superhero in the first place.
Since defeating Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) in combat by embracing who she is and not who the Kree want her to be, Carol Danvers (Larson) promised to take down the Kree’s overseeing A.I. known as Supreme Intelligence with the intent of freeing all Kree from its influence and stopping the outward expansion of Kree supremacy through the subjugation of others. Through her actions, she created an enemy in the form of Dar-Been (Zawe Aston), a former Starforce member, who vows to take back what Carol took. In doing so, the energy powers that Carol utilizes become entangled with those of her niece Monica (Parris) and stranger-to-them Kamala (Vellani), forcing the three to work together to stop Dar-Been’s plan. But it’s not just powers that are entangled, it’s high emotion as Carol and Monica haven’t seen each other in decades and Kamala may just be Carol’s #1 superfan. As they journey through the universe, traveling to uncanny places, each will be tasked with confronting that which they seek, the fate of all they hold dear in the balance.
What follows will be as spoiler-free as possible, but, before you continue, be advised that there is only a mid-credit scene. There are plenty of surprises to be found, so be careful out there as folks are already starting to leak out some things best left to that first-time experience.
Right out of the gate, don’t worry about the so-called “homework” of the MCU. The Marvels is designed as a sequel, so if you’ve seen Captain Marvel, you’re going to know enough to have a baseline for what’s happening. Because Carol has been separated from Monica for so long and Kamala is new to both of them, the script spends time establishing who they are respective to their abilities and Carol so that folks who didn’t watch the Disney+ series WandaVision or Ms. Marvel will still be able to engage with the material. Frankly, Secret Invasion doesn’t register, not even a blip, on the narrative, which makes sense given the character focus. Will having seen those shows deepen your appreciation, absolutely, but it’s not necessary. That said, as this is the latest film in a series that prides itself on the interconnectedness of the stories (certainly leaned on more heavily beginning with Phase Two), the script primarily relies on in-universe or natural methods of providing backstory and necessary information with a few moments of exposition for the gaps. Otherwise, the whole of The Marvels doesn’t slow down to hold your hand on what you don’t know, for better or worse.
So let’s focus on the better before we get to the worse.
The three leads (Larson, Parris, and Vellani) are the best thing about the film, hands-down. Vellani brings a youthful energy, an unvarnished excitement to a long-running franchise that often feels like it forgets comic stories can be fantastical and fun. Parris is effortlessly cool, playing Monica as equally excited to explore her abilities in a new environment, yet possessing a weight Vellani’s Kamala doesn’t have yet. Some of this comes from Monica’s lived experience as an adult, a member of S.A.B.E.R. (a research-based arm of planetary protection), and someone whose complicated relationship with Carol and her mother makes external exploration easy and internal confrontation hard. Freed from the amnesiac/emotionless Kree storyline of Captain Marvel, Larson is more free to have some fun, even as the character grapples with not fully knowing her past pre-accident, as well as the cost of her supposed heroism. The script expectedly uses the dynamics of the character journeys to explore how unvarnished optimism is as dangerous as the coldness which comes from experience, making the freshness come from how these three actors play off each other. Thankfully, as in Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel, there is a frequent loose, fun vibe and there’s great cohesion amongst the performers to match the vibe when the scene calls for it. I give to you what I will forever refer to as the “Black Girl Magic” scene (a clip is included in the trailers) due to that being Fury’s sole words of support to Monica as Kamala is stuck in a freefall over her home thanks to a recent swap. Fury is often the tight-lipped, all-business leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. that we expect, the spy of all spies, but Captain Marvel allowed a little humanness to peek through and we get more of that here. Is it due to his arc in Secret Invasion or a result of spending time with an old friend as old friends often revert? No idea, but don’t care. It matches the overall frequency of The Marvels, which is to keep it loose, get weird, and make some magic.
Along with this is the subtext of the script wherein a hero’s work isn’t over because the battle is done. This is the resonant part of the film as a whole and the element that makes the watch just as worth the time spent as observing the three work together. The crux of the villain-hero dynamic is that both are right and both are wrong and it all comes down to perspective. Put another way, it doesn’t matter who threw the first punch, only who threw the last: there’s your villain. Carol was a bystander caught in a battle between her mentor and Yon-Rogg and was then taken as a living weapon to advance the Kree’s expansion. That is her backstory and it’s a heartbreaking one. So when she vows to destroy the Supreme Intelligence at the end of the first film, it’s a reclamation of agency and a step toward a healing of self. But what happens to the Kree once that mission is accomplished? They are a society which functions off their connection to the Supreme Intelligence, so what happens when that’s gone? In this vein, is Dar-Benn, seeking vengeance on Carol for her act, truly a villain for trying to both effect justice and equity? It goes back to who punched first versus last and perception of those details. Carol’s arc comes down to this, essentially: what does it do to a person when the next day comes and their actions didn’t play out as intended? Sure, Kamala’s journey is to realize that fandom isn’t enough to be a hero as the hard choices and the decision one makes in those moments define you, not your fantasies. Sure, Monica’s journey is to engage with her aunt in order to clarify and correct an unanswered promise to a little girl. But it all comes down to the question of how one deals with the next day. As rich a concept as it is, much like Steve Rogers’s PTSD at the start of Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), not enough time is utilized for it to pay off in a profound way.
In recent interviews, DaCosta indicated that she wanted to keep the film under two hours. This works in favor of keeping the energy moving so there’s no sense of drag at all, however, this does a disservice to the film as a whole in two ways. First, it reduces the time spent with the characters where more time would enhance the unit cohesion the three are forced to create due to their power entanglement. What is great is fantastic in the structure, pacing, and editing, but the race to get to what’s next doesn’t allow for any breathing room. Second, there’s little room for the subtext to be as explored as one might want in order for the emotional resonance the climax strives for to succeed. It’s not that we don’t care about the characters, but because we haven’t gotten a real chance to live with them before jumping off to some other experience or moment, whether it’s the fate of the main three, the villain, or any of the supporting characters (be they Kamala’s family or S.A.B.E.R. staff), one doesn’t worry. Not everything needs to have the wallop of the end of Infinity War (2018), but that was a film that understood that we, as an audience, needed to worry about the characters’ fates. That’s far less of a concern here and, given what the script seeks to do, the result is stifling the impact. If one also notices the several instances of iffy CG, such as when Carol goes from a flying state to a walking one, the illusion of this world, from characters to their relationships, shatters and we remember that we’re sitting in a theater rather than being absorbed in the adventure.
For this review, Disney set up an IMAX screening at a local Regal theater. This is worth mentioning because the IMAX experience did help accentuate the vastness of space during scenes where Carol might fly out of her spaceship into the void or the largeness of the destruction that unfolds before us as Dar-Been executes her plan of revenge. As great as that was, the sound mix in our theater wasn’t great, the dialogue often being drowned out either by score or explosion, making tracking interactions more difficult. Perhaps this would be different in a theater packed with people as opposed to the far smaller number of press attendees where the sound wouldn’t bounce as much as it would be absorbed by the bodies. But it’s enough to warrant at least a measure of caution for folks that purchase IMAX tickets thinking they’re getting that premium experience only to discover that they missed the occasional quip or dramatic delivery because the balance is off.
Ultimately, the inscription on Kamala’s bangle is correct. If you come to The Marvels seeking entertainment and excitement, you’re going to find it as the film is a romp, bouncing from place to place, scene to scene, with the kind of joyful excitement that superhero stories *use to* bring before grim-dark and pathos became the structure du jour. If you come to The Marvels seeking to rip apart a film because you didn’t like Captain Marvel as her journey was “too easy,” “unrelatable,” or she performed “without enough smiles” in her first film, you’re going to get exactly that experience. The Marvels isn’t out to please everyone, which is its greatest strength over what one would expect from a studio publically perceived as struggling. If one’s watched and rewatched the films, there’s a sense of truth within the stoic nature of fighter pilot-turned-galactic hero Carol, the intelligent and resourceful Monica, and the over-her-head-yet-happy-to-be-there Kamala, as though pulling from aspects of Iron Man 3 (2013), Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), with a dash of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2. (2017).
“What You Seek Is Seeking You” and I’m seeking a third film in this series or, at least, a new adventure with these characters going higher, further, faster together.
In theaters November 10th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Marvel Studios The Marvels webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.