Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan in Marvel Studios’ THE MARVELS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

The Marvels arrives at a perilous time for the MCU. After leading the way for all entertainment in the known galaxy for 10 years or so, Phase Four – the more adventurous and experimental phase after the triumph of Infinity War/Endgame – sputtered along with uneven outings, and Phase Five’s main storyline has emerged as sloppy special effects and viewer fatigue. With Carol Danvers, the MC’s most inscrutable, all powerful hero teaming with two characters from Disney+ series, could The Marvels right the ship after the widely-panned Quantumania?

At least the first characteristic of Phase Five – sloppy VFX – is very much on the screen as the movie begins, as we meet (or re-meet) our trio of heroes: Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) is at home making fan fic about her favorite Avanger. Captain Marvel. Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), who got fairly undefined pwers at the end of WandaVision in a magical power burst –  is in a space suit making repairs on Nick Fury’s space station. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)  is hanging around her OWN space station with her cat, and her Captain Marvel outfit draped around her waist because, I guess, she’s a workaholic who might be called into action at any moment. The VFX of Carol and Monica flying through space looks pretty hastily assembled. Even more alarmingly a CGI cat looks like it could have stepped right out of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy from 20 years ago. Obviously, the departure of Victoria Alonso hasn’t helped those dodgy effects much (Alonso is still credited as Executive Producer, but she probably didn’t oversee the final effects on this.)

But who needs CGI when you have lovable characters on screen? Following an encounter with an energized space portal whose name I’ve already forgotten, it turns out the three heroes – who all have light based powers – are suddenly connected and when they use their powers they keep switching places – all the way from remote space to Kamala’s house in Jersey City. Hijinks ensue as Captain Marvel arrives at Kamala’s house, Kamala’s floats outside Nick fury’s viewing port and so on. 

(Center, L-R): Zawe Ashton as Dar-Benn and Daniel Ings as Ty-Rone in Marvel Studios’ THE MARVELS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

It soon emerges that this dangerous space portal is the work of Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), a Kree scientist/politician/zealot/pest who is hell bent on restoring the Kree home planet of Hala to a livable state after (ulp) Captain Marvel ruined their sun during one of her outings. Dar-Benn’s scheme involves destroying a planet where Skrull refugees are living, stealing their….something, and then stealing resources from other planets. 

Carol, Kamala and Monica figure this all out in due time, but not before they have to meet up, destroy Kamala’s house, and learn how to work together with their power switching. Along the way, yet another MCU space station is endangered, a familiar face from the Thor movies shows up, and there are kittens. 

Plots are rarely the strong point of a superhero film, and The Marvels is pretty strong proof of that. All the motivations are just the grout between the tiles of characters we want to know more about and exciting action scenes, and this time out, the tiles are a mismatched bunch. 

Vellani steals every scene she’s in with her expressive eyes and youthful spunk. I didnt watch the entire Ms Marvel Disney+ series but I watched enough to know Vellani is a charmer who pulls off the “Avengers fangirl” aspect of her character in a highly relatable way. (Vellani is a big comics nerd IRL, so it tracks.) Kamala’s excitement at finally meeting and teaming up with the real Captain Marvel to save the world is the main plotline of the tale, and does most of the heavy lifting for the more awkward story elements. 

Brie Larson as Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers in Marvel Studios’ THE MARVELS. Photo by Laura Radford. © 2023 MARVEL.

Brie Larson does a fine job playing a character of Superman-esque power levels, and she looks the part of an iconic superhero just fine. But her character is ill-defined, switching from aloof space cop to goofy regular girl without any underlying reasons. And as you MIGHT have noticed by now, the best superhero tales have a character arc that makes sense. Carol has a few here, but they don’t add up.. 

Teyonah Parris as Captain Monica Rambeau in Marvel Studios’ THE MARVELS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

While Parris does her best, Monica Rambeau is a severely underwritten character who doesn’t seem to have any schtik beyond being a hero, missing her mom and having a vague sense of abandonment from Carol. The principal backstory here is that Carol was besties with Monica’s mom Maria, as we saw in Captain Marvel. However, she leaves young Monica behind to go off and destroy planet’s suns, and never comes back. 

While Carol and Monica do work things out, the most obvious plot beat in the world would have been to juxtapose Carol leaving Monica behind with some element of Kamala feeling abandoned by Captain Marvel…and maybe Carol learning a lesson about more mundane responsibility in there somewhere. 

I say obvious because the minute the movie started, I was waiting for this storyline to play out. And I kept waiting and waiting…for a payoff that never really arrived.The Captain Marvel Problem is the Superman problem – an all-powerful hero is boring without actual character development. It’s what killed the Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern “franchise” and it’s hampering the MCU here. 

The Phase Five problem, as whoever is running the MCU now seems to have realized, is weak writing. And all The Marvel’s problems stem from a script that seems to have been cobbled together from dozens of business decisions, not the desire to tell a good story FIRST. 

Dar-Benn is the latest in the MCUs perennial problem of weak villains. All the worst MCU movies have the worst villains, from Thor 2 to Doctor Strange 1 to Captain Marvel itself. It doesn’t help that Ashton is visually similar to both Hannah John-Kamen who played Ghost in Ant-Man and The Wasp, and Olga Kuryenko, who played Taskmaster in Black Widow. All three are tall brunettes, vaguely ethnic, in grey-green body armor. I’m sure they were all stunt doubled by the same team adding to the similarity! Put it all together and it spells GENERIC. 

The original Dar-Benn was a guy in a 1991 Silver Surfer comic by Ron Marz and Ron Lim. He’s hardly a household name in the Marvel Comics, and his original storyline was not particularly promising. 

The now-recovered Kree Supreme Intelligence (SI) conceived a monstrous plan to prod the Kree out of their so-called evolutionary dead end. It secretly implanted the idea of creating a Nega-Bomb large enough to destroy an interstellar empire in the minds of the rival Shi’ar Imperium rulers, and mentally intensified the prejudices of the ruling Kree, Shi’ar, and Skrull leaders to the point of inciting war.

And there’s more where that came from. Luckily they did not really adapt this storyline for the movie – although the Skrulls-as-Palestinians metaphor lands pretty awkwardly at this time. 

Anyway, there’s not much there for this Dar-Benn except the need to restore her planet – relatable! – and the need to destroy other planets along the way – very bad! Comparisons with the similar High Evolutionary in Guardians of the Galaxy 3 are not favorable however. GTG3 took a pretty generic villain and gave him motivation and depth. Ashton does her best with what she’s given, but I would have rather found out why she has such bad dental work than seen her go off on another rant about the glory of the Kree.

And so we’re off in the usual set pieces, with stops for two very unusual and funny bits. I won’t spoil them here, but they do offer a welcome burst of silliness into the MCU. 

As a lighthearted romp for three likeable heroes, The Marvels will make the time pass pretty quickly – and at a shockingly brisk 105 minutes, it’s very quick indeed. As a story that hangs together logically, it will please no one. 

Flerkittens in Marvel Studios’ THE MARVELS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

I’m beginning to wonder if the MCU’s writing problem is related to the stories straying farther and farther from the comics. The MCU specifically avoids hiring writers who are comics fans, and the reasons are telling:

For me, one thing I think is interesting [about Marvel’s process], and specifically for writers, I would say, a lot of times we’re pitched writers who love Marvel. And to me, that’s always a red flag. Because I go, ‘Oh, I don’t want you to already have a preexisting idea of what it is, because you grew up with Issue 15 and that’s what you want to recreate…’ I want somebody who’s hard on the material, who goes, ‘What is this? I think there’s a movie here, but maybe we should be looking at it in this way.’ And I think, again, the best example of that for me was Markus and McFeely, who weren’t comic guys coming up, but were like, ‘Wait, Captain America, this seems a bit weird. What if we kinda looked at it in this way?’ And they weren’t married to anything, nothing was, you know, there was nothing sacrosanct. And I think that’s important to be able to go, ‘Look, the source material is great, and I love it, and comics work great in the medium they were built in, but that’s not a direct, one-to-one translation to the best version of the movie.’ And sometimes it takes someone who’s out of this culture to go, ‘Hey, I know you think it should be this, but maybe it should be this other thing.’

“Doom has no need of your petty comics concerns!” As the original Dar-Benn story shows, not all comic books are instant classics, and it’s all well and good to take a fresh look at the characters. But it’s worth noting that Markus and McFeely ended up taking a lot from the classic Winter Soldier storyline by Brubaker and Epting. And Jim Starlin’s work underlies a lot of the Thanos Saga. And Hawkeye, one of the better Disney+ series was based on the Fraction/Aja Hawkeye comics, right down to the typography. Thor Ragnarok used Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson panels as storyboards. 

The MCU has now gone far, far beyond the comics. The Marvels isn’t based on any classic four color team-up between Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel and Photon. The Loki TV show is untethered from comics inspiration aside from some of the weirder characters. The Eternals had about as much to do with Jack Kirby as Nomadland did. Quantumania was all Feige-verse. Thor: Love and Thunder took a belloved comics story and messed it up royally. We’re going to wander a long way out there before we get back to the comics with Secret Wars. 

Director Nia DaCosta directed her parts of the movie with some heart and style, but I don’t think anyone ever “broke” this story, in screenwriting parlance. (The script is credited to DaCosta, WandaVision’s Megan McDonnell and Loki’s Elissa Karasik, with rumored rewrites by She Hulk’s Zeb Wells.) The mandate seems to have been to make a movie with three characters in it, not to tell a story, and it shows in every frame. The difference between the comics and the MCU is imagination. Comics folks have plenty of that because it’s all they have to get by on. As talented as the MCU filmmakers are, they have turned making this superhero sausage into a factory, and it shows. 

The MCU has forgotten about what matters. When an all out battle between two Kree warriors and the place swapping Marvel destroys a large part of the Khan home, with Kamala’s family watching, I thought THAT should have been the whole movie. We didn’t need whole planets destroyed to make us care, just a single, irreplaceable family memento.  Mohan Kapur as Kamala’s dad, Saagar Shaikh as her brother and most especially Zenobia Shroff as her mother are among the best parts of the movie, just a regular Muslim family from Jersey City whose home gets destroyed by an interstellar squabble. 

The beauty of the original Marvel Comics by Stan, Jack and Steve was that they were about ordinary people with extraordinary powers. Peter Parker’s biggest problem was hiding his costume from Aunt May. Fighting the Vulture was just another annoyance along the way. The very successful Tom Holland movies are all about his quotidian concerns. 

The characters in The Marvels (aside from Kamala) are very far from that level of engagement, at least for me. Forettable fun, sure. Characters I want to see more of? Not really.  Maybe what will get the MCU on track is getting back to what made Marvel great in the first place: making us care.  


  1. I disagree all the way with this review. This reads to me like a late 1970s Mar-Vell comic transposed onto the screen and modernized slightly, it’s action-packed, funny, heartfelt but not depressingly so, this 50+year comic book purist had great fun watching it last night and most people sitting in the theatre with me as well. Better than the first one, that was neat despite being burdened by all that mindwipe flashback stuff.

  2. I agree with many of your points, but disagree with the overall assessment.

    I think your headline is spot on accurate: “could have used a little more character development”. But not for the main protagonists. I feel both Kamala and Carol had strong arcs in the film. But it was done without a lot of exposition. Instead, it was shown by how the reacted to the events that were going on. I feel this makes the film very rich. I agree concerning Monica. She could have used more. But as the post-credits scene shows, her arc is far from over.

    The character I feel should have had more development was the villain. As you say, she was very one note. Despite the fact that she had a very good reason to hate Captain Marvel and had a noble goal: to save her home planet. But because her motivations were revealed very late in the movie and because she was shown as thoroughly villainous throughout, her resolution lacked any emotional heft.

    I also did not care for how Monica’s flight powers were shown. I think they were struggling with the proper way to portray it.

    I do agree that Kamala is the heart and soul of them. But since I love Vellani’s portrayal of the character, that did not bother me.

    One other comment: I feel the film’s tone was very uneven: switching from deadly serious to light hearted and back. It took me right out of the movie and undercut the drama.

  3. Unrelated to Marvels, I also say that I thought Quantumania was a fine film. I think the negative reaction to it is because Janet Van Dye was the dominant character for two-thirds of the film — and then was incongruously passive for the final act. I guess they needed to give the other characters to shine.

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