I have a feeling that the Marvel Cinematic Universe does not know how to write a story for a powerful woman character like Captain Marvel. In her first movie, the box office hit ‘Captain Marvel,’ I felt that the film was too keen on showing off Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (played by Brie Larson) power level and displaying her competence and strength that it did not give her much of a character arc to explore, which made me feel very detached from her story. She was powerful from the beginning and the film unfolded to reveal her hidden past and the lies that were told to her to keep her in check. There was no real internal struggle for her character to overcome. She finally just let her power go and was able to direct it at the right opponent. It’s wonderful to see a woman character so powerful but, cinematically, I do want to see a character’s growth. There was none needed for Captain Marvel. She was already there with very little to grow into a better version of herself.
In ‘The Marvels,’ they team her up with two other superpowered women: Monica Rambeau (played by Teyonah Parris), who was introduced to us through the Disney+ show ‘WandaVision’ and then Kamala Khan (played by Iman Vellani), who we first met in her own Disney+ series ‘Ms. Marvel.’ There’s hope that with this interaction of two other women, we could explore other facets of Captain Marvel’s personality, but they don’t do that. What we get instead is a pretty big movie that is filled with a lot of plot and hardly any real attention or focus on the emotional core of the film.
In ‘The Marvels,’ the three lead characters are suddenly linked by their powers when the new Kree leader, Dar-Benn (played by Zawe Ashton) links her bangle (the set that would complete the bangle worn by Kamala Khan when she’s Ms. Marvel) with her cosmic hammer. Every time any of the three women uses their powers, they switch locations in space. This forces the three to band together to investigate what is happening and to find out what Dar-Benn is planning.
There’s a lot of areas here for interesting character work to build a story. Carol Danvers and Monica Rambeau have a history together but, as the film’s first act shows us, there’s tension here. The two haven’t spoken despite the fact that Carol was best friends with Monica’s mother. At the same time, Kamala Khan practically hero worships Carol. She’s based her costume and her name on Captain Marvel. This sort of dynamic is rife for a really interesting character dynamics.
But they don’t capitalize on it. Sure, they let Kamala mine her idol-worship of Captain Marvel for all its comedy gold. Iman Vellani sells this perfectly and she really captures the fangirl experience with great precision. She ends up providing the movie with its charm and its heart and its warmth because as they discover Dar-Benn’s sinister plans, things get real and Kamala has to witness her idol make tough choices while she has to make tough choices as well, it’s a great space for Vellani to show off her range. It really helps push Kamala Khan into the spotlight.
But she’s a young girl, still trying to prove herself in the superhero industry. There’s still so much for her to grow. She’s powerful. She’s fully realised but there’s still room for growth.
On the other hand, Captain Marvel feels completely underdeveloped in her own movie. She talks about having been lonely and her own relationship with the Kree is held back until much later in the film that we don’t even realise that it was a driving force for her in such a grounded and essential way. The Kree hate her, they call her “The Annihilator” but we don’t know why until much later and when it does, it feels like such a wasted opportunity because it’s a place where we can build Captain Marvel’s character from somewhere dark to something better. But we don’t see it. Instead, we see her show off her powers, which is great. A powerful woman. And then there’s the friction between her and Monica, but that’s solved in two scenes via a dialogue. We never get to really explore those emotions, we never see the ramifications of that tension to the relationship in a concrete and tangible way.
It’s not the story of ‘The Marvels.’
Instead, ‘The Marvels’ is more centered on the three heroines battle against Dar-Benn, as she tries to ravage other planets using the power of the bangle to revive her own dying planet. There’s a lot of fake science past around and a lot of explanation to what it is that Dar-Benn is actually planning (and this is important later on). So, the film gives more attention to the plot (where Dar-Benn is, what is she doing, how is she doing it) then it is in working out Captain Marvel’s own character arc.
What this structure gives us, though, is some pretty fun sequences. It has two great action sequences with the character switching when the powers are used. One where it is absolute chaos and a second one where the girls have figured it out. They figured out because they train with it and this a great scene as well. It’s when the film stays light and fun that it actually flies and finds it footing.
In fact, director and co-writer Nia DaCosta goes out on a limb and provides two more sequences in the film that is absolutely crazy, irreverent, and silly that it feels wrong that it’s in a movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, yet I am so happy that these scenes are in the MCU. One scene involves the Flerken, and another scene involves the planet of Aladna, where the citizens of the planet can only communicate by singing. These two sequences are so out-of-the-box and unexpected that it really pushes ‘The Marvels’ to somewhere different and I wish the whole movie could have been this irreverent.
Instead, it is held back by its plot because, what you will discover by the end of the film, is that this movie is a set up for a larger piece of the MCU that’s coming. The MCU’s supposed fourth or fifth phase (I’m not even sure where we are at this point) has been floundering narratively over the larger scheme of things but ‘The Marvels’ seems like it was written to connect this to the larger MCU plan.
And this is what makes it disappointing. Due to the importance and significance of what Dar-Benn is doing for the MCU as a whole, a lot of the 105-minute running time was given to detail the plot instead of working at making Captain Marvel’s character deeper, richer, and more profound. Her strongest emotional moments – her connection with Monica Rambeau and her connection with the Kree – was left as a passing dialogue without any real ramification of who she is as person. We don’t get to see specific scenes that show this off and thus leaves her character feeling undeveloped. She still feels like the same character that we saw at the start of the movie.Why doesn’t the MCU know how to effectively showcase a powerful woman and give her more to do emotionally? The last time they did this was with Wanda but they turned her evil in the process. Lucky for us, Ms. Marvel was there. Vellani’s charm and warmth was able to ground the show and give us someone to follow emotionally through this story. You know something’s up when the audience was reacting mostly to her and the three cameos that showed up in the film and not with Captain Marvel. It’s her movie. I wish the film gave her the center stage.