In “The Marvels,” Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), a snarky but beaming-eyed Pakistani-American teenage mutant ninja fangirl, is seated in her bedroom in Jersey City, sketching comic-book panels in which she imagines herself part of a team with her idol, Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). She will soon get her wish. Suddenly, Kamala is zapped into a spaceship, where she takes the place of Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), a superhero astronaut who’s in the middle of an energized if rather nondescript kick-ass fight. (There are a lot of those in “The Marvels.”) As for Carol, she soon finds herself in the Khan family living room, fighting off a blue-skinned Kree soldier. And then, just like that, Carol becomes Monica.
All three of the characters have been teleported — not, in itself, an unusual thing to see in a comic-book movie. In this case, however, their identities appear to be linked, as each one “becomes” the other. If you’re seeking an explanation for how this happened, you’ll get one: The three “came into direct contact with some malfunctioning jump points.” (There are a lot of explanations like that in “The Marvels”; you may feel like you’re flashing back to the excitement of eleventh-grade chemistry class.) But as the characters discover that “our light powers are entangled, so we change places whenever we use them at the same time,” all the space-shifting and identity-hopping has the unintentional effect of making the three seem a little too interchangeable.
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“Captain Marvel,” released four years ago, was not a comic-book adventure beloved by critics, but I dug it a lot, because the film’s action seemed lit from within, and the Brie Larson heroine was caught in a personality warp that was a little bit superhero-out-of-water, a little “Memento.” That’s been the key to a lot of good comic-book films: a protagonist tormented by having to figure out who he or she is. But in “The Marvels,” Larson’s Carol Danvers knows just who she is. She comes into the movie with the weight of dubious decisions on her soldiers, not to mention a whole lot of backstory and loss.
In the last four years, a trio of Marvel streaming series on Disney+ — “WandaVision,” “Ms. Marvel,” and “Secret Invasion” — have advanced the events taking place between “Captain Marvel” and “The Marvels.” Having barely dipped into any of those series, I’m officially behind. Yet if the intertangling of pop-escapist film and TV is now presenting itself as a value-added proposition, it has also become a bit of an ordeal, since more and more viewers may feel like they’re scrambling to keep up, and are therefore less inclined to do so.
“The Marvels,” even if you’ve never seen those series, is not a tricky movie to follow. Carol, Monica, and Kamala, brought together by their teleportation experiences, form a team, and they engage in enough high-flying combat and jocular but humdrum banter to come off, at moments, like Charlie’s Angels minus the postmodern wit. They have several interlaced goals. Kamala is in possession of a bejeweled metal bangle, which turns out to be one of two Quantum Bands, the other of which is on the wrist of Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), the Kree warrior who is seeking vengeance against Carol, whom she calls the Annihilator. That’s because Carol, who in “Captain Marvel” helped the Skrulls defeat the Kree, wound up reducing Hala, the Kree homeworld, to an ashen dystopia.
How is Dar-Benn using the Quantum Band? “She’s using it to force unstable jump points into the grid.” (At this point you may say, “Please, enough explanation.”) Carol is still trying to find sanctuary for the Skrulls, the elf-eared, lizard-faced shape-shifters she’s allied with. And I haven’t even mentioned Aladna, the planet where Carol has acquired a husband of convenience, Prince Yan (Park See-joon), and everyone speaks in musical numbers as if they were in a Bollywood version of “The Wizard of Oz” shot inside the multiverse’s largest Hilton Hotel atrium.
As Taika Waititi established in his “Thor” films, there’s a place in the MCU for wackjob silliness. But in “The Marvels,” the bits of absurd comedy tend to feel strained, because they clash with the movie’s mostly utilitarian tone. The musical planet of Aladna gets introduced…then dropped. And then there are the kitty cats, starting with Carol’s tabby, who comes along on that first teleportation and vomits out a hairball of writhing purple tentacles, which swallow up whatever’s around them before snapping back into the cat’s mouth. This is an amusing visual gambit, which to our slight shock becomes a plot point when an entire team of tentacled kitty monsters is used to transport the crew members of a spaceship to safety (since there isn’t room for them aboard Nick Fury’s vehicle — essentially, they’re turned into checked baggage). Cue a certain famous Broadway song, a joke the movie is a little too in love with.
The leaps in tone would be less jarring if “The Marvels” weren’t so skittery and episodic. You can weave the plot together in your head, but you may have a harder time pretending to know why it matters — not within the metastasizing mythos of the MCU, but simply on its own. This summer, “Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania” became the first occasion for the collective bashing of a Marvel movie that felt like something larger: a questioning of whether the MCU was dissolving into spare parts. The movie was way too jam-packed with CGI psychedelia, but, in its (mild) defense, it always gave you something to look at, and you never lost sight of what Ant-Man was up against.
“The Marvel,” in its busy way, comes closer to feeling like a sequel mired in entropy. The director, Nia DaCosta (who made the intriguing remake of “Candyman”), stages the action efficiently, but she doesn’t center the narrative; the film is a series of goals in search of a higher mission. Brie Larson, who had force and dread and light in the first film, now acts like the most prosaically eager of leaders. One of the film’s running gags is that Kamala thinks Carol is such a rock star she can hardly believe she’s on the same team with her, but for the joke to spark Carol needed a gruffer authority, instead of the support-group vibe that Larson puts out. Teyonah Parris is earnest and winning as Monica, the daughter of Carol’s BFF Maria Rambeau; she grew up seeing Carol as family, and the two spend the movie adjusting to being peers. The actor with the most sparkle, however, is Zawe Ashton, who invests Dar-Benn with a lyrical go-for-broke anger, though we’ve seen this brand of villain 100 times. As good as Ashton is, Dar-Benn feels like the generic version of Cate Blanchett’s Hela in “Thor: Ragnarok.”
The movie is short enough not to overstay its welcome, though it’s still padded with too many of those fight scenes that make you think, “If these characters have such singular and extraordinary powers, why does it always come down to two of them bashing each other?” (“My light force can beat up your bracelet!”) By the end, evil has been vanquished, however temporarily, and the enduring bond of our trio has been solidified, though the post-credits teaser sequence redirects you, as always, to the larger story of how this movie fits into the MCU. Only now, there is so much more to consume (all those series!) to know the answer to that question. I can hardly wait to start doing my homework.
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