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Movie Review: Iman Vellani is a scene-stealer in low-stakes ‘The Marvels’

The stakes feel immensely low in “ The Marvels,” and it’s not because this is a movie that spends a fair amount of time following cats or has an out-of-nowhere musical number. It’s possibly because somewhere along the way, Marvel movies just stopped feeling like events. And this galactic trifle from director Nia DaCosta does not seem to be the one to make them again feel like a must for anyone who has not kept up with all their Disney+ series and who has forgotten what phase the MCU is in and why it matters.

Yes, Iman Vellani (as Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan) gets her big moment on the big screen and nails it, as does Teyonah Parris (Monica Rambeau). Yes, there is a new villain, and it’s a woman (Zawe Ashton as Dar-Benn) with a powerful new toy. Yes, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) will have to face her past to move forward. And, yes, there is plenty of action, butt-kicking, wormhole jumping, glowing eyes and smashing of concrete walls.

But this is also a movie that teases danger, like a bad guy who appears to be knocked down reaching for another weapon, only to cut away. Granted, this happens in the middle of a hectic sequence involving the three leads fighting three fights in three different locations and switching with one another. Not that it really mattered what that guy was reaching for anyway — it never felt like anyone was in peril. It’s also not quite funny either, but does introduce the crutch that Monica, Carol and Kamala can switch places in a flash. They’ll try to explain why this is happening to you several times, each getting more confusing.

This is sort of a movie about a new team forming, sort of about fandom, sort of about accepting responsibility. But there is little doubt that these three will figure out a way to work together. There’s some unresolved hurt between Monica and Carol but they’re also both professionals, for goodness' sake. And Kamala just has to stop fangirling over Captain Marvel. These three are not given enough downtime to really enjoy whatever chemistry is there, perhaps because the movie seems more interested in the Khan family FaceTiming with their daughter and the goings-on in Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) oddly chaotic ship.

DaCosta, working with Marvel for the first time, keeps the energy up and the story moving at a quick clip, though. Those fretting about all the three-hour films in cinemas at the moment should be happy to hear that this is kept to a tight 105 minutes. And it is a colorful, vibrant affair, too, a very welcome change from “Ant-Man 3,” helped no doubt by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, mostly known for working with Steve McQueen.

And Vellani is the real standout star, a refreshingly human presence in stark contrast to Larson's cool and unflappable Captain Marvel. As Kamala/Ms. Marvel, you see in her someone who is excited and overwhelmed, in over her head and learning on the go. I wish they'd gone further with a conflict between her and her idol that is too quickly resolved. There is a warm sitcom tidiness to most of the conflicts here, right down to the Khan family shaking their heads at their daughter after a near-death incident as though she'd just borrowed the car without permission.

It’s supposed to be a big deal that this movie has all women fighting a villain who's a woman, but as is often the case with Marvel’s girl power attempts, it feels a little pandering in all the wrong places and doesn't really engage with any specific or unique female point of view. When our three heroes suit up, they do so off screen and come out with fresh hairdos and makeup. They look like their best selves and will continue looking like their best selves throughout a harrowing battle, which leaves some of their uniforms torn but not an eyelash out of place. I thought we’d reached a pro-hair tie place with our female superheroes, but these women, including Dar-Benn, are defiantly against the convenience; instead, they're constantly flipping their locks out of their eyes during fights, despite seeming more practical than that.

Also poor Ashton, who is such a splendid actor, has been saddled with one of the more forgettable and generic villain arcs. She gets to snarl a few one-liners and stomp around with tyrannical purpose in fantastically detailed costumes, but it seems to be a missed opportunity to not develop her more.

Bringing “Endgame”-like event hysteria back to Marvel was never going to be in the cards for “The Marvels,” or “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” At least this movie seems to be enjoying itself (sometimes a little too much) with moments of whimsy and weirdness and at least one deranged and amusing gift for cat lovers everywhere.

Maybe it’s just those pesky stakes again. This seems designed to be a minor Marvel — a fun enough, inoffensive, largely forgettable steppingstone — a get-to-know-them brick on a path only Kevin Feige has the blueprints for. And maybe it’ll be something great, eventually.

“The Marvels,” a Walt Disney Co. release in theaters Friday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “action/violence and brief language.” Running time: 105 minutes. Two stars out of four.