Arriving more than four years after the original, “The Marvels” can’t overcome apprehensions about representing the Disney+-ification of a Marvel movie. Clocking in at a welcomely brisk 105 minutes, it’s Marvel’s shortest film, but a lighter tone that occasionally borders on a sort of cosmic “Freaky Friday” doesn’t consistently make the movie fly, much less soar.
Although this “Captain Marvel” sequel marks the culmination of ample groundwork, having introduced characters via streaming in “WandaVision” and “Ms. Marvel,” its primary weakness resides not so much in the trio of heroes, whose interplay yields nice moments, but rather its villain. That would be Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), a vengeful Kree leader, seeking payback against Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) while wielding a hammer like the one that Ronan employed.
The threat, alas, feels particularly nondescript, and the Dar-Benn – though powerful – less than interesting. Simply put, it’s a long way back to the good captain trading head butts with Thanos in “Avengers: Endgame.”
Then again, “The Marvels” follows a somewhat different trajectory, relying on a temporal displacement anomaly that has the trio of Captain Marvel, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Paris) and Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) zapping in and out of each other’s places, an awkward effect that’s largely played for laughs but in the early going proves too chaotic for its own good.
Director Nia DaCosta (who shares screenplay credit with Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik), whose credits include the horror sequel “Candyman,” finds her most appealing player in Vellani’s Kamala Khan, whose star-struck, unabashed fan-girl reaction to the older heroes gives the movie a playful sweetness and much of its fun.
The other standout utility player also tilts toward the silly side: Goose, the Flerken cat that periodically coughs up something a lot more disgusting than a hairball.
The one-two combo of Vellani and the cat might enhance the movie’s youth appeal; still, that’s the kind of material seemingly better suited to the narrative latitude of a streaming series with multiple episodes, which only fuels the sense of “The Marvels” as something approximating “Marvel Lite,” less worthy of theatrical patronage when the studio’s Midas touch already appears considerably less golden. (The first film, notably, blew past box-office expectations.)
Various factors share responsibility for that, some beyond Marvel’s control. The most underrated, however – except perhaps for the streaming-driven content glut – might involve the operatic high “Endgame” achieved that subsequent movies have struggled to replicate, coupled with the loss of key players who exited in or around it.
From that perspective, the most encouraging element in “The Marvels” waits until its closing-credit scene, one of the more intriguing in recent memory in terms of hinting at possibilities for the future.
Beyond that, “The Marvels” feels safely bland at a time when Marvel needs to take some chances. Because despite featuring a space-faring hero who can majestically streak into the stars, those heroics come in a movie that only intermittently gets off the ground.
“The Marvels” premieres November 10 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.
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