Here’s the main thing you need to know about The Marvels, the 33rd movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: It’s fun. That shouldn’t be revelatory since comic book movies are supposed to be uplifting blockbuster entertainment, but it’s both a surprise and a relief that Nia DaCosta’s MCU debut is genuinely enjoyable. At less than two hours, the film’s action progresses at an satisfying clip, eschewing long expository scenes and villain aggrandizing in favor of an actual story.
THE MARVELS ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
The Marvels picks up where Disney (DIS)+ series Ms. Marvel left off, although it’s not necessary to have watched New Jersey teenager Kamala Khan’s origin story. Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), a fierce Kree warrior, has found a magical bangle identical to the one worn by Kamala (Iman Vellani), who dubbed herself Ms. Marvel in tribute to Captain Marvel, a.k.a. Carol Danvers. Dar-Benn uses the bangle, which harnesses light energy, to open a jump point in space in an attempt to save her dying planet Hala. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) goes to investigate at the behest of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) at the exact same moment as Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), the daughter of her old friend Maria. Suddenly, the three superheroes find themselves switching places every time they use their powers.
It’s a good conceit devised by DaCosta along with her co-screenwriters Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik because it unites the trio in an instant, dropping them—and us—directly into the resulting chaos. We don’t need an explanation because there isn’t one, yet. We get to discover the conflict along with our characters, who become fast friends and allies pitted against an empathetic villain who just wants to bring prosperity to the Kree, whose home world began to crumble after the conclusive events of 2019’s Captain Marvel. The best scenes are when our heroes fight simultaneously, constantly switching places and sometimes even hopping between space and Earth, and use their similar-but-not-the-same powers in tandem.
Although the stakes are high—the universe could be destroyed—the tone is light-hearted. Vellani is a great source of levity, especially as she fans out over Carol at every turn. Kamala’s overbearing but well-meaning parents, played by Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur, and her brother Aamir (Saagar Shaikh) return and even lend a hand during the climatic moments. Park Seo-joon has a small but memorable role as the prince of Aladna, a colorful planet where the inhabitants hilariously communicate only by song. Lashana Lynch and Tessa Thompson both make cameos, as do a few other key Marvel figures who help set up the future of the MCU at the end and during the world-opening post-credits scene. Perhaps DaCosta’s greatest feat is telling a self-contained story in The Marvels while also using the film as a jumping off point for two major franchise expansions fans have been predicting for years.
The Marvels is the third MCU movie to arrive this year, following Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and it’s a completely different type of movie. It shares the humor and heart of Guardians, but it avoids leaping all over the galaxy to tell a singular narrative and doesn’t get bogged down in backstory (Quantumania, frankly, was a slog that doesn’t deserve a comparison). There’s a sect of Marvel viewers who apparently don’t enjoy superhero films about women, but this female-led, female-directed, female-written superhero movie is better than a lot of recent MCU fare. Give us more like this, Kevin Feige.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.