Three Heroines Are Better Than One
MCU 45: The Marvels
Much has been written across the Internet about the failure of The Marvels, the Captain Marvel sequel that failed to light the world on fire, unlike its predecessor. Of course, that film benefited from being released in the middle of the two-part conclusion of The Infinity Saga -- Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame -- at a time when people were primed to watch anything and everything in the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe., helping the franchise rack up one billion-dollar success after another.
The Marvels, though, didn't find that kind of success. It didn't find any success, financially, failing to even make back it's production budget of $274.8 Mil in its first three weeks of release (when most marvel films make all that, and more, opening weekend). This is a huge bomb, a massive hit to Disney's financials, and it already has Marvel spinning trying to figure out what happened to their golden goose. Their movies were always successful (ignoring one The Incredible Hulk), and now the brand is tarnished, with audiences failing to show up at all. So what happened?
Well, let's be clear right from the start: this isn't the fault of the movie. I happen to think this is one of the zippiest, most enjoyable Marvel movies I've seen in a while. It's up there with Spider-man: Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy for me, with Marvel embracing the joy, and weirdness, of their big space adventures to create something high flying and quite enjoyable.
The movie focuses on three characters -- Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Kamala Kahn / Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani), and Captain Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) -- as they become entangled in a cosmic terrorist plot. A Kree warrioress, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), has sworn revenge against Captain Marvel after the heroine flew to the Kree homeworld, Hala, and blew up the central A.I. intelligence. She did that assuming that blowing up the central intelligence would free the planet from its control and end centuries of conquest and war. Instead, she ruined the planet, and Hala's sun, and cast them into decades of darkness.
When Dar-Benn gets a hold of a mystic bangle, one of two that was used to create the cosmic fast-travel network, she uses it to breach the network and cause seemingly irreparable damage to various planets. Why? She's stealing their resources, from their air, to their water, to their light, all so that she can repair Hala. But she's killing millions and displacing billions, and it'll take the three heroines working together (because, due to Dar-Benn's machinations, they've all become cosmically entangled) to stop her before she kills billions more.
Marvel has struggled, in their recent works, with making the breadth and scope of their films and shows come to life. What danger is a conquerer in the quantum realm, as shown in Ant-man and Wasp: Quantumania, when it doesn't affect our world? Why should we care about various multiversal worlds dying when even Loki: Season 2 can't be bothered to show it to us on screen? Depicting massive damage and the potential loss of lives is hard, and it takes the right scope to do it. And The Marvels does it right.
Early on we see Dar-Benn go back on a treaty she's working on so she can steal the atmosphere from a planet housing a Skrull colony. The destruction she brings is massive and many lives are clearly lost. Then she does it again on another planet, attempting to steal their water. And again we see the potential damage being wrought once more. The film knows how to show us the consequences of Dar-Benn's actions and that actually makes use care about whether she succeeds or not. That's important because feeling like the villain is a threat is what makes is care about the heroines fighting her.
At the same time, the movie also does a good job of illustrating why Dar-Benn is performing her acts of terroristic conquest: she's trying to save her people. Yes, she's a war lord (war lady?) and her actions are terrible, but you can also understand why and feel, to a certain extent, how she feels her actions are justified. Again, this is important because it makes the villain more of a threat. There's more reason to care on both sides, and that makes everything have a greater impact as the heroines fight the villainess.
Of course, what really helps the film out are the three leads. Larson feels more comfortable here than she was in Captain Marvel, able to convey more personality and make her Carol Danvers feel more warm, more human. Parris is good as Monica even if she gets the least to do with her character. We saw her in WandaVision and she was great there, but she basically just gets to carry that character over and act as the straight woman for the group. The scene stealer, and heart of the film, is Vellani's Kamala Kahn, who lights up every scene with her bright energy (and not just because her character makes light energy constructs). She's fun, she's funny, and she draws in the eye every time she's on screen. The film (no spoilers) sets her up as the next generation of Avenger and, frankly, I am fully on board with this.
So if everything about the film works, why did this movie bomb? Some of it is circumstance. The gravy train for Marvel was never going to last, and with The Infinity Saga over two years ago, sooner or later audiences were going to start to wonder, "where does the universe go from here?" So far Marvel hasn't come out with a compelling answer -- no big villain that we actually care about, sorry Kang, and nothing much of value beyond "something something Multiverse" -- and audiences, clearly, are starting to get bored.
We could also point to the fact that the last few films and shows were lackluster. How many people cared about Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, or Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, or The Eternals? Some of the shows and moves Marvel released in Phases IV and V have been good, but there's been plenty more that hasn't, and audiences are starting to go, "maybe we don't need to see everything Marvel, especially not right away."
Of course, Disney+Disney's answer in the streaming service game, Disney+ features the studio's (nearly) full back catalog, plus new movies and shows from the likes of the MCU and Star Wars. is also an issue for the brand. Disney had the MCU team crank out a shit ton of content during Phase IV (55 hours of content in a year and a half when the previous ten years only produced 40-something hours) and it diluted the brand. The studio's works went from "must see" events to "maybe I'll catch it on streaming" moments. Why spend money on The Marvels when it may not be good when you already have a Disney+ subscription and the film will be on there in three months. Phase V has yet to tie everything together so you don't have to worry about seeing things right now. Just... eventually.
And then we have to factor in all that content and whether people have even bothered watching it all. To know everything going on in The Marvels (even with a recap in the film), fans were expected to see WandaVision, Ms. Marvel, and Secret Invasion, as well as (for a cameo) Hawkeye. I have, and I appreciated all the characters that were brought together and how the film neatly worked with them all for a greater story. But how many others would put in the effort now when half the shows I just listed were less than impressive? That's a lot of "homework" to do for one movie.
Now, I will say that I'm not the only one that put in the effort and enjoyed the film. There were people in the audience with me that clearly knew the characters and really enjoyed the film, through and through. A duo of teen girls sat two rows up from me and they were giggling, laughing, and screaming out whenever some new twist was revealed or Ms. Marvel got to do something cool. They were as big of Ms. Marvel fans as Ms. Marvel is for Captain Marvel in this film. It was great to see, and it made the experience of the film even better. People do like these characters and they enjoyed seeing them have a grand, high-flying adventure.
I think the issue is, now, that Marvel (and, really, Disney execs) thought that audiences would watch everything, would show up for everything, would be there just because the Marvel logo was on it. And they did, for a time, but 55 hours of less-than-stellar content wore out people's desires to keep up. And now, even a good movie comes with audiences going, "do I need to see this?" just because it has that Marvel logo on it. And that sucks when the film getting punished is legitimately good.
I don't know how Marvel course corrects. They've dug themselves a big pit with audiences, one that will be really hard to get back out from. They'll need to take time, to rebuild the brand, to give audiences movies they really want to watch. They have to back off on all the shows, slow down the production pipeline, and do things right. Can they? We'll just have to see. But until they do, and win back the trust of audiences, turning their works back into "must see" events, more films in the franchise are going to end up bombs like The Marvels, even when they don't deserve it.