Monday 13 November 2023

Enter the void: "The Marvels"

Back in 2008, Marvel launched their undeniably successful bid for movie market supremacy with boys' toys:
Iron Man and his suit, Captain America and his shield, Thor and his mighty hammer. The market was duly shored up, then saturated and finally strangulated. A decade or so later, with audience enthusiasm rapidly waning, the MCU launches its next assault on earthly multiplexes (phase, what, 5097? Who, besides the nerds and the suits, is still counting?) with a movie that marks a clear shift in strategy. The Marvels arrives care of a female director (Nia Da Costa, who did 2021's Candyman redo), with a predominantly all-gal cast and a plot that revolves around the collection and possession of intergalactic snap-on bracelets; it's the first Marvel picture I've seen to feature a mid-film song-and-dance number; and, if that wasn't cutesy enough for you, there is also a prominent litter of computer-generated space kittens to coo over. We have, I think, reached a moment equivalent to that in printed comic-book history when the head honchos of Marvel, DC and others suddenly realised there might be a whole new audience for their output: they have boobs, tend to get less sweatily agitated about plot points, and generally take better care of themselves, making them a far better investment in the long run. Women, it would appear, are the future of the MCU. Or the scapegoats. Can our plucky heroines save the day where a bunch of variably chiselled men have failed of late? All I can say is good luck, ladies; you're going to need it if the material is as nothingy as this.

For The Marvels proves to be yet another black hole: a marginally cheerier dud than this summer's The Flash, but no less of a timesuck all in all. There are reasons for this, which a more forgiving observer - possibly one who hasn't had to sit through 130 variations on the same damn bubblegum - might take for mitigating circumstances. Firstly, this is a sequel to a film (2019's Captain Marvel) that came out several lockdown-interrupted lifetimes ago: Da Costa has had to insert one of those ever-crude "protagonist wakes from a dream about the events of an earlier film" scenes in the first five minutes in a bid to get everybody back up to speed, ensuring the project feels like something of a lost cause from the off. (All we're reminded of is how little about Captain Marvel could be considered truly memorable.) Secondly, the process of storytelling has been complicated - and, I'd argue, fatally compromised - by the desire to work in characters from other Marvel formats. Iman Vellani's Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, hails from this universe's TV arm, where I'm assuming she weekly demonstrates her primary superpower of being so irritatingly perky her enemies flee the room at an express rate of knots, but I'd honestly no clue where Teyonah Parris's sidekick Monica began her MCU career, nor why Tessa Thompson (cameoing as her Thor-world avatar) should show up dressed as her character from the Men in Black reboot we've all mostly forgotten about. It's both curious and revealing that this quote-unquote plot - a clear patchwork job, cobbled together by some combination of Da Costa, Megan McDonnell, Elissa Karasik and the cards of zombified test-screening audiences - should lean so heavily on characters leaping through gaps in this universe; all it points up - and the writers have to have realised this, even if just subconsciously - is that there are now more gaps in this fraying universe than there is connecting fabric, which wasn't the case when The Avengers first set out to conquer the galaxy.

For just shy of two hours, we're presented with a serial where we don't have all the pages, followed - as talk inevitably gives way to shruggingly pixellated action - by a Lite-Brite that's been dropped onto a concrete floor from a great height and then flattened by a passing steamroller. It's characters we've barely met talking about things we don't understand and cannot care about in scenes that resemble indifferently lit television. The fonder reviews seem to me a reflection of the idea the film isn't quite as disastrous as had been muttered about in industry circles - or to what Da Costa manages on a scene-by-scene basis, having abandoned all hope the whole might hang together in any appreciable manner. There's a whole lot of these characters floating around in space, which might well play as goofy fun were it not an analogue for the project's essential weightlessness and lack of direction. (At least Tony Stark flew straight, and with propulsion: we knew where he was going, and what he was planning to do there.) Your heart might go out to the acclaimed actors forced to mouth reams of dull exposition in an attempt to explain the inexplicable - and, by extension, to Da Costa, caught up in what appears to be her second successive gig to suffer from heavy studio interference. Yet there were doubtless irresistible cheques involved, and besides, suckering folks into swallowing terminal incoherence hardly seems the wisest long-term career strategy, whatever your gender. Let the CG squid-cats take over for phase 5098, Kevin; whatever they drag in can't be that much lamer than this.

The Marvels is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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