Captain Marvel (2019) brought us a female superhero who was just as strong as the boys, able to almost uniquely lift and wield Thor’s hammer Mjölnir. It was a commercially successful tale of Air Force pilot Carol Danvers (Brie Larsen), who, when exposed to an exploding faster-than-light engine, absorbs the energy and undergoes mutagenic transformation. Instead of burning up or dying the way normal people do when falling victim to gamma radiation or radioactive spider bites.
Four years later in our time, but more like 20 years later in the cinematic chronology, Captain Marvel’s back for a new adventure, but as part of a female superhero trio, including one Pakistani Muslim teen (Iman Vellani) and an African-American astrophysicist (Teyonah Parris), fighting yet another female, an alien from a species that’s conveniently also two-gendered, male and female, and like almost everyone in this movie except blonde Scandinavian-American Brie Larsen, a person of color. Since she’s playing a leader of the alien Kree empire, one of the colors is blue.
The Marvels is written by a female trio—Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, Elissa Karasik—and directed by DaCosta. After one weekend, it isn’t doing well. It cost $200 million to make, but barely made $100 million its opening weekend. I saw it; I liked it. The trade press—organs like Deadline Hollywood and The Wrap—are now discussing what went wrong as if they were Republicans the day after an election.
Critics are focusing on a number of issues, including that The Marvels can’t pick a genre, deciding whether to be an action film or a silly comedy. It’s full of comic scenes, as when the three heroines—whose powers are entangled, so that when one uses her powers she then switches places with one of the others—practice hopscotch and juggling to improve their collective coordination. But the campy comedy Thor: Ragnorak was one of the top 10 highest grossing films of 2017 ($850 million) so that excuse, like two of the heroines, doesn’t fly.
One difference between this all-lady effort and traditional syfy is a sloppiness with the actual science. “Boy” science fiction likes nerdy elaborations of how star ships and such work, brilliantly spoofed in the syfy comedy Galaxy Quest (1999), where Comicon fans are called in to explain how a space ship aliens have built after watching a cult TV show functions and can be navigated. This love of canon, detail, and science results in books like The Physics Behind Star Wars, The Science of Star Trek, and The Klingon Dictionary.
Director DaCosta and her writers have no such nerdy concerns. The three heroines—Carol Danvers, Monica Rambeau, and Kamala Khan—have their powers entangled because they all have “light based powers” and two of them were touching unstable wormholes in space simultaneously. And apparently they were the only people in the universe doing these things at the time. The fact that Rambeau is the adopted niece of Carol Danvers and Kamala Khan and has a fan crush on Captain Marvel is just a coincidence. Sorority replaces science.
In the earlier Captain Marvel, the Rambeau character was just a child, a pre-teen who loved her “aunt” Carol Danvers and didn’t want her to leave on (what turned out to be a 20 year-long) adventure in space. I hadn’t noticed, but this character had reappeared as an adult in the Marvel universe, as a federal agent in the excellent Disney+ series Wandavision (2021) To understand what’s going on in The Marvels, a character has to explain that Rambeau acquired superpowers as a kind of contagion in her interaction with the witch, Wanda. (Superpowers she hasn’t learned to use, leading Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to shout at her when she attempts to fly, “Where’s that black girl magic?”). And to understand who Kamala Khan is you’d need to have watched the Disney+ miniseries Ms. Marvel.
So to fully understand and enjoy this egalitarian film, which has only one white actress (Larsen) and one white actor (Gary Lewis, buried under green prosthetics as he plays an alien emperor) the audience needs to have a Disney+ subscription. Perhaps this lowered audience ratings. Another oddity of the movie is Rambeau’s (Teyonah Parris’) gigantic posterior. It’s a big butt for an ordinary person. For an actress it’s huge. All of that’s fine. Fat-assed people lead happy and worthwhile lives and many are even great performers beloved by audiences. But their derrieres aren’t encased in spandex and pleather superhero outfits and thrust in our faces.
Perhaps the all-lady team producing the movie thought it’d be body-shaming to figure out how not to put all three superheroes into lycra outfits. Perhaps they didn’t realize that they’ve essentially created the Avenger’s/Marvel equivalent of People of WalMart.
Another oddity is the alien creature known as “Goose.” Goose appeared in Captain Marvel, where he seems to humans to be a simple tabby cat. Aliens—Kree and Skrull—all recognized him as something else, a “Flerken,” an animal that looks like a small cat on the outside but contains a large octopus-like creature on the inside. When threatened, giant tentacles come out of its mouth, and they entangle and swallow the bad guys. A pussycat that’s a devouring octopus is an obvious metaphor for fear of the vagina, so one assumes that it’s part of the humor of the movie and not unconscious. In The Marvels, Goose reproduces and an army of kittens are yet another deus ex machina that moves the plot. It’s an entertaining scene, set to music from the Broadway show Cats, and a little reminiscent of the classic “The Trouble with Tribbles.”
It's yet another attempt at “intersectional” science fiction that banishes the white man, or at least make women of color central. Some of these have been successful. Disney+’s female Jedi of color Ahsoka worked, but then it starred Rosario Dawson. Star Trek: Discovery also worked, unevenly, and is allegedly returning for a fifth season, but it starred Michelle Yeoh. Maybe The Marvels just needed more star power.