After a run of recent disappointments, the stuttering Marvel Cinematic Universe needed a zap of energy. Maybe some kind of plasma blast? Thank goodness, then, for director Nia DaCosta and her marvel-lous cast, who bring us the zippiest and paciest film the studio has made in some time.
It's a welcome surprise, especially for a film that has been relentlessly attacked online prior to release, and for a cinematic universe that has been groaning under the weight of its own lore. DaCosta and her fellow screenwriters Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik do tie this story into the wider world — Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is up on the S.A.B.E.R. space station, and hostilities between the Kree and Skrulls are still a factor — but without getting lost in the canon. Instead, DaCosta gives us just enough to tie it all together, and then focuses on her characters and their adventure.
That adventure is blessedly simple. The new leader of the Kree, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), has found an artefact that she plans to use to restore a homeworld ravaged by civil war, and by what the Kree call ‘the Annihilator’ — that’d be Captain Marvel. But the artefact has a side-effect on the fabric of the wider universe, and when both Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) and Captain Monica Rambeau, aka ‘Lieutenant Trouble’ (Teyonah Parris), make contact with the anomaly she creates, they somehow find their powers tied together, and linked with Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani). The three — the Marvels — have to work together, then, to stop the Kree masterplan and save reality itself.
In a little over 100 minutes, this reminds us how a superhero film can and perhaps should zip along.
It's a team-up story, and one where the elements mesh together beautifully — after a certain amount of misunderstanding, of course. Larson's Captain Marvel remains an oddball, a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-never loner with a troubled past and an overwhelming sense of goals not yet accomplished. Parris' Monica builds on her small-screen role in WandaVision (which is referenced but which you don’t need to have seen) to give us a woman who's tough as nails but deeply wounded by all she's lost, and who's particularly angry at “aunt” Carol for abandoning her. And between them, quantumly entangled with both and fangirling so hard she might burst, is Kamala Khan.
It's hard to overstate how important Kamala is to this film’s success. There’s a quick, partially animated primer for her character for anyone who missed the Ms. Marvel TV show, but she immediately seems to belong in the same way that Tom Holland’s Spider-Man instantly slotted in, as if the universe had just been waiting for them all along. Kamala’s such a ball of pure joy that she lightens every scene, and the sincere faith shining from her when she looks at the two older heroes obligates them to be their best selves to avoid crushing such youthful idealism. She helps them work through their beefs, and is inspired by them to greater heights than ever. And her family — Zenobia Shroff as her mother Muneeba, Mohan Kapur as her father Yusuf and Saagar Shaikh as brother Aamir — inject both comedy and a little emotion into proceedings.
But this is not a film that slows down for too much emotional handwringing, and with the fate of Marvel’s rainbow-coloured reality at stake, that’s perhaps as it should be. While we could have used maybe one more line or two on Dar-Benn’s motivations, she’s given just enough to make her interesting and a potent threat. For our heroes, there are planets to defend, flerkens to herd and a number of cleverly executed fight scenes where the three Marvels keep swapping location at a moment’s notice. That’s handled well — the action feels of a piece with the story rather than grafted on by second-unit specialists — but what’s particularly impressive are the wilder story swings that DaCosta takes. A planet where people communicate through song is going to divide people but it’s exactly the sort of bold, weird, fun thing that a universe full of superheroes should try, and that’s not even the scene that features the funniest needle drop in the Marvel universe to date. It’s also, not for nothing, a better Nick Fury outing than Secret Invasion.
In a little over 100 minutes, this reminds us how a superhero film can and perhaps should zip along, and then lands a crowd-pleasing one-two punch of final scene and mid-credit sting. Maybe all the Marvel universe needed to get out of trouble was another dose of Lieutenant Trouble, with her amazing friends.