By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
(Rating: three-and-a-half stars)
“The Marvels,” concerning a trio of Marvel Cinematic Universe superheroines, comes to us written by three women—director Nia DaCosta, plus Megan McDonnell, and Elissa Karasik. It comes well stocked with blistering action scenes, far-flung science fiction landscapes, wild offshoots into other worlds, other dimensions, and other timelines.
Yet for all this otherworldly pageantry, resonances of the outside world seep in. A planet of struggling citizens strain to breathe beneath special masks, all too similar to those N95 respirator masks still worn, in some quarters, to keep COVID-19 at bay. A hero to many gets scorned and set up for destruction in certain quarters; hard to not think of the Israel-Hamas war, with no end in sight.
The film does find some light and redemption in the chemistry between its three leads: Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (played by Brie Larson), Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and Kamala Khan aka Ms. Marvel, played by Iman Vellani in her feature film debut.
A native of Pakistan raised in Ontario, Canada, Vellani planned to attend art college, before reading a casting call for the Ms. Marvel role. She passed several auditions, largely on the strength of her being every bit as obsessed with the Avengers in real life as her character. Both have bedrooms festooned with Avengers art and graphics.
As an actor, she shows no signs of first-timer hesitations or jitters. She steps confidently into the role of an earnest but awkward young woman stuck with her loving but traditional Pakistani family in Jersey City, New Jersey, just across the water from New York. Her address mirrors her situation: Stuck close to where the real action is, but unable to join in the thick of it. Her family loves her but can’t understand her, as she whiles away her time waiting and hoping to meet her idol, Carol Danvers.
We quickly understand, however, that Kamala, however star-struck and young, has powers of her own. When those powers get short-circuited together with the powers of Captain Marvel and Monica Rambeau through something called a quantum entanglement (long story), they find themselves switching places every time one of them uses powers.
Trapped in the middle of all this are Kamala’s Jersey City family, gaping wide-eyed as strangers, monsters, and aliens switch places in space-time—but always, from their point of view, in the middle of their living room—to destroy everything in the immediate vicinity.
Zenobia Shroff as Muneeba Khan, Kamala’s mom, obviously rules the roost. The others—Kamala herself, Mohan Kapur as Papa Yusuf, and Saagar Shaikh as older brother—all look around at her when the latest round of destruction finishes. They’re waiting for her to make up her mind, and set the tone. A Parsi from Mumbai, Shroff has a long history in acting and comedy. She certainly demonstrates exquisite comic timing, knowing exactly when to hold it all in, and when to rant. Kamala loves her madly, but despairs of ever getting out from under her. As mom points out in the midst of the furor, “Families are complicated.”
I’d also like to praise Seo-joon Park as Prince Yan of the planet Aladna, married to Carol Danvers (another long story), and leader of a people who sing, rather than talk. A rising star in South Korea, new to Western audiences, he packs poise, charm, and a quiet sadness.
One final note: With a box office gross of “only” $109 million, this film is starting to be considered a box-office bomb—even though DaCosta’s the first Blac woman to have a film, her previous outing “Candyman,” open at number one for the American movie box office.
The reason? “The Marvels” cost at least $100 million more to make than $109 million. Hopefully, DaCosta gets to make more films. Hopefully, Marvel can look at the human elements that work in this film, and entertain second thoughts on the pricey fancy panoramas, which only look like every other fancy panorama in every other blockbuster.