Sunday, February 11, 2024

The annihilator


Directed by Nia DaCosta
Written by Megan McDonnell, Elissa Karasik, and Nia DaCosta

Spoilers: moderate

It probably goes without saying that the world was too hard on The Marvels, though be aware that this is only the same thing as saying that it deserved any better than it got when the movie is placed alongside the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a franchise that, until 2023, had managed to tread water with an aggressive absence of anything good for so long that you can almost forgive Kevin Feige for coming to believe that being good had stopped mattering.  What The Marvels got in terms of its objective reception, anyway, was the lowest box office in the MCU's history*, or at least the worst since really early daysbut let's look and make sure, and holy moly, it really did do worse than The Incredible Hulk, not even adjusting for inflation, and the fact that the phrase not adjusting for inflation might be genuinely meaningful hammers it home just how damned long this thing has lasted, though of course The Marvels (and the majority of its genre-mates from 2023) have called its future into serious question.

Still, I'm not referring to the indifference to the filmthat turns out to have been more-or-less correct.  Instead, I mean the white-hot anger about it, much of it driven by people who have made it central to their identity to hate superhero films (which is obviously exactly as cool as, e.g., being good at sports or kissing, indeed, it's the very opposite of being a nerd); a non-trivial minority of it is, as usual, driven by YouTube Nazi "film critics"/grievance panderers.  There was a time when the average American male would watch The Marvels, smile from time to time because Brie Larson's Captain Marvel costume makes her ass looks terrific, and subsequently forget the movie within a week.  Today, that same man will have convinced himself that a movie with a female lead, let alone three female leads, foretells the end of civilization.  That is to say, we used to have a real country.  (Yet by pretty much the same token, The Marvels made barely one third what Captain Marvel did, which is nuts until you realize that its more-than-a-billion dollar gross was less a sign of a great movie, or even audiences actively committed to big-ticket movies by women, and more that a whole lot of people believed they'd discharged their obligations towards "activism" five years ago, and are now resentful of the notion they might have to do it again, let alone twice in six months.  So there's my Barbie 2 prediction for you.)

Myself, I can work up enough residual affection to be melancholy about The Marvels, because if you just described to me what was in it in terms of its action scenes, character dynamics, space operatic settings, and so forth, I'd have assumed I'd have loved it.  But just about every one of those elements that's been thrown into iteverything about which I'd have said "sounds cool"feels like it's been cooked up in the weakest possible formulation that still more-or-less satisfies the promises that have been made.  The better news is that it gets through it in just 105 minutes, which for an MCU movie makes it practically a B-picture, even if nobody told Disney's accountants, because these 105 minutes still racked up $200 million in production costs (after the tax credits!), so that every one of these minutes (and remember about seven of them are a credits crawl) has cost more than $2 million, apiece, even the ones with the purposefully-bad (I assume) rubber Skrull masks.

In any case, what we have is, as always, beholden to what came before, not just in Captain Marvel but numerous other things, principally the awful TV shows WandaVision and Ms. Marvel, from which it derives its broader cast of "Marvels" (it apparently derives nothing from the TV show Secret Invasion, which I can only say I heard was awful, though I really could not give less of a rat's ass about it or how it contradicts this).  Paramount amongst those "Marvels," then, is Carol Danvers (Larson), Captain Marvel, whom we last saw on the big screen helping defeat Thanos in a pretty plug-n-play, tertiary role, and so, if it's possible, we should cast our minds back to her 2019 movie, where this human woman accidentally granted godlike powers by an alien Kree star drive shook off the brainwashing the Kree had then subjected her to, and became that race's mortal enemy.  We also have Carol's "niece," Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), aged to adulthood in the interim, now an associate of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) at the spacefaring super-governmental agency S.W.O.R.D.; she has acquired energy powers (including the ability to throw energy bolts and make herself intangible, but also "the ability to see the electromagnetic spectrum," and so do you and I, presumably, but they mean "all of it," so it obviously could've been worded better).  And finally there's teenaged Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), who got powers in some way I don't quite recall, though it has something to do with her grandma's bangle; she calls herself "Ms. Marvel" because even before getting her ability to make solid constructs out of light, she was already a weird, sometimes-funny parasocial freak fangirl who wanted to fuck, in an unspoken PG-13 way, Carol Danvers.  I say this because if she doesn't want to fuck her, it's much, much lamer.

Something's about to happen to entangle their quanta, however, and so, as teased in the final shot of the Ms. Marvel show, they all begin to swap places with one another's location in spacetime, in the most inconvenient and amusing ways.  This would be bad for our heroes, but it's worse still, because Carol has made some nasty enemies in the years since she flew off into space, above all the new Supremor of the Kree Empire, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), who's just uncovered the other "bangle" that pairs with Kamala's, knowing that it is in fact a mighty quantum band.  She wants the other one and she wants to revitalize her empire, but, more than anything, she really wants to kill Captain Marvel.

In short, what that amounts to is a little trifle of a superheroic planetary romance devoted to questing across a series of cosmic locations that are hopefully interesting, offering up concepts that are hopefully weird, all of it tied together by a plot that boils down to a likeably-simple three-part ecological heist undertaken by its villain to steal the air, water, and stellar plasma from other inhabited solar systems so her ruined planet can survive.  This part's neat; it's less poetic and possibly more unintentional about the more specific homage James Wan made in his DCEU finale, Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom, but I kind of love that the MCU's own Last Film of the Superhero Age of Cinema brings us back to that legendarily-cliched "holes in the sky" imagery, such as superhero films finally abandoned several years ago because annoyed audiences kept calling the cliche out, only now the holes in the sky have the virtue of being motivated by a genuinely fun-stupid idea.**  I mean, damn, if it's good enough for Spaceballs...  (And so, in the spirit of fun, I shall cheerfully abstain from complaining that, in space, water is literally commoner than dirt, and stellar plasma infinitely so.  She wants to destroy the Earth's sun for personal reasons anyway.)  I am aware that Dar-Benn is considered one of the MCU's worst villains, a sentiment with which I strenuously disagree; it takes barely anything to get to mid-tier MCU villainy, and Ashton (also clearly benefiting from having the second-least fucked-with-in-post performance, after Jackson) is charting a reasonably well-defined character that, within the constraints of "shrieking matinee maniac" (which she's also pulling off well), is easily discernable as the kind of villain who's a hero from her own point-of-view.

Likewise, I understand there are numerous accusations that this plot is incoherent, and while it reads as pretty straightforward to me (beyond a few baffling details, anyhow), I did see its lead-in Disney+ series, and hence I did already know where this crap came from.  The thing is, those shows suck, and I'm unshakable in my belief that you could not be better off if you'd seen them, too.  In Kamala's case, you get what's necessary for her pretty much just from the cutely-stylized "animated fanart" exposition sequence that the first act set-up drops on us, one of only two really major things, not counting Kamala herself, that it's importing from the preexisting continuity of Ms Marvel.  (The other is just her familya collection of flat, semi-irritating, semi-funny hyphenate-American stereotypesand I'd daresay they're self-explanatory enough, so long as you have a working knowledge of where humans come from.)  As for Monica, the less said about her origin in WandaVision the better, and accordingly The Marvels' screenplay in fact says too much, given that if the original six hour television program wasn't able to justify her shoehorned-in origin story, then the phrase, uttered twice in this film, "walked through a witch hex," sure as fuck isn't.  But all told, it's quite possible to pretendif you pretend real hard!that you're watching a superhero movie in a shared universe with other superhero media, where people with superpowers will probably be fairly common.

On the other hand, we have Carol Danvers, and while her story is not incoherent, either, there's still something maddeningly ineffective about the way this film appears to be under the impression that it's actually Captain Marvel 3 rather than Captain Marvel 2, which is pretty much where it places itself with its primary lead: in between Captain Marvel and now, Carol has been busy.  Completing her vengeance in the self-serving language of liberation, she took her fight to the Kree homeworld, Hala, murdered the tyrant-god computer that had overseen every aspect of ther lives, the Supreme Intelligence, and then left behind a few billion Kree to make do, which, unsurprisingly, they didn't.  So, you know, that's basically a whole movie, conjured up in the notional space between one movie that came out in 2019 and this movie that I watched in 2024, and maybe that was doable, except that this obligatory very-first-scene backstory is not laid out till the freaking forty-five minute mark.  In the meantime, it feels, troublingly, like the movie is operating under the assumption that this will be a twist that should reorient the relationships between our characters, as well as between the audience and our central hero.  In the actual movie that exists, it doesn't reorient shitit has been exposited obliquely a half-dozen times already (calling somebody "The Annihilator" gets the point across quickly); but even simply moving it up against Ms. Marvel's embarrassingly gushing praise for her idol would at least have given it the bite of ironic juxtaposition.  And that's a drag, because it has done something quite good here by finally giving Carol a character with more dimensions than merely "chafing under patriarchy."  It's even done this with some elegance, considering that this tragic mistake arose out of the two traits we already knew the former USAF pilot had, namely her insistence on being a blunt object whose first recourse has typically been to thoughtlessly break shit and, whenever she created a reliance in anyone, abandon them.  I suspect that at some point this had a political allegory embedded into it, rather than the extant film's political allegory-shaped hole; I'm entirely convinced that at some point this paralleled her relationship with Monica (which is otherwise the most boring part here, and probably still would be regardless of configuration, because Monica is surely old enough to understand that her mom's friend became a space god); but I'm pretty sure that the crestfallen, heartbroken reaction shot from Vellani upon learning Carol's dark secret, that's still in the finished movie, at one point led to something much meatier.  In the movie as it stands, Kamala shrugs it off with bemused indifference.  For my part, I'm bemused as to how blowing up a computer put the Kree's sun out.

This tells us what we already knew about the movie, though, that it was smashed to pieces with rewrites, recuts, and reshoots without its director even being present (that 105 minute runtime is probably the result of this brutality), though it's remarkable that this pile of mush visibly retains its original dramatic spine, even when that spine isn't attached to much of anything anymore.  That leaves us with the fun planet-hopping adventure; and it is, in fact, fun.  I will, unfortunately, have to continue bitching, because it's so resolutely the least fun version of itself it could be while still being fun.  Yet there is at least the one, I think, rather fine exception, the plot-establishing quantum teleportation sequence, which is where our heroes' problem is at its least-controlled and involves the showiest editing around a fundamentally editing-driven mechanic.  I've seen very mean things said about it, but I thought it was cute and put together with a unique energy that sells it, and it winds up with some of the best acting from our leads on the simple basis of the comically-dumbfounded expressions they're wearing as they attempt to do battle with evil Kree henchmen but continually find themselves shuffled around whenever they use their powers.  Why, I'm not even going to complain about how what constitutes "usage of powers" becomes almost completely lost to more convenient action staging thereafter; we do have a movie to make here, so relax.  (But would I prefer it if the mechanic were more important?  Well, yes, I would.  Is there an "all is lost, unless..." beat in the action climax where it obviously would've been incredibly useful?  Well, yes, there is.  Is there another one in the heroic denouement that would have been kind of emotional, and, God help my fanboy bullshit, helped set up future MCU movies better?  Yes.***)

But that's kind of where The Marvels needs to be met at, with an acceptance that whatever delightful idea it's currently playing with, it will be suboptimal at it: this is massively the case with the film's one truly unforgivable sin, committed when we arrive upon a planet where they communicate solely through Musical Theatre, which would be just wonderful if it committed to that bit longer than "momentarily," or if anyone involved realized there's more to a musical number in a movie than autotune, vaguely-choregraphed walking in a group, and the words [musical number] written in a screenplay.  I even like how they exit this, with a legitimately funny joke, but it would be more impressive if they weren't so terrified of their own movie's possibilities that they needed to exit it immediately.  This is pretty much the compressed version of a criticism that applies to the whole movie, though: it's so timid about every single idea it forwards, from Carol the Neocon, to how her failure would impact a girl who previously had possessed absolute faith in her, to how, even leaving aside the more dramatic aspects of this three-hander dynamic, this girl is creepy and strange yet Carol (and Larson) are not allowed to find her annoying or off-putting for more than a few shots at the beginningto do so would be to diminish Ms. Marvel's brand (or call into question "fandom" as a concept), just as dwelling on Carol's mistake would do to her; it's all so slimily corporate in its absence of frictionso it can't even be half as funny as it could be.  The movie can't contemplate any character conflict beyond Monica's pre-approved abandonment issues and, again, using the switching mechanic for the heroic denouement would at least have given Monica the semblance of a character arc.

So at what point do I say nice things about it?  It is, for all that, a smooth ride: it's never less than pleasant; for a Marvel movie the action is good, and presented with the clarity of posed action figures (in a good way this time); it's colorful, and while at times it's chintzy, it's chintzy like a Star Trek episode; it does possess ingenuity, even if it feels like it's been forbidden to express it; and I haven't mentioned Jackson much, but The Marvels is the closest the movies have ever gotten to doing right by Nick Fury, not the Ultimate Nick Fury whose comic book "casting" as Sam Jackson became a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the regular old Marvel Universe Nick Furyall but the cigar-chompingin Jackson's regular-joe-in-a-world-of-sci-fi-nonsense amused contempt, and his general benign over-this-shit gruffness.  Additionally, I suppose I must prefer Disney executives artificially deadening a film's emotions to James Gunn puking them directly into my mouth like a mama bird, because I liked this better than Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3, though the forty-five minute difference in runtime and absence of completely-braindead needle-drops undoubtedly contribute to that.  Even through the murk of a movie that got remade in the middle of making it the first time, it's Larson's most humane performance out of her three goes at the role; Vellani is adorably hyper-committed, even in the teeth of a character who should be obnoxious.  It's one more okay Marvel movie; but I'll admit I came close to talking myself into disliking it.

Score: 6/10

*Full-on "enormous bomb" territory; I fully realize I didn't help, but ironically, or not, or whatever, it was my girlfriend's fault.
**A callback to Iron Man's post-credits scene, involving the Young Avengers, much less so.  I categorically do not care.
***I hate the mid-credits scene very much, but, I mean, if you've gotta do Rogue somehow.


  1. I actually loved this one from start to finish: it helps that I only dip in and out of the MCU as films catch my attention, rather than trying to follow EVERYTHING.

    As for the alter Sun being put out - I assume that this was the result of the vicious faction fight which presumably followed the destruction of the Supreme Intelligence (Though whether it was done by a faction on the capital world or one of the formerly-tributary planets is an interesting question).

    On a more cheery note, as a result of this review I learned that not only is Ms. Ashton dating Mr Tom Hiddleston, they actually made a baby together!

    Clearly the MCU should be very, very afraid when this baby grows old enough to steal scenes.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it as much as you did!

      They should've had a scene where somebody puts the sun out, would've been rad.