Producer: Kevin Feige   Director: Nia DaCosta   Screenplay: Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik   Cast: Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani, Zawe Ashton, Gary Lewis, Seo-Jun Park, Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, Saagar Shaikh and Samuel L. Jackson   Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Grade: C-

Behold a modern miracle: an MCU movie that clocks in at under two hours—indeed, at only 105 minutes (including end credits), substantially so.  A pity that the miracle doesn’t extend to the quality of “The Marvels”: it’s arguably the nadir of the franchise, at least thus far—a farrago of repetitious fight scenes, mediocre effects, a jumbled narrative, weird humor, and characters that are either bland or irritating.

The movie, sketchily co-written and flatly directed by Nia DaCosta (the remake of “Candyman”) is technically a sequel to “Captain Marvel” (2019), which introduced Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, the former U.S. fighter pilot who assumed the identity of the eponymous hero.  Though she appeared in “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), the Captain has largely been off in space since her first film—not without consequence, as is revealed here.

During her absence, it’s eventually revealed, the Captain took decisive action in the war between the Kree Empire and the Skrulls on the side of the latter.  The result was the near destruction of the Kree home planet, Hala, earning Marvel the sobriquet “The Annihilator.”  Seeking revenge—and the restoration of Kree strength—warrior Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), carrying a huge hammer as a scepter, acquires a bejeweled wristband or “bangle” that endows her with remarkable powers. 

She uses them to interfere with the operation of “jump points,” wormholes that allow for teleportation, and in investigating the result Marvel, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), as astronaut working with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and endowed by a “Hex” with powers of her own (which earn her the title of Photon), and Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), the New Jersey teenager with a magic bangle of her own that transforms her into Ms. Marvel, find themselves linked by the phenomenon in a strange way: when they use their powers they switch places with each other.  They join together to track down and defeat Dar-Benn, who seeks to obtain Kamala’s bangle while taking vengeance on Captain Marvel and depleting other planets of their resources in order to restore Hala. They also bond—a process encouraged by Kamala’s idolization of Marvel but hindered by Monica’s resentment toward Marvel for having stayed away from earth so long. 

Such, at least, appears to be the gist of the plot concocted by DaCosta with Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik, which draws not just from the previous movies but the Disney+ series “Ms. Marvel” and “WandaVision” (a practice of amalgamation typical of what’s becoming an increasingly cultish MCU).

In any event, much of “The Marvels” is devoted to the process of the three heroines coming to trust and depend on one another as they work collaboratively to bring Dar-Benn down.  There are plenty of heartfelt talks and warm hugs to punctuate the fierce fights in which they engage the villainess (who seems, for some reason, to be more powerful than any of them individually, or all of them together).  Those fights are messier than usual visually, because of course the three are constantly shifting among themselves as they employ their powers—an idea which might have sounded wonderful in the script-writing stages but makes realizing the choreography of the scenes exceedingly difficult.  Clarity often goes by the wayside in Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography and the editing by Catrin Hedström and Evan Schiff.

The resonance of the Marvels’ evolving camaraderie might be greater if the three characters were more compelling, or better played.  Captain Marvel herself is a rather inept heroine, supposedly the most powerful being in the universe yet prone to making mistakes and not figuring out how to correct them (in fact, it takes a suggestion from her compatriots to make her realize how she might rectify the Hala problem); and Larson’s performance has little to it besides a tendency to hide her vulnerability nervously behind a veneer of sternness (one half expects her to bite her fingernails).  Parris is surprisingly nondescript as Rambeau, whose being miffed over lack of attention from Marvel over the years feels petty, given the literally cosmic issues involved.  Vellani’s turn as the starry-eyed Kamala is exhausting in its frantic exuberance; so is the character’s obvious purpose in acting as a surrogate for every Marvel-fan out in the audience.  Ashton, meanwhile, makes a one-note villain, all steeliness and teeth-gnashing rage, while Jackson just delivers his usual cool-as-hell shtick.  He’s pretty much sleep-walking his way as Fury by now.

The movie attempts to alleviate the drudgery of the plot by padding things with humorous digressions that, unfortunately, come off poorly.  One involves repeated appearances by Kamala’s Pakistani-American family, dictatorial mom Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff), milquetoast dad Yusuf (Mohan Kapur) and laid-back brother Aamir (Saagar Shaikh); while presumably intended affectionately, they’re drawn in a way that often seems crudely stereotypical.  A second features an interlude on the planet Aladna, a mixture of modernist décor and traditional clothing (Cara Brower’s production design and Lindsay Pugh’s costumes, otherwise pretty ordinary, excel here), whose inhabitants, including Prince Yan (Seo-Jun Park), sing and dance in lieu of simple conversation; it’s a goofily outrageous bit of wackiness, though one out of character with most of the movie (as the comic set-pieces in the Thor series, for example, are not).  

Then there’s the material surrounding Marvel’s cat-like Flerken Goose and its offspring, with their unsettling habit of emitting hungry tentacles from their mouths, a proclivity that becomes an important plot point.  This comic use of imagery that might remind you of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is even weirder than the craziness of the Aladna sequence.

To satisfy MCU fanatics, “The Marvels” brings back a couple of other characters from previous episodes in the franchise, and features a single post-credits scene that should make them salivate, with its combination of returning and potentially new characters.  No surprise that Laura Karpman’s incessantly big-bang score should whip up the excitement as the credits continue.                                          

As with so many of the MCU films of late, this one is very far from Marvel-ous.  The comparatively short running-time is welcome, but you might feel that the movie still isn’t short enough.