On November 10, the Marvel Cinematic Universe expanded even more with the release of The Marvels. Directed by Nia DaCosta (the youngest and first ever Black woman to helm an MCU movie), the film (which stars Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, and newcomer Iman Vellani) follows the joint quest of the reluctant superhero triad The Marvels across the universe as they try to prevent a war criminal from completing her ultimate revenge. The Marvels is a fun intergalactic ride and should be celebrated, but even before its theatrical release, the conversation around the project was overwhelmingly negative. Now, its post-release box office numbers and social media backlash confirmed the studio’s worst fears about the Captain Marvel sequel. But is the movie actually that bad, or is something else — something more sinister — going on?
The Marvels picks up in a particularly complicated point in the MCU timeline. The introduction of the powerful time lord Kang (Jonathan Majors) in Disney+ TV show Loki and his reappearance in Ant-Man: Quantumania affirms that this phase is all about the multiverse and its rapid expansion (and, frighteningly, its pending collapse), and The Marvels also leans into the concept. Against their will, Carol Danvers (Larson), Monica Rambeau (Parris), and Kamala Khan (Vellani) are pulled into a battle of time and space as they try to stop the inter-galactic warpath of Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), a murderous Kree general with a chip on her shoulder. At heart, DaCosta’s film is a story about women (with really cool powers) just trying their best to protect what’s important to them, and it doesn’t shy away from saying so.
Still, it’s fair to say that the film is missing…something. While the chemistry between the three leads is incredible — Vellani is especially endearing as the rookie superhero barely containing her obsession with her idol — other aspects of The Marvels don’t quite hit as hard. There’s a resolution issue (Dar-Benn, who was promoted as one of the scariest MCU big bads, was defeated far too easily), and it feels as if the film, like so many others in the recent phases, is just a means to an end. The Multiverse Saga has focused heavily on alternate realities and universes, and many of its projects have felt more like a setup for the universal war to come than standalone films that can hold their own. Still, even with those points of contention, The Marvels is far from the worst post-Thanos title in the MCU’s lineup. (Quantumania still holds that trophy, if you ask me. Thor: Love and Thunder is a close second.) So why is it getting so much hate and performing so poorly? Could it be the misogyny that the geek community is so widely known for?
It’s not a stretch to say that Captain Marvel (and Larson, the actress bringing her story to life) has been one of the most controversial figures in the MCU fandom. Even before the first film hit theaters in 2019, it was review-bombed by some disgruntled MCU devotees, whose main issues with the movie involved Larson’s consistent comments about the need for more diversity in Hollywood and within the MCU; they didn’t like that Larson wasn’t catering to the “incel dudes who hate strong women,” as co-star Samuel L. Jackson so poetically described them in an interview with Rolling Stone. When Captain Marvel was officially released, those same trolls took issue with its clear feminist slant (what else did they expect from the first MCU film about a woman superhero?) and dragged its Rotten Tomatoes score down so low that the site had to create a new policy that barred users from leaving reviews before a movie was released. Despite Captain Marvel making history in the franchise and paving a path for other superhero projects focused on women, the harsh reaction to its success highlighted the darker, less inclusive corner of the comic book community.
Years later, the echoes of that same “anti-woke” disdain can be seen in the icy reception of The Marvels. The MCU has been making a point to diversify its storytelling on the silver screen and on the small screen in the past few years, and while most of us have been happy to see new faces in the franchise, there are still others complaining about the new, more inclusive direction. From Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever to Ms. Marvel and so many others, a certain sector of the fandom has slammed the MCU for becoming too “woke,” which seems to now just mean “anything starring non-white people” to these detractors. The Marvels, a film that’s directed by a Black woman, features three women (including a Black woman and a Pakistani-Canadian woman) as the leads, and cast a Black woman as its antagonist, is as “woke” as the franchise has seen so far — and the trolls can’t take it. They didn’t even have to watch the film to know that they hated it; on principle, they just knew it wouldn’t be their cup of tea.
“This first one sucked ass. This one will suck ass,” tweeted another, punctuating their irritation with a middle finger emoji. “It’s not the actors. It’s the storyline and woke BS that separates this from the rest of the universe.”
It is of note that the energy towards The Marvels and DaCosta feels particularly hostile. In addition to the perpetual storm of angry tweets, the director has been the subject of constant industry scrutiny, with numerous editorial outlets questioning her choices at every turn. A self-proclaimed blerd herself, DaCosta was fully prepared for the pushback against the MCU’s choice to hire her and the biases that some fans are holding onto going into her film. The hate is inevitable, but it’s not what she’s focusing on. “There are pockets where you go because you’re like, ‘I’m a super fan. I want to exist in the space of just adoration — which includes civilized critique’,” said the director in an interview with Variety prior to The Marvels’ theatrical release. “Then there are pockets that are really virulent and violent and racist — and sexist and homophobic and all those awful things. And I choose the side of the light. That’s the part of fandom I’m most attracted to.”
Even with the expansion of the universe through Disney+ original series, MCU reviews have seen an obvious decline since the end of the Thanos era in Avengers: Endgame, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why these projects aren't hitting like they used to. Perhaps the first phases set the bar too high. Maybe we’re still mourning the loss of the fallen heroes we fell in love with (T’Challa, Tony Stark — we miss you). It could even be that building an entire story arc around an actor mired in controversy is chipping away at the foundation of this new phase. “Wokeness,” specifically the kind that lets women and people of color save the world (or, in Dar-Ben’s case, destroy it), isn’t really the problem here — but the aversion to telling new types of stories starring new types of heroes will be. Glimpses into its road map reveal that, to the ire of trolls, these MCU plots are probably going to get even more progressive; future releases include Echo (a miniseries about a deaf indigenous vigilante), Ironheart (featuring Dominique Thorne’s Riri Williams as Tony Stark’s technological heir), and an unnamed show about Wakanda (rumored to star Danai Gurira).
This sprawling world is growing and changing with the introduction of every new character whether Twitter-finger traditionalists like it or not, so it’s best to get in formation and accept that this is what the MCU looks like now. Or don’t — the show will go on regardless.
The Marvels is now showing in theaters.