The following review of The Marvels has spoilers, particularly for Captain Marvel’s storyline with Valkyrie. Proceed with necessary caution if you’re intending to see the film.
In Marvel Studios latest film, The Marvels, Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers, played by Brie Larson) is once again saving the world. This time she has rescued a group of Skrulls, aliens who have been locked in a decades long civil war with the Kree. She’s put as many Skrulls as she could on her spaceship, flying away as their refuge is blown into stardust. It’s a temporary solution.
But Carol knows this friend. She can call her for help. A sharp streak of purple that cracks through the stars later, and Valkyrie appears.
King Valkyrie is as mesmerizing as ever in a three-piece black and white suit, her braided hair folded into a bun on top of her head with tendrils framing her face, at least three gay rings adorning her fingers. Extremely valid critiques of Marvel’s hide and seek approach to queer sexuality aside, Tessa Thompson has always carefully and purposefully imbued Valkyrie with her own queerness. She fought for it, she called out the studio when Valkyrie’s same sex love interest once landed on a cutting room floor. And now here she stands, a queer Black woman playing a queer Black warrior of a superhero.
Valkyrie is worried. Instantly, her face goes soft. She holds Carol close. She asks, voice heavy, “Are you alright?” It’s not like Carol to call like this.
We learn that Valkyrie calls Captain Marvel “Marv,” for short. A pet name, if you will. Every second is a minute, minutes stretch for time unknown. They seemingly cannot stop touching each other, holding hands, caressing forearms, talking in hushed warm tones that after a half decade of seeing them both on screen, we’ve never heard from either one before. They hug for a second or two longer than would be deemed merely “friendly.” I hold my breath.
Carol needs Valkyrie to take the remaining Skrulls someplace safe. She smiles, agreeing to offer them a port in the storm. But her eyes? Her eyes never stop searching Carol’s eyes. Are you alright? never stops prickling from behind her pupils. Carol’s eyes crinkle with recognition in return. Stories pass between them that aren’t for us, the audience, to know.
These are women who care and have cared for each other, who have found a home in each other, despite their respective loneliness. Having Brie Larson and Tessa Thompson, growing masters of their craft, play together on screen means that so much more carries than what’s on the page of a thin blockbuster script designed to delight with the thrill of a carnival ride instead of complicated character beats. (To be clear, I love action blockbusters. I don’t believe every script needs to be quiet arthouse fare. But it’s hard not to notice that The Marvels had three scriptwriting credits, including director Nia DaCosta, and wonder what kind of studio influence impacted the final production of the film.)
Valkyrie looks past Carol’s shoulder to the crowded ship — Carol’s
step-daughter niece, Monica (Teyonah Parris), her protégée Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), the Skrulls she has tried to keep safe for over 30 years. The Asgardian reminds her that asking for help is strength, not a weakness. It’s good to have team. “You can stand tall, without standing alone.”
Then Valkyrie leans in to Carol, slowly, so gently, the camera framing both of their profiles. She says the rest of her words tucked into a soft lingering kiss, placed at Carol’s cheekbone. There’s the kind of gay you can see, and the kind of gay you can touch, and then there’s the kind of gay that you just know.
Thus far the MCU’s Captain Marvel is not technically gay, but also?
I waffled about writing this review, to be honest. I struggled with it for days longer than I should have. After being burned so many times by Marvel and Disney over the last 15 years, watching as the studios continue to ask its gay audience to settle for the bare minimum, I’m reticent to give them more space or credit than they deserve. In 2019, ranking Carol Danvers’ outfits by lesbianism, gay gasping at her instantly recognizable queer haircut in Endgame, felt optimistic — a promise of a what’s to come. Now it’s crystalized, for me at least, that promises of “next time there will be more” will always have the goal post moved. Are we at a place where Carol’s queer-coded white tank top and a kiss on a cheek is really still worth being written about? In doing so, am I being complicit in saying that queer audiences are not deserving of our fullness?
I weighed this with our Senior Editor who also helms Autostraddle’s film and television coverage, Drew Burnett Gregory. Drew quipped: “The way every big studio wants no gay and every actor wants gay… heroes.”
It’s stayed with me. Like Tessa Thompson, Brie Larson has advocated for Carol Danvers’ queerness. In 2019, during the lead up to what was once seen as Marvel’s grand finale Avengers: Endgame (I think we all understand it now to be more of a mid-point), Larson told Variety, “I don’t understand how you could think that a certain type of person isn’t allowed to be a superhero. So to me it’s like, we gotta move faster. But I’m always wanting to move faster with this stuff.” Fitting that she was echoing Carol Danvers’ life motto. “Higher, Further, Faster.”
Speaking of “higher, further, faster,” The Marvels moves rapidly. Arguably, too rapidly. Clocking in at one hour and 45 minutes, it has the shortest run time of any other film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it shows. With a legacy of Marvel films that have suffered from bloat, I never thought I’d bemoan that one needed more time with its characters. The Marvels excels at making efficient use of its tight minutes, but the first act reads choppily. It’s hard to feel settled, even if you’ve seen the precursor film and both television shows for each central character (for those curious, I’d say that seeing Captain Marvel and the television series Ms. Marvel are central to The Marvels’ plot, seeing WandaVision is recommended because it’s excellent, but not necessary to follow along in this instance). However, once The Marvels slows down to find itself — once Valkyrie makes her cameo — there is a lot of good here.
Nia DaCosta’s indie working class political thriller Little Woods remains one of my favorite films, a showcase for both DaCosta’s restraint and ability to manipulate time as well as Tessa Thompson’s acting chops. The two have remained close friends and Thompson was DaCosta’s first call after being hired for The Marvels (she is the first Black woman director, and the youngest, to ever helm a Marvel project). It’s clear that DaCosta took Captain Marvel seriously on her own terms. By which I do not mean “make a serious movie” — quite the opposite. To take the Captain Marvel franchise seriously means embracing its 90s aesthetic girl power humor, Carol’s deadpan tone, its lightness. DaCosta made room for The Marvels to be bright and playful, filled with characters that are impossible not to love (Vellani’s Kamala Khan and her entire family are standouts in this regard; she has the future of the MCU in the palm of her hand and Marvel would be smart to give a standalone movie right away).
It also meant that DaCosta had to take Carol Danvers’ queerness seriously, even when inhibited by studios and even when it’s not on the page. In addition to the scene with Valkyrie, Carol’s first love (depending on which fan you ask) Maria Rambeau makes an appearance that I will not spoil, only to say that the production chose a hairstyle that can only be described as “someone handed the hairdresser a photo of a Tracy Chapman album cover and said, ‘do this, but add frosted grey tips.’” Carol and Monica, Maria’s daughter, have opportunities to work through their family trauma that feel rooted for a space opera. And as Kamala Khan, Iman Vellani is every bit a teen fangirl who… we’ll just say that if you spent high school reading fanfiction between classes and also now read this website, you’ll see yourself in her quite a bit.
This isn’t enough. It can’t be. But higher, further, faster, baby.