It’s hard to be Heroic
The Marvels & Testament
By Marc Glassman
Nia DaCosta, director & co-script w/Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik
Starring: Brie Larson (Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers), Teyonah Parris (Monica Rambeau), Iman Vellani (Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel), Zawe Ashton (Dar-Benn), Gary Lewis (Emperor Dro’ge), Park Seo-joon (Prince Yan), Zenobia Shroff (Muneeba Khan), Mohan Kapur (Yusuf Khan), Saagar Shaikh (Aamir Khan), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury)
The Marvels is a rare blockbuster film, one that you can root for to become a big hit. Directed by Nia DaCosta, the first Black female director to be handling such a big-budget project, it’s also the first super-powered film to star only women, with Brie Larson as the one major name in a cast that places her with two relative unknowns, Black American actor Teyonah Parris and the Pakistani Canadian teenager Iman Vellani. While Larson is a genuine movie star, an Oscar-winner for Room before she became Captain Marvel, the others have become known through TV series in the ever-expanding MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), Parris in “WandaVision” (where she wasn’t even the lead) and Vellani in “Ms. Marvel,” which did make a splash especially in Canada, where we always crave local heroes. Casting the three together as “the Marvels” was hardly obvious and might be risky business even for a media conglomerate that produced the huge Avengers hit films.
The film starts brilliantly with the three battling the alien blue skinned Krees in both an interstellar spaceship and, startlingly, the New Jersey suburban home of Kamala Khan aka Ms. Marvel. Somehow, whenever any of the three women strikes a blow or uses their light-based superpowers, they get teleported to the other location, where they’re immediately replaced by the “marvel” who had been there before. It makes for a series of enjoyable set pieces as Captain and Ms. Marvel as well as Monica Rambeau (Parris, who lacks a cool action name) switch relentlessly back and forth, taking on those bad guys, the Kree.
Or are they really so bad? We find out soon enough that the Kree have a reason to be aggrieved—and plenty.
While the three women—ok, two, plus a high school student with astonishing powers—begin to sort out what is happening to them and discover a solution, we find out that the Kree’s leader Dar-Benn (an under-utilized but charismatic Zawe Ashton) is out to replenish her dying planet Hala, which had been nearly destroyed accidently by the heroine we all love, Captain Marvel. Of course, the good Captain had done it to destroy the ultimate beserk AI machine, which was controlling the Kree, but consequences are consequences. And, watching Dar-Benn through much of the film, revenge is served best in a cold planet.
So-happily, The Marvels does have a plot of sorts and a goal: stop Dar-Benn while hopefully helping the Kree. But the film takes the long way around towards its major plot point. Much of it is taken up with the camaraderie between the three, who spend a lot of time on Captain Marvel’s spaceship dealing with their teleporting issue and figuring out how to deal with the Kree. This is the heart of the matter: we want to care about “the marvels,” a strange trio of heroines who are fighting for the safety of the universe (as one does in the MCU).
It’s clear that Larson is up for the female bonding that forms the emotional core of the film. She’s awkward but sincere in the necessary interactions with Kamala Khan, who is sweet but finds it hard to get over her fan-based awe at spending time with her favourite super-hero. The plot offers a ready-made situation for Monica Rambeau and Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel—essentially, the Captain is the auntie who flew the coop, battling aliens and such instead of spending quality time with her god-niece.
It’s all there in the script but somehow, we don’t feel the love on the screen. As much as this reviewer wanted to believe in the comradeship between the Marvels, it all feels awkward and shy. They’re likeable but the connection between the three feels forced, like cousins made to feel that they should be friends at weddings and family reunions. Not for once do we care—as we should—that Captain and Ms. Marvel and Monica Rambeau (aka Prof Marvel?) might become the dearest of friends.
There’s another major issue hanging over the entire MCU, which is all too obvious in The Marvels. To understand the film’s plot completely, you should have seen three TV series, WandaVision, Ms. Marvel and Secret Invasion and two major films, Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame. There’s an article in a major online magazine, which runs over 3000 words detailing the backstories that went into the creation of this film. That’s a lot of homework before seeing anything—and this isn’t Citizen Kane.
Is there a winning argument for The Marvels? Iman Vellani is utterly charming as Kamala Khan—and I’m not just writing this as a Canadian. This film may launch her to super-stardom, and I suppose that’s a good thing. Others may feel the same for Teyonah Parris and why not? She’s a fine performer. As for Brie Larson, she’s a natural as an action hero but one can only hope that she’ll be able to return to challenging roles at some point in her career. Being Captain Marvel is odd for her, like Daniel Craig being James Bond. Love to imagine them on the West End one day, or Broadway, but Hollywood offers millions—and the strike is over.
Should you see The Marvels on the big screen? The images are beautiful and bright. Why not support women creators in a film that is likeable and entertaining?
Denys Arcand, director and script
Starring: Remy Girard (Jean-Michel Bouchard), Sophie Lorain (Suzanne Francoeur), Marie-Mai (une amie), Yves Jacques (directeur des Beaux-Arts), Robert Lepage (sous-ministre de la Culture), Pierre Curzi, Marcel Sabourin, Caroline Neron (Ministre de la Sante), Charlotte Aubin
It’s hard to find a great location for romance to flourish in these difficult times. So, isn’t it brilliant that Denys Arcand has scooped the filmmaking community in Quebec and Canada by setting the first major filmed love story in an assisted care facility–or as we used to call it, “old age home”? The only Canadian to win the Best Foreign Language feature Oscar, Arcand continues to make loving but satirical films about our society although he’s now in his eighties.
Testament is set in the Parizeau-Drapeau Residence, a knowing reference to a premier and mayor who are responsible for so much of the good and the bad in contemporary Quebec society through their successful manipulations of the populist system. What we have now in Quebec and the rest of Canada is a society that is easily swayed by the fashionable notions of media figures, popular writers and opinion makers even if they’ve not been tested in a serious manner. Arcand sees the falsities in our society and can’t help but make fun of them: that’s been his way since the great success of The Decline of the American Empire, made to international acclaim in the mid Eighties.
For many of his finest films including Decline and the Academy Award winning Barbarian Invasions, Arcand has worked with Remy Girard, who plays here a gifted figure—an artist and wise man—who is also humble, almost an everyman. Girard is the lead in Testament, an honest lonely figure who continues to work twice a week as an archivist but is otherwise a bemused individual, observing the frailties of our lives as played out even in a seniors’ residence. In an over-the-top sequence Girard’s Bouchard receives a top literary prize only to be disparaged by his fellow winners and the organizers for being old, white and out of touch with contemporary issues.
Things are not going well at the residence either. An historic wall painting of acclaimed French explorer Jacques Cartier negotiating with Indigenous figures is suddenly attacked by a group of English-speaking radicals claiming to represent the voices of those long-gone people, formerly known as “Indians.” Suzanne Francoeur (Sophie Lorain), the director of the residence and Girard/Bouchard’s best friend is suddenly put on the defensive. The indigenous people are painted as being nearly naked when they would have been clothed for a treaty talk, and the women are almost nude, making food, which isn’t truly representative of the time. Clearly, the mural, though beautifully rendered, is false for the situation and there’s a reason for people to be angry.
The mural controversy erupts into a media issue, with TV coverage in French and English emphasizing how badly the Quebec government is in responding to the situation. Mme. Francoeur, Bouchard’s friend, finally responds by having industrial painters whitewash the mural. (Even they aren’t happy doing it but a job’s a job.) Of course, that leads to a second scandal as Quebec’s art and historical communities erupt over the desecration of a brilliant piece—invalid though it might be.
Arcand might shrug and say, “you can’t win.” As funny and pointed as his main satirical situation is, he makes the fundamental mistake of showing the Anglo protestors as being phonies, who aren’t even Indigenous. Why bother? Their point is valid even if they are false accusers. And Arcand even covers himself by having a genuinely Indigenous woman validate the claims against the mural and what it is saying about—sorry— “colonialist settler” culture.
Similarly, Arcand plays the death of Girard/Bouchard’s closest friend at the residence for laughs—it appears that Roger died by over-exercising. His bereft widow responds by eating junk food and smoking pot–perhaps enjoy her later years even more. I must say that this strikes me as silly. Does Arcand endorse the plump Girard’s lifestyle over that of his dead friend?
Still, this is a narrative film of which Arcand is a master. Gradually, we realise that Girard’s respectful, funny, compassionate and very intelligent character has become of overwhelming importance to Mme. Francoeur as she attempts to deal with her crises. The two are dealing as best they can with the new reality, which critiques sexuality, nationality, gender, and so many other things.
It may be too much for anyone of a certain age to handle.
Arcand had placed Girard’s Bouchard at a lovely cemetery early in the film. By the end, he no longer wanted to join the dead; he wants to live. In Testament, Denys Arcand has taken us from anger and satire to love and acceptance. He hasn’t made a perfect film, but who wouldn’t love the message?
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