This article contains some minor The Marvels spoilers.
The heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have visited some fantastic planets. The deadly and mystical Vormir, the rat-tag assemblage on Nowhere, and Ego the Living Planet have all offered exciting new storytelling possibilities. But none capture the imagination like Aladana, visited by Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) in The Marvels. After Carol dons a striking headpiece and warns her compatriots about the planet’s oddness, a representative arrives to greet the heroes… in song.
What follows is a brief musical number, borrowing equally from Bollywood blockbusters and technicolor musicals of a bygone age. Director Nia DaCosta floats her camera around and above the dancers, taking in the luscious colors popping against the bleached white backgrounds. At the climax of the scene, Carol’s costume transforms into an elegant dress befitting a Disney princess, and she slides through the courtyard with the planet’s ruler Prince Yan (Park Seo-joon).
Throughout it all, Monica and Kamala refuse to dance or sing. When Yan comes with Carol to address her friends, he cuts off their nervous singing with a single, spoken word. “He’s bilingual,” Carol explains. And then the musical sequence ends, allowing The Marvels to return to more familiar ground with a fight scene. But for one brief, beautiful moment, The Marvels seemed to push the genre forward. It proved that the MCU needs a musical.
The Many Genres of Marvel Comics
Most people equate the comic books that gave birth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with superheroes and nothing else. But Marvel has published comics of every variety, even after dropping the Atlas and Timely Comics banners in the early 1960s. The Marvel Comics Group has released horror stories in Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night, the ‘70s romance anthology Our Love Story, and Kung fu stories starring Shang-Chi and Iron Fist.
Even when starring superheroes, Marvel Comics have run the gamut of storytelling possibilities. “Why?,” one may ask. Because even the best superhero comics get repetitive after a while. The most unapologetic defender of the Defenders, the Champions, and the All-Winners Squad will eventually lose interest in the same old plots about musclemen punching, dying, and coming back to life.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to be learning a similar lesson. After a decade of box office dominance, the MCU sheds viewers with every new release. Any number of reasons could account for the shift in dominance, from poor quality control to increased competition, to simple audience disinterest. But in nearly every case, detractors mention the Marvel formula, a storytelling structure that demands galactic stakes, characters hanging out, and lots of witty banter.
Too often, these reviews miss the few times that the MCU has changed up the genre, such as the martial arts action in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, or the horror in Werewolf by Night and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. But that may be less an indication of viewers’ lack of attention or the quality of those entries and more proof that Marvel has not committed enough to the change in structure.
Musicals and Genre Fiction
Of all the possible genres for Marvel to attempt, musicals may be the most germane to what’s come before. Superheroes wear bright colors and break into fantastic feats at a moment’s notice. Battles between good guys and bad guys function as debates between worldviews, as Professor X and Magneto compare their relative philosophies as much as they attack each other.
Moreover, there’s a long history of integrating musicals in genre fiction. Many unlikely stories have been adapted to stage musicals, including Evil Dead, Barbarella, and The Toxic Avenger. So effective was the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Once More With Feeling” that Joss Whedon revisited the idea for Doctor Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog. Even Star Trek recently tried its hand at song with the well-received episode of Strange New Worlds, “Subspace Rhapsody.”
Of course the results have been mixed, especially once superheroes get involved. It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Superman made it to the stage and primetime television only to get rejected and mocked by viewers, which is still more than can be said for the debacle that was Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway.
However, those two failures should not dissuade Marvel from taking on the genre, because musicals can provide the perfect antidote to the franchise’s greatest woe: sincerity.
The Hills Are Alive With Superpowers and Music
During the delightful musical sequence in The Marvels, only Carol fully commits herself. Even Kamala Khan, whose enthusiasm has made her a fan favorite, stands awkwardly on the sidelines. That remove has been a key part of the Marvel formula, a wry winking at the audience that assures viewers that even the characters know how silly this all is.
Even the most snarky and self-aware musical resists that type of condescension. They invite the audience to celebrate the wonder and emotion, to forget their inhibitions and give into the story, no matter how silly it is.
For too long, Marvel has asked its audiences to be like Monica and Kamala, standing on the sidelines with a wry smile. It’s time for the movies to follow Carol’s lead and jump into the absurd proceedings. It’s time to sing along, and for more than just a few refrains.
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