"What the hell is going on?!" splutters Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury early on in The Marvels. It’s a sentiment certain to be shared by more than one audience member during Nia DaCosta’s film, a follow-up to 2019’s Captain Marvel (by way of Disney+ TV series WandaVision and Ms. Marvel) that struggles to stay coherent for a good deal of its relatively brief running time.
Essentially Freaky Friday in space, the latest addition to the MCU canon would appear, in theory, to have a straightforward premise: one that sees Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), her No. 1 fan Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) and her de facto niece Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) swap places every time they deploy their light-based powers.
In practice, alas, it is anything but. One fight scene that unfolds in three different locales – a Kree battleship, Khan’s home and orbiting space station S.A.B.E.R. - quickly succumbs to chaotic confusion.
Things become a bit less bewildering once our heroes get together. A lively montage in which they harness their switching through ball-juggling and rope-skipping reveals the potential that lies within this female-led Marvel mash-up. It's symptomatic, though, of the way DaCosta and her co-writers introduce ideas only to almost immediately jettison them.
A sequence on a sunny planet whose inhabitants communicate in song abandons that gimmick after one rather tuneless number, while a band of Skrull refugees are dramatically saved only to instantly disappear.
The importance attributed to Kamala’s bracelet, meanwhile – a trinket Zawe Ashton’s vengeful Dar-Benn needs to preserve the Kree’s ailing homeworld – is undermined by her apparent ability to conjure up hard light whether she’s wearing it or not.
A subplot involving eggs that birth a litter of cuddly Flerkittens amusingly recalls the 'Trouble With Tribbles' episode from Star Trek, while Dar-Benn’s plan to steal the sun has an air of the scheme Gru hatched against the moon in the original Despicable Me.
More of that kind of fun would have been welcomed in a tale that makes few concessions to those either unfamiliar with or unimpressed by Marvel’s various small-screen offerings.
"May our next meeting be joyful!" declares a franchise regular drafted in to make a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. At this advanced stage in the MCU’s increasingly chequered history, we would settle for more comprehensible.