There’s a particular disreputable character type that used to be all over the thriller genre, but that we don’t see much in media anymore — at least, not until The Marvels, which summons it back from the grave, howling all the way. It’s one of the movie’s worst, most ludicrous moments — a beat that’s meant to feel like an emotional crisis, and lands more as cheap manipulation. But at the same time, The Marvels eventually makes it meaningful and even touching, in a slapdash sort of way.
Back in the ’90s, I started thinking of this character as the John Grisham Whiny Wife, because I saw it so often in Grisham’s work — though it popped up a lot back then, in books and films and TV, and even in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Picture the protagonist, deep in the action of some stressful, life-defining heroic business: exposing the Mafia, infiltrating the Klan, psychoanalyzing a murderous antihero. Now picture a particularly important person in the protagonist’s life nagging them to knock off all that heroism, or scolding them for getting so deep into it in the first place.
Nobody likes this character. Nobody is meant to. The JGWW character — which could be the protagonist’s husband, sibling, parent, child, or friend, but is usually a wife or girlfriend — only exists as a road bump to the story’s action, to the exciting bits the audience wants the hero to get on with. A JGWW is always faithless: They don’t believe in the hero’s capabilities or choices. A JGWW is always selfish: They prioritize themselves (and maybe their kids) over the hero’s Big Important Work. A JGWW is almost always boring: They’re rarely drawn well, or characterized with any empathy. They’re minor villains in any story where they appear, and they only exist to make the hero’s life a little more stressful and fraught.
[Ed. note: Spoilers for The Marvels follow, including an end spoiler marked in advance.]
In The Marvels, Monica Rambeau is given the deeply thankless task of playing that role. When Monica (Teyonah Parris) and Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) finally reunite, 30 years after they last parted, Monica is clearly still hanging on to some big emotions. Naturally, they come out at a particularly stressful moment, right after Carol has lost a big battle and failed to protect her alien husband and his planet of gaily dressed singing celebrants. Monica wants to know why Carol never came back to see her on Earth. Carol awkwardly points out that she’s been off fighting planet-sized battles, among people who needed her. “I needed you!” Monica snaps.
In the moment, it reads like just another John Grisham Whiny Wife subplot, no different from those ’80s and ’90s characters freaking out at the main character for doing dangerous or distracting work. It feels profoundly unfair to Carol, who’s already unbalanced and upset, when Monica throws even more failings in her face. It also seems ridiculous for Monica to make the moment all about herself.
But the difference in The Marvels that makes the moment land a little better than it does in other stories is that there’s so much less sense that the script is turning Monica into one of those minor selfish villains, or judging her for her moment of authentically trying to get her feelings out into the open. It makes sense that she’d feel like Carol abandoned her, even if she did it for good and heroic reasons. Monica was a child who lost a parent figure and never knew why. She deserves one emotional outburst about it, even if it comes at a particularly cruel moment. She was also an adult who lost her actual mother and never got to say goodbye — her mother died while Monica was gone in the Blip. It’s no wonder she has unresolved feelings about the unfairness of her losses.
It’s still easy to feel more for Carol than for Monica in the moment: “I needed you!” is an honest, from-the-heart statement, but it’s patently obvious that trying to save an entire alien species from a predatory galactic empire and find them a new home outweighs one little Earth girl’s desire to have her sort-of foster mom around. But The Marvels doesn’t really suggest that Carol did anything wrong on some objective scale — just that she hurt a little girl’s feelings, and that both parties will feel better if they actually communicate about it.
The movie does outright imply that Carol could have made different, better choices that included child Monica — Carol’s spaceship seems capable of crossing interstellar space with the speed of plot. She returned to Earth and spent time with Monica’s mother, Maria (Lashana Lynch), while Monica was gone during the Blip. There’s no obvious reason she couldn’t find a chance to check in with Monica herself over the course of 30 elapsed years. (Well, 25, since Monica, like everyone else who was Blipped, didn’t exist for five years.)
It’s implied that Carol was actively avoiding Monica, possibly feeling guilty about missing Monica’s childhood. Yes, she was busy upending the entire Kree civilization, and dealing with the fallout from that, and apparently handling a diplomatic crisis that required her to marry that singing prince, Yan (Park Seo-joon). But it’s clear enough from The Marvels that Carol is fairly isolated, and awkward, and not great with people. Having it out with Monica, letting Monica air her frustration and hurt, is part of working through that awkwardness.
Like so many things in The Marvels — a very oddly edited movie that leaves out some key resolution scenes and rushes a lot of its action, emotional and otherwise — both this confrontation and its resolution zip by without any depth. And so does the real payoff to the moment, when Monica (warning: end spoilers ahead!) makes the exact same choice Carol made, in putting other people’s safety above her own personal connections.
Seen in the context of Monica’s complaints about Carol leaving her behind, Monica’s choice to remain in an alternate reality feels like a payoff for her sense of having been wronged. Monica essentially makes the exact same choice Carol did, prioritizing a heroic act over being with her chosen family, and taking an action that will separate her from them, possibly permanently, in order to help save everyone else. An emotionally smarter movie might let Monica and Carol more clearly see that, rather than blitzing through the finale at top speed. And given the pace of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in general, there’s no reason to think Monica will ever have space for a moment of revelation about how her choices mirror Carol’s.
But still. For those willing to fill in The Marvels’ many blanks, the whole Carol/Monica arc is a nice bit of payoff that actually makes something interesting out of a tired old trope. The movie lets Monica expose that childhood hole in her heart and let Carol apologize for causing it, all without actually suggesting that one kid’s emotions outweigh the safety of entire planets. It’s a warm little bit of hurt-comfort in the middle of all the action, and it makes The Marvels seem just a little more human than it would be otherwise.