The Marvels opens with an expository moment in which its villain, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), retrieves an ancient relic on a desolate moon. It’s the sort of bluntly written, poorly green-screened sequence for which, of late, Marvel Studios has become infamous. Probably a reshoot to establish her character sooner than in an earlier cut. Of course, there’s no way of really knowing that, but after 15 years, a lot of the MCU’s tricks have become as well-known to the general audience as to those with a long, vested interest. With that comes a real sense the golden days are over for the most successful film franchise in history. From the looks of box office projections, that may well be the case with The Marvels. Audiences think they know what to expect and they are no longer all that into it.

That’s a shame. I wouldn’t argue that The Marvels is one of the studio’s best films, but it’s certainly one of the better ones of late and the first to truly embrace their Disney+ experiment in a constructive way. Despite its flaws, it’s a sweet, fun, fleeting film that embraces some truly weird ideas and the kind of positive character relationships that made Marvel so enduring to begin with, so much so that after a run of films that took themselves far too seriously, it almost feels like a throwback to the series’ earlier days.

First up, the big question: What do you actually need to watch to understand The Marvels? Obviously, it’s a good idea to have seen Captain Marvel, and given the fact that film made $1 billion and you cared enough to read this review, you probably did. Don’t worry about rewatching it if you haven’t in a while; the most important stuff Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) did to inform this movie actually happens after that movie, anyway. What about Avengers: Endgame, in which she appears at the end to help out? Sure! Go for it! That movie is great.

How about those Disney+ shows that serve as tie-ins? Roughly 18 hours of streaming content sounds daunting — although in a world where Tom Cruise’s The Mummy reaches the top of Netflix’s popularity chart, I question whether it’s actually that difficult for most audiences to stomach. Ms. Marvel is the one I’d recommend watching before The Marvels — not because of important plot details but because Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) is an absolute treasure and the heart and soul of this movie. Skip it if you want, I guess. The third lead of the film, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), first appeared as an adult in WandaVision, an adventure that granted her the powers she uses in this film. That show is mostly good and worth watching but not necessary to understand this film.

The final show is, of course, Secret Invasion, a series that carries all the pleasure of a cold rectal thermometer, has literally no bearing on this film and would be better off removed from Disney+ and the collective memory of the fans who watched it. It’s not too late for Marvel impresario Kevin Feige to declare the events of that show non-canonical, especially because its star, Samuel L. Jackson, seems to be a lot more engaged as Nick Fury in this film than the series he supposedly helped produce.

In short: The answer is whatever interests you. None of this is homework unless you make it homework. The Marvels does a good job catching up audiences on each character’s role in the story told here. That’s all anyone needs.

That story is as classic as Marvel Studios gets, with a plot that’s entirely secondary to the chemistry between the characters and existing only to move them along and have a good time together. Dar-Benn, a Kree warrior, finds an ancient relic that will allow her to siphon resources from planets into her home-world, Hala, which was left barren after a civil war caused by Carol’s actions after her solo movie. She decides to target planets of personal meaning to Carol. Due to the nature of the relic, and its effect on Carol, Monica and Kamala’s light-based powers, the trio begin swapping places in space whenever they use their powers at the same time, which results in all sorts of ruckus. Regardless, the three must team up to save Earth.

What gives The Marvels heart is that it is a fundamentally silly movie unafraid to embrace the goofiness of its source material, unlike Marvel’s most recent output — often burdened by self-serious storytelling. Even the better post-Endgame material has put its heroes through wringers. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings reveals its hero was a murderer; Spider-Man: No Way Home sees Peter Parker lose everything; Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is an overlong funeral march. My favorite of the bunch, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, sees its hero inhabit a corpse version of himself to fight a grieving mother-turned-monster. This stuff is supposed to be fun. Director / co-writer Nia DaCosta and co-writers Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik lean into it with great success.

The key to that success is Vellani as Ms. Marvel / Kamala, a character created well after the Marvel Cinematic Universe was established and in fact defined by the existence of Marvel heroes as a real-world pop-culture cornerstone. She’s a fangirl obsessed with Captain Marvel and desperate to live up to her idol. Characters are created every month within the pages of the periodicals, and few have the staying power Ms. Marvel has had over the years; her contemporary, Miles Morales, is another worth noting. Within the films, Kamala is very much a successor to Tom Holland’s version of Peter Parker — who grew out of his fanboy phase a little too quickly.

Frankly, it’s taken too long to get a character like Kamala — exuberant, earnest and just excited to be there — back into these films. She works as both a hero and an audience stand-in, impressed and, at times, a little terrified about the world around her. Vellani is just a total joy, and I hope she remains a presence in this franchise regardless of the response to this particular film.

This sounds gushing. There’s no denying The Marvels has some creative issues that occasionally frustrate, but they’re pretty much all within the bounds of Marvel’s oeuvre — awkward ADR here and there, a few CGI moments that don’t look great, a story that feels cut down to the bone to maintain a quick pace at the expense of momentarily distracting gaps in narrative logic. Dar-Benn follows the traditional Marvel villain template, existing to challenge the heroes but never having the chance to become iconic in her own right. There are also a few sequences that lean so hard into the silly that some audiences will probably be put off, but those moments make the movie stand out.

We’re at a point where Marvel Studios must carefully consider its next steps given the expectation of significantly lower box office returns and diminished cultural conversation for The Marvels. There’s no denying a general weakness to their more recent output, and blood is in the water for those who have disliked the franchise for some reason or another. Eventually the worm will turn again and Marvel will once again curry favor. Few will ever name The Marvels their favorite Marvel movie. But it feels like one whose reputation will grow with time, if only because it’s one of the first movies they put out in a long time that feels willing to be as weird and enjoyably stupid as the genre allows. This might be Marvel’s first cult classic.