It’s fitting that Brie Larson would play a superhero; she’s been fighting the good fight for years now. She is a long-standing advocate for sexual assault survivors and gender equality, as well as one of the first actors who used the inclusion rider provision, which attempts to ensure diversity in Hollywood, in her contracts. Who better to beat down the forces of evil than A) a woman and B) one that’s been trying to for so long?
And to her credit, Larson carries Marvel’s latest superhero junket, Captain Marvel, with relative ease. Larson begins the movie as Vers, a Starforce member whose past is a total blank to her, but who also has awesome powers, even if she can’t quite control them yet. (According to her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), this is because she’s ‘too emotional’ - cue the eye roll.) The film’s main baddies are a group of alien shapeshifters called the Skrulls, who are able to disguise themselves in any form. Vers is captured by the Skrulls and subjected to a memory probe, which shows us flashbacks of an ordinary woman’s life, complete with asshole frat boys - one of them drawls at Vers, “You do know why they call it a cockpit, right?” - and various mini failures from Vers’ past, like falling off a rope course in army training while her male peers look on. Vers escapes the Skrulls and crash lands in LA, searching to recover her memories and figure out why, exactly, the Skrulls are so darn obsessed with her.
As is the case with many Marvel movies, for the uninitiated like myself, the plot is more or less just a vehicle for the film’s stars to shine. And shine Larson does: like Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr. before her, she’s all snappy banter and glib rolling-with-the-punches, so much so that it becomes a little hard to accept that her biggest obstacle is an inability to get a handle on her emotions. Larson does what she does best here, presenting us, as she did in Room, with a strong, smart woman who we trust not to crack.
I won’t spoil anything, but harsh revelations about Verbs’ past do eventually break through that tough exterior. The film wobbles a little at the end, too eager to promote its obvious, implicit message of female empowerment, but on the whole I can forgive a bit of cringe, since the superhero genre has notoriously struggled to deliver that message effectively. (Quick question: Who was Wonder Woman about, the titular character or her love interest? The fact that it was hard to tell is pretty insulting to both Gal Gadot and the female romantic leads of male-driven superhero movies, whose time onscreen is typically about a quarter of their costar’s.) Captain Marvel’s best moments aren’t in the razzle-dazzle light show of Vers’ powers or the spelled-out examples of Standing Up to the Man. In fact, the film finds its footing in times Vers is at her most ordinary, forced to combat the same problems women face every day. One of Captain Marvel’s best scenes is when a guy on a motorcycle catcalls at Vers. You’re waiting for her to incinerate him, and instead, she just shoots him a look, then stops listening, only tuning back in to steal his bike when he parks it. That scene might just about sum up Captain Marvel’s main theme: for women, the world is hard to trust, with evil lurking everywhere, sometimes in the guise of a friend. But the shapeshifting danger doesn’t automatically mean that we’ve been beaten. We just might have to get creative with how we fight back.