Which is a pity. Because used properly, amnesia is among the most versatile and compelling devices in a filmmaker’s toolbox. The most obvious parallel for Captain Marvel is the first three movies of the Bourne franchise, in which the assassin Jason Bourne’s quest for identity is his identity, both the defining trait of the protagonist (played by Matt Damon) and the narrative engine powering the films. Had Captain Marvel leaned into its memory-loss story line in such a way, it could have furnished clarity and urgency to Larson’s performance and the movie overall.
But it doesn’t. Veers/Danvers is curious about her past, but that curiosity is never her principal motivation. Rather, she spends half the movie as an alien supercop chasing third-tier MacGuffins. By the time she uncovers them, the film has offered a reversal well worth the wait, but one for which we’ve wasted the better part of the picture.
So why stop at comparing Captain Marvel with the Bourne movies? Memory loss has been at the center of some of the most innovative—and flat-out best—films of the past 20 years. Take Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which is still, 18 years after its release, by far the director’s finest work. The amnesia suffered by its protagonist, Leonard Shelby, is the source of both the movie’s intricate structure and also its extraordinary moral power. Shelby is a modern Sisyphus, a man doomed to find closure for the murder of his wife, only to subsequently forget it and have to begin anew. Memento is the rare gimmick film that vastly transcends its gimmick.
Or think of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s 2004 masterpiece, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Like Memento, its story unfolds in part backwards in time. And like Memento, this architecture enables the film not only to withhold information but also to build emotional force. The lovers Joel and Clementine might have had the memory of their love erased, but they cannot banish it altogether. It lingers, like a phantom limb, a destiny denied. And that’s before we even learn of what has taken place between two other characters, Mary and Dr. Mierzwiak, the revelation of which takes the film to another level altogether.
I could easily go on to cite HBO’s Westworld (co-created by Jonathan Nolan, who had the initial concept for his brother’s Memento) and Homecoming (the original Gimlet Media podcast featuring Catherine Keener even more than the subsequent Amazon series with Julia Roberts). Or such reverse-storytelling experiments as Martin Amis’s 1991 novel, Time’s Arrow, and Harold Pinter’s 1978 play, Betrayal (adapted into a 1983 movie with Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley, and then re-adapted into a 1997 episode of Seinfeld). Or Denis Villeneuve’s brilliant 2016 film, Arrival, which accomplishes similar goals by inverting the relationship between time and memory.