One Way Captain Marvel Could Have Been a Much Better Movie
What if the film had treated its amnesia story line as a creative opportunity rather than as a hindrance?
For the first half of Marvel Studios’ newest release, Captain Marvel, the titular protagonist—although she never uses that super-moniker in the film—believes herself to be “Veers,” a member of the Kree, an interstellar race of “noble warrior heroes” doing battle with another alien race, called the Skrulls. Yet she has momentary flashes of a previous life as a human test-fighter pilot named Carol Danvers. Bit by bit, with the help of some high-tech Skrull psychoanalysis and a crash landing on Earth circa 1995 (through the roof of a Blockbuster, naturally), she pieces together her past and unlocks the secret of who she really is.
As my colleague David Sims pointed out in his excellent review, this poses a bit of a problem for the film. Danvers is played by Brie Larson, a superlative actress known best for her nuanced performances in smaller movies such as Short Term 12 and Room. (If you appreciated her Oscar-winning turn in the latter film, I promise that she is even better in the former, a 2013 indie miracle by the writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton.) But due to the identity confusion Danvers suffers, Larson has very little to sink her teeth into, resulting in an uncharacteristically vague performance. Danvers’s lack of memory thus comes across not merely as a personal hurdle to overcome, but also as a narrative hindrance to the movie itself.
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.
Does this all seem overly ambitious for a Marvel movie about a quasi-extraterrestrial heroine who shoots photon blasts from her hands? Is it too much to ask Carol Danvers to be a superpowered Leonard Shelby? Perhaps so. But with the sophisticated political visions of Black Panther and, to a lesser extent, the improv-comedy stylings of Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel has demonstrated a recent enthusiasm for experimentation, for taking the superhero genre in new and unexpected directions. (And thank goodness, given the degree to which the genre now dominates big-budget filmmaking.)
In any case, Marvel left a lot on the table this time around. As David wrote last week, Captain Marvel is a perfectly solid, middle-tier superhero origin story—and the welcome, if belated, arrival of Marvel’s first female-centered franchise. But it could have been much more, had the studio and the filmmakers chosen to embrace, rather than merely endure, its central premise.