lIt was the kind of blunt answer you don’t really see from an A-lister. Press events for Disney movies are usually all wooden smiles and clenched platitudes; all the actors need to focus on is gently hitting back softball questions without dropping spoilers. And yet, when Brie Larson was asked exactly these kind of innocuous questions at the Disney D23 fan expo last weekend, she seemed reluctant to play ball. The question was simple: how long will she keep playing Captain Marvel? “I don’t know,” she said. “Does anyone want me to do it again?” She smiled, but her delivery suggested this was no joke.
A little context. Larson joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in 2019 – the world’s largest superhero film franchise, featuring Captain Marvel. Larson played Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, a US Air Force pilot who suffers from amnesia and becomes imbued with divine superpowers. Larson was the first woman to star in an MCU movie, a full 21 entries in the canon. Before being cast as Danvers, she was an actor with significant critical cache, starring in the 2014 indie flick Short term 12before winning the Best Actress Oscar for the gripping 2015 drama Room.
Captain Marvel was a huge hit – reaching $1,128 billion at the box office – but received mediocre reviews. Larson himself became the target of an ongoing campaign of bitter online hatred from a certain subset of Marvel fans, laced with sexist undertones to outright bigotry. To this day, YouTube is full of videos of angry men foaming at the way she “ruined” a popular character. Her performance was considered “flat” and not compelling; to many, she was responsible for the film’s lackluster critical reception. Her off-screen behavior also became fodder for contempt and abuse.
It’s easy to see why her spiky response to this question about her MCU future has been widely interpreted as a nod to this harassment. Apparently Larson supported this idea and shared a photo of herself, two of her castmates and next year’s director yesterday (Sept. 11). Captain Marvel continuation the miraclesnext to the message: “*troll burning*”.
A common refrain among the many social media users who have targeted vitriol on Larson is that the response isn’t sexist at all. It’s just an honest response to an inferior film. The writing is crappy and uninspired, they say. Larson’s character was smug and two-dimensional. She was unconvincing in the role. All of this could of course be true. But Larson alone can hardly be held responsible. The MCU is full of two-dimensional characters, stiff performances, and clunky dialogue. From Gwyneth Paltrow’s abjectly disconnected Pepper Potts in the Iron Man movies, to Benedict Cumberbatch’s hammy, ersatz Doctor Strange, there are plenty of big names in Marvel land giving performances that make Larson look like a charisma juggernaut. But if you’re not a man named Chris, the rules are different.
In the miraclesDirected by 32-year-old American talent Nia DaCosta, Larson’s character teams up with Ms. Marvel (played by Pakistani-born Canadian actor Iman Vellani) and Monica Rambeau (played by black actor Teyonah Parris). Although Larson is undeniably the target of her gender, she is still white; you can’t help but fear the kind of toxic pushback the miracles will inevitably increase. Actors of color who feature prominently in major movie franchises are routinely the victims of horrific online abuse campaigns; even in the past few months, Moses Ingram was targeted after he landed a major villain role in the Star Wars spin-off Obi-Wan Kenobi. Many of the protests were the same. “It’s not about race or gender.” “It’s just a poorly written character.” “It’s just a bad performance.” Fool me once etc.
Inevitably, Larson’s perceived failings as Captain Marvel have acquired some resonance through repetition. Say something often enough, and it becomes the story. The outpouring of support for Larson on social media would suggest she still has many ardent fans; after all, we’re talking about a movie that charted in the 30 highest grossing movies ever. But it is nevertheless a story that endures, of which she is clearly aware. If someone as great and successful as Brie Larson can be destroyed by evil social media trolls, what chance does anyone else have?