It has been a long, macho, white male-dominated road to get to this point, but we have finally reached a new age of comic book heroes. I’d like to say gone are the days of the mediocre male superhero, but with Shazam right around the corner, we still have a long way to go towards diverse representation. Last year’s Black Panther and 2017’s Wonder Woman have proven that there is not only a market for diverse comic book stories but also a hunger for them from viewers. The result, at least from Marvel’s latest batch of films, is the vibrant Captain Marvel.
Captain Marvel is a refreshing departure from the heroes introduced in Marvel’s Phase One, and it stars an unlikely actress that manages to exceed expectations, all while infusing herself into the role and making it unique and relatable. Despite what a certain faction of the fandom may be complaining about, this should come as any sort of surprise to fans of Brie Larson’s work, or even anyone familiar with her filmography. The term “superhero” can be used in many situations outside of the comic book scope, especially since not all heroes wear capes. Even before Captain Marvel, Brie Larson has taken up roles that have transformed her into the hero we know her to be today.
SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD
It should come as a surprise to no one that Captain Marvel isn’t Brie’s first foray into the hyper-stylized world of comic books. In Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, she plays the sinister songstress Envy Adams AKA She Who Shall Not Be Named. This character may seem like a bit role since she’s barely on screen, but her presence is felt throughout the film as a heavy weight hanging over the main character’s head. Brie’s character is undeniably the antagonist of the film, and arguably the catalyst that sets everything into motion for Scott Pilgrim, but she is far from a villain.
Behind the transformative journey that Scott Pilgrim would embark on is a redemption arc for Envy Adams as she is forced to reconcile with the clashing of her past and present personas; one is a reflection of who she is while the other is a projection of who she thinks society wants her to become. There is a similar struggle within the Captain Marvel film where out heroine must face off against her mistakes to become who she wants to be, regardless of outside influences.
In a very real way, it feels like Scott Pilgrim helped Brie flesh out the transformation we see in Captain Marvel. Envy Adams ends up being a hero in her own right, confronting societal expectations through deep introspection and coming out the other end a much better person. Let’s not forget Brie’s greatest gift from this film, her bop “Black Sheep”, which has become a permanent staple on my playlist since the film came out.
UNITED STATES OF TARA
Even before I fell in love with her sleek character in Scott Pilgrim, Brie Larson blew everyone away with her teen character Kate Gregson in United States of Tara. Although Toni Collette was the obvious tour-de-force in this Diablo Cody-created show about dissociative identity disorder (DID), Brie’s storyline would allow her character to become the show’s center by created a character that teens and young adults could relate to regardless of circumstances. As Kate, Brie explored the gamut of emotions from the pressures of the teenage years to living with an unconventional family. At the core of her nuanced performance is a story about your average teenager struggling to find her identity while living with a mother whose identity could change at any moment.
This show was only around for 3 seasons, but it touched on everything from mental illness, coping mechanisms, sexuality and even cake and balloon sitting fetishes. The thing that made Kate standout was her compassion and understanding which just happen to be essential traits every superhero has. Kate was forced into the role of lightning rod for her family but rose up to challenge with courage and kindness. Whether it was someone unfairly discriminating against her mother or bullying her brother because of his sexuality, she was ready and willing to take them on. Again, not all heroes wear capes, but Brie’s character did don one when she transformed into her sexually liberated online persona, Princess Valhalla. I think this technically counts as Brie’s first superhero persona, and here’s her introduction video for those of you who aren’t in the know.
SHORT TERM 12
Short Term 12 marks Brie’s first starring role in a film, and honestly, it was long overdue. The film has other great actors, like LaKeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You, Atlanta), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Light of the Moon) and recent Oscar-winner Rami Malek, but it is undoubtedly the breakout role that would elevate Brie to the A-list. In Short Term 12, Brie’s character, Grace, works in a sort of halfway home for troubled teens. Grace is able to relate to the kids there because she can do more than just sympathize, she empathizes with them because of her own troubled past.
We have seen glimpses of Grace in every role that Brie has had up to that point, especially in United States of Tara. Her entire performance in Short Term 12 is understated, yet poignant; powerful, yet empathetic. In true hero fashion, Grace takes on the role of guardian and protector of the teenagers. Also like most great superheroes, Grace has a tragic backstory that ultimately turns her into the caregiving champion she is today. The best part about Brie Larson’s performance in the film is the level of nuanced vulnerability she is able to imbue the character with, giving her a painfully human dimension that is equal parts heartbreaking and personally recognizable. Even without the super ability to shoot energy from her hands, Brie’s character in this film is still capable of massive destruction, with her weapon of choice being a baseball bat.
Brie Larson’s role in Room is the culmination of every major role she played before. You can literally track artistic progression in this article alone. This role, which earned her a well-deserved Oscar, is her best work to date, Captain Marvel included. This time, she would take the deep well of empathy and innate protector instincts from her past roles to create a character that is equal parts tragic and heroic. In Room, Brie play’s Ma, a woman who was abducted as an adolescent, impregnated by her captor, and kept locked up for 7 years. Playing a mother is something new for Brie Larson, but every character she has played previously had one or more of the major skill sets most great mothers should have.
It’s undeniable that as children, many of us see our parents as our own personal heroes, and rightly so. I know I didn’t understand the amount of personal and professional sacrifice that went into raising me until I was much older. Ma went through much more than your average parent, living constantly in a state of self-sacrifice so that her son didn’t have to face the harsh reality of their situation. There is a poignancy in her performance that cuts right to the core of any viewer who can understand the hardships of parenthood at the expense of yourself. Ma becomes the shield for all the world’s darkness, internalizing her emotional pain so that her son can retain his childhood innocence for just a little while longer. If that’s not the very definition of a hero, I don’t know what is.
BRIE LARSON, THE ACTIVIST
The biggest complaint I’ve heard about comic book films is how they don’t translate well to our real world. The heroes on the screen don’t exist in our real world. This is where Brie Larson proves that entire notion wrong. It feels like every role that Brie has taken since the beginning of her career has helped create a dialogue or make a point about something wrong in our society. Whether it’s mental illness, LGBTQ+ rights, sexual assault, gender inequality, etc., there is a meaningful intention behind each role. Sure, it’s easier to be an activist in the risk-free environment of a fictional world, but Brie Larson’s activism transcends the screen.
Brie has always been outspoken, which you can see even now during the press tour for Captain Marvel when she called for press junkets to be more diverse instead of the white sausage fest that they tend to be. Trust me, I know that feeling all too well. Before that, she has always been vocal about gender equality, helping to set up several female-focused programs and initiatives to bring attention to women in the film community. Aside from taking part in the Time’s Up movement, she also was one of the earliest adopters of the inclusion rider provision in her contracts, which essentially means that every film she works on needs to have a certain level of diversity in both the casting and production departments.
Celebrities have always had the biggest platform to speak out against injustices, yet so few do for fear that it will cost them future work. Brie Larson is a beacon that lights the way showing that you don’t have to sacrifice your integrity to be successful. You can use your voice to highlight the social and political injustices we are facing, giving strength to others who have felt previously unseen. Captain Marvel didn’t turn her into a superhero because Brie Larson has always been a fucking superhero. Whether it’s the characters she inhabits or the real-life example she leads, Brie is a hero through and through.