It was the kind of blunt answer you don’t really see from an A-lister. Press events for Disney films are, usually, all wooden smiles and tight-lipped platitudes; all the actors have to focus on is gently batting back softball questions without dropping any spoilers. And yet, when Brie Larson was thrown exactly this kind of innocuous inquiry last weekend at the Disney D23 fan expo, 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 bit of context. Larson joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – the world’s biggest superhero film franchise – back in 2019, with Captain Marvel. Larson played Carol Danvers, AKA Captain Marvel, a US air force pilot turned space-travelling amnesiac who becomes imbued with godly superpowers. Larson was the first woman to front an MCU film, a full 21 entries into the canon. Prior to being cast as Danvers, she was an actor of considerable critical cache, having shone in 2014 indie flick Short Term 12, before winning the best actress Oscar for the harrowing 2015 drama Room.
Captain Marvel was a huge hit – scooping $1.128bn at the box office – but received middling reviews. Larson herself became the target of a sustained campaign of bitter online hate from a particular subset of Marvel fans, laced with sexist undertones through to outright bigotry. To this day, YouTube is filled with videos of irate men, frothing at the mouth over the way she “ruined” a popular character. Her performance was deemed “flat” and uncompelling; for many, she was to blame for the film’s lacklustre critical reception. Her off-screen behaviour, too, became fodder for scorn and abuse.
It’s easy to see why her spiky reaction to this question about her MCU future has been widely interpreted as a nod to this harassment. Seemingly backing up this notion, Larson shared a photograph yesterday (11 September) of herself, two of her castmates and the director of next year’s Captain Marvel sequel The Marvels, alongside the message: “*trolls combust*”.
A common refrain among the many social media users to have directed vitriol at Larson is that the backlash is not sexist at all. It is simply an honest reaction to an inferior film. The writing is cringe-worthy and uninspired, they say. Larson’s character was smug and two-dimensional. She was not convincing in the role. All this may indeed be true, of course. But Larson alone can hardly be held accountable. The MCU is rife with two-dimensional characters, stiff performances and clunky dialogue. From Gwyneth Paltrow’s abjectly disengaged Pepper Potts in the Iron Man films, to Benedict Cumberbatch’s hammy, ersatz Doctor Strange, there are plenty of big-name actors out there in Marvel land giving performances that make Larson’s look like a charisma juggernaut. But if you’re not a man named Chris, the rules are different.
In The Marvels, directed by 32-year-old US 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). While Larson has been undeniably targeted for her gender, she is still white; you cannot help but dread the sort of poisonous pushback The Marvels will inevitably incur. Actors of colour who are given prominent roles in major film franchises are routinely the victims of heinous online abuse campaigns; even within the last few months, Moses Ingram was targeted after being handed a major villain role in the Star Wars spin-off Obi-Wan Kenobi. Many of the protestations were the same. “It’s not about race or gender.” “It’s just a badly written character.” “It’s just a bad performance.” Fool me once, etc.
Inevitably, Larson’s supposed failings as Captain Marvel have gained some amount of resonance through repetition. Say something enough times, and it becomes the narrative. The outpouring of support for Larson on social media would suggest that she still has plenty of ardent fans out there; we are talking, after all, about a film that charted in the 30 highest-grossing movies ever made. But it’s nonetheless a narrative that persists, one of which she is clearly acutely aware. If someone as big and successful as Brie Larson can be savaged by malignant social media trolls, what chance does anyone else have?