Captain Marvel Review: How Brie Larson's Training Shaped Carol Danvers

By | March 8, 2019

With Marvel Studios’ latest franchise starter, Captain Marvel, Brie Larson hopes to give young girls a symbol of their own to embrace, and women the inspiration to become pilots. She’s an actress, so of course she wants tomake art, but she also wants to be a role model—and she’s willing to get totally ripped to achieve her dual goals.

Captain Marvel opens March 8, the first MCU film to feature a woman in a lead superhero role and the first with a woman behind the camera (Anna Boden, alongside her usual filmmaking cohort Ryan Fleck). It is, in the context of blockbusters and comic book movies, a historic production, following 2017’s Wonder Woman in the pursuit of widening superhero ecosystems to make room for inclusion. For Larson, it’s a departure from the scope of her normal milieu: Indie films like The Spectacular Now, Short Term 12 and Room, which left her with a Best Actress trophy in hand after the 88th Academy Awards, as well as comedies like Trainwreck, 21 Jump Street, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Showtime’s United States of Tara.

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Grant that Larson isn’t a stranger to tentpoles; in 2017, she joined the ensemble of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island as journalist Mason Weaver. Grant also that Kong: Skull Island did not require Larson be strong enough to push a goddamn Jeep by her lonesome. Co-starring with a colossal ape makes weight training a low priority. But Marvel hired her to play a superhero, and along the way from the studio to press tours to multiplexes, she became an actual superhero.

Molding a body into peak physical condition is serious business. Larson, working with trainer Jason Walsh, parceled out her training over nine months, trying variations on hip thrusts, push-ups, and Bulgarian split squats, adding deadlifts and pull-ups for upper body strength.

Larson’s hard work on her physique pays off in Captain Marvel on screen; she looks terrific, lean and sinewy, a marriage between grace and fortitude. But there’s another component of Larson’s Captain Marvel training that’s equally as important as the nuts and bolts of getting straight-up ripped: The mental component. Larson informs her character, Carol Danvers—a.k.a. the Kree noble warrior hero “Vers”—through psychological preparation. Carol’s a rebel. In Larson’s own words, “[she] really does have fun.” She pushes past obstacles in her way and extends her limitations with a grin on her face. And that’s how Larson trained: By having fun, munching on doughnuts in between leg raises, and eating cookies as a reward for executing weighted hip thrusts with impeccable form. When baked goods wouldn’t hit the spot, she apparently went with mozzarella sticks instead.

Larson began her Captain Marvel journey as “a brain,” rejecting emphasis placed on her body. Now she does push-ups with chains tangled about her waist. That takes discipline, a quality Vers lacks. Put kindly, she’s unruly; less kindly, she’s “emotional”, the favorite word of her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Yon-Rogg’s training takes special aim at Vers’ self-control; he wants to keep her superpowers in check. Larson’s not as fun to watch in that capacity. The cooler and more collected she must be to suit a scene, the worse off the movie is. But Vers wants to go off and blast holes in spaceships with her fiery energy projections, and when she ultimately rejects Yon-Roggs’ spartan coaching, Larson’s and Walsh’s training dogma is fully realized on screen. Have a good time. Otherwise, what’s the point?

The theme of identity crisis spans Captain Marvel as a production and a story. Vers isn’t the “real” Carol Danvers; it’s just the persona foisted on her by Yon-Rogg after rescuing her from death and taking her into the Kree’s ranks as one of their own. The real Carol Danvers is the character we get to know toward the second half of the film leading into the climax, where she truly begins pushing her powers’ boundaries. When she realizes she can actually fly, she smiles like the cat that ate the canary; her joy at this moment of self-discovery is palpable. Vers’ sobriety reflects Larson’s approach to her physical transformation, but Danvers’ glee reflects Larson’s training philosophy writ large.

As a movie, Captain Marvel is a mixed bag. On one hand, jarring, over-aggressive 1990s nostalgia pollutes the whole enterprise, the musical queues in particular, designed for maximum winking, nudging, and pandering; on the other, Samuel L. Jackson, playing young Nick Fury, is a hoot, playing a best-of compilation of the sidekick roles he took in the film’s chosen decade, while Ben Mendelsohn, playing the shapeshifting Skrull Talos, reaffirms that he’s one of the most vital actors working today.

For her part, Larson’s overqualified for the script, not a knock against her but rather a nod toward her consummate professionalism. She could have left the dangerous stuff to a stuntwoman, but that’s not her speed. After all, Marvel films don’t shoot action for action’s sake; MCU fight scenes tend to be about character more than choreography, showcasing their stars’ personalities instead of staging cutting edge action. Larson seizes every chance to let her character, and her aesthetic, shine.

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