Dr. Strange Puts on his Broken Watch: Understated Character Moments in Superhero Melodramas Like Captain Marvel


Remember the end of DOCTOR STRANGE, where he straps on that super-expensive but thoroughly ruined watch to symbolize that he has learned to accept the broken things that are important to him? I thought that was beautiful because it underplayed the moment. It implied rather than stated, and it did so artfully.

Later, I heard a bunch of people didn’t like the movie because (in part) they thought Strange didn’t change. Never mind that he started off as a guy who was concerned only with his rep, to the point that he wouldn’t see patients if they were too old or sick and his treatment might fail, and at the end of the movie, he wins by losing, and he does so in a way that ensures no one will ever know about it except for him and his two buddies. He has turned himself upside down on reputation and failure, and he’s found a new, better way to live.

But DOCTOR STRANGE is a superhero melodrama, and the less obvious story beats were lost in all the disks of colored light, uncollapsing buildings, and kung fu. And now I think the same thing has happened to CAPTAIN MARVEL.

Now, to be clear, I really, really enjoyed CAPTAIN MARVEL. I saw it twice in the theater already, and once my wife and son go on their trip, I’ll see it again.

FYI: SPOILERS after the jump. You’ve been warned.

Yeah, that moment when Carol flew for the first time, bashing Yon-Rogg’s ship, gave me goosebumps. Twice. It’s a bravura moment, and I was there for it.

But the movie has a couple of problems that seem (to me, in retrospect) to have been easily avoidable. For one, we have the usual Marvel villain problems but I’m going to skip over that. The main thing I want to talk about is Carol’s personal story, and how the decision at a script level to underplay and imply important elements have left parts of the movie feeling sort of flat.

It has also led some people to straight up say that Larson wasn’t strong in the role, which is ridiculous. Larson is brilliant. She did exactly what she was asked to do, and she did it well. The problem comes from what she was asked to do.

Carol Danvers starts off proud to be a “noble warrior hero” in Kree Starforce, but as her memories come back to her, there’s no point where she outwardly defends that identity. Her struggle to reconcile her identity with the evidence that she’s not Kree is underplayed when it should have been more overt.

The first time she sees that photo of herself, she hides her reaction from Fury. She lets some of her stress show during her long-distance call to Yon-Rogg, but she only shows her confusion.

She doesn’t come up with reasons why she would be a Kree on Earth (“Maybe I was Lawson’s Kree bodyguard!”) She doesn’t get a scene where she rejects the evidence in favor of the identity she cherishes. Even when her memory is restored, she doesn’t redefine herself until Talos tries to convince her that she’s a victim, just like him.

At that point, Carol shuts him down and admits that she doesn’t know who she really is. Then she lets Maria tell her.

It’s a nice moment. She lets someone who loves her tell her the truth, and once that happens, her personal challenge has been met and she’s ready to face the actual bad guys. But it’s not enough.

To explain why this is important, I turn to SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING. Peter’s personal journey in that film is that he’s a superhero who lives in the shadow of Tony Stark. He wants Tony’s tech, he wants Tony’s style, he wants to be a sort of Iron Man Jr.

And that makes him a terrible superhero.

Throughout the whole first two acts of that film, Spider-man is a failure as a hero. He can save people, but he can’t catch criminals. Literally, everyone either beats him up or they get away. And the more of Stark’s tech he unlocks, the more he struggles.

It’s not until Stark takes away the fancy suit that Peter learns to rely on himself (“You can do it, Spider-man!”). That’s when he becomes a superhero instead of a screw-up with powers.

And that’s important because that plot line, which wraps up right before the third-act climax, is what makes us like Peter Parker. It humanizes him, and gives us something to root for beyond the A-plot of a bad guy who needs punching. I think it’s also part of the reason Stephen Strange was not terribly likable. His big moment of change came from his teacher (“It’s not about you,”) and was less obviously his own moment. Not like Peter’s was.

By understating the changes in Carol’s personal storyline, and by running them too close together, and by skipping an important but necessary step (the challenge to her belief in the rightness of Starforce), the filmmakers weaken our commitment to her. It’s not gone entirely, because the movie has lots of other stuff in it that’s fun and funny, especially the scenes between Larson and Jackson, but it’s not as strong as it could have been.

I think the film needed a series of discreet changes to show the progression of her personal plotline.

1. I’m a noble warrior hero (with amnesia)
2. These memories are fake, aren’t they?
3. I’m in this photo? I must have been Lawson’s Kree bodyguard
4. Pictures of my childhood? This can’t be true! I’m a noble warrior hero!
5. I’m human, and the Kree have been lying to me all along.

I mean, that’s just an example. Someone else who thought about it for more than a few minutes could probably come up with something more intriguing, but the story would have been stronger if these plot points had been more explicit and hopefully spread out a bit. Then, once Carol’s personal plotline is resolved, she can bring her new self into the third act to beat the bad guys.

What you can’t do is bury that progression in furtive looks and cracked voices like this is an indie drama full of quiet moments. I mean, Larson can express it, because she’s great, but the story suffers. You can undersell the emotional stuff in a personal drama, but in a big melodrama, that’s likely to get lost.

Like I said, I really enjoyed the movie and plan to see it again in the theater. But the amnesia plot line, which was vital to audience investment in the character, was well-acted but poorly planned. And that’s not on Larson.