I really like Brie Larson. I thought she deserved her Best Actress Oscar for Room and have eagerly followed her career as an indie darling since The United States of Tara. She’s an actress who I find to be charismatic yet unbearably tender, a rare talent with both comedy and drama, and someone who is as striking a leading lady as she is an ensemble player. For all of my issues with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the film she headlined, I think she was the ideal choice for Carol Danvers. Being a Brie Larson fan means being painfully aware that there are far too many sexist creeps waiting for the vaguest opportunity to bombard her with bad-faith nonsense because she once shared to make minor feminist statements. Larson is an actress I am rooting for, a true talent who I am eager to see reach her full potential.
So, with all of that out of the way, I have to ask: What the hell is going on with Brie Larson’s career?
When it was announced this month that she was set to join the long-running and beloved saga of family car-crashing, The Fast and the Furious, I felt oddly sad about it. This didn’t feel like a deviation into blockbuster fun after a few years making varied cinema, as it had with Charlize Theron. It reminded me more of Ryan Reynolds’ recent career choices, a focus primarily on brand strengthening than anything more actorly that would be a challenging platform for their talents. The difference here is that Larson isn’t defined by a swath of side-hustles that would use such moments of cross-synergy. So, what is going on?
Before her Oscar win, Larson was a working actress who mostly stuck to TV bit-parts and indie films. She often received strong reviews and would be singled out by critics as a scene-stealer. Consider Short Term 12, a startlingly good drama that now feels like the epicenter for a generation of young talents: Larson, Rami Malek, Lakeith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever. Room only emphasized what reviews had been saying for years: This is a star. So, the shift from Oscar winner to Captain Marvel didn’t feel all that weird. Really, this is what actors do now. It’s increasingly the only route to success in Hollywood: Make your name in small projects then jump into the MCU. There isn’t a single actor working today who is immune to this path aside from maybe Leonardo DiCaprio. This is our new version of being a Bond villain, it’s just what we do. And if Larson was going to do it then being the headliner for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female-led film wasn’t a bad way to go. It certainly paid off too, with a billion-dollar gross and immediate icon status for Larson.
Since then, she really hasn’t done much. She directed her own little-seen film, Unicorn Store but the last few years of her filmography are scant. Playing Carol Danvers takes up most of it. She played a supporting role in Just Mercy but pulled out of Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (she was replaced by Jessie Buckley.) Her contemporaries garnered awards buzz and worked with rising directors and Larson … started a YouTube channel. I’m not knocking it, honestly. I like her YouTube work and love how she’s managed to take back the algorithmic power that saw sexist weirdos overwhelm her name search on the site to sh*t on her for no dang reason. While there are new projects in the pipeline, I can’t help but think about how weirdly stagnant her career has become, especially at a time when she seemed to have every door open to her, a rarity for any actress nowadays.
Part of this is the realities of the Marvel contract. You heed to their beck and call, whether it’s to headline part 29 of the saga or shoot a post-credits scene or theme park attraction cameo. It’s a brutal schedule, one that’s seen several of its stars have to make tough sacrifices. Paul Bettany had to say no to The Crown. Between the agonizing physical training, the long shoots and endless reshoots, and the extended marketing cycles defined by ludicrous levels of secrecy, I imagine there’s not much time for anything else. Most productions won’t wait for an actor now, even a major star, unless they’re directly involved with producing it.
There might be something else at play. In a recent editorial for IndieWire, Eric Kohn noted that the big agencies don’t have a lot of motivation or incentive to match up their biggest talents with projects that don’t pull in the major bucks. Kohn notes that agencies aren’t always able or willing to get the good scripts to their clients, many of whom aren’t tuned into new work or talents. The vast majority of actors don’t read every script sent to them (Viggo Mortensen is allegedly one of the rare exceptions) and it’s not very common for filmmakers to directly reach out to them. With streaming services cutting down valuable royalties and the days of the eight-figure paycheque gone for almost everyone, actors aren’t keen on digging down into the low-paid prestige weeds unless it’s guaranteeing them an Oscar. Robert Downey Jr. candidly admitted he didn’t care about slumming it in such projects once he got those Iron Man dollars. For Larson, a former child star who has been open about previous money struggles and relying on film festival goody bags to eat, it’s an understandable shift. Get paid. You’ve already got an Oscar. What else is there to do?
(This may also explain her sudden interest in NFTs, a thing I find too depressing to talk about, because her agency is big into investing in this crock of ugly money avatar snake oil.)
In a sense, Larson has no reason to be ambitious. She has the most prestigious award in her industry on her shelf. She’s a headliner in the biggest franchise in cinematic history. She’s got endorsements money and producer clout and proper name recognition. Sure, she could go back to working in ensemble pieces and TV comedies but why? When you’ve got the freedom to do what you want then why not do as little as possible? Ali Wong once said in one of her standup shows, ‘All I wanted was more money for less work.’ Isn’t that the dream? Hell, I’d take it and I’m a workaholic. Still, as a Larson fan who thinks she has ‘best of her generation’ potential, I can’t help but be sad that we aren’t getting to see the sorts of projects that would show off her considerable abilities. The Larson problem is part of the bigger issue of the homogenization of Hollywood, the algorithm-defined approach to content creation that has made a lot of actors’ careers way less interesting as a result (hello Ryan Reynolds, Tom Holland, and most of the Chrises until they get out of their Marvel contracts.) It’s sad to see as a film lover but I can’t pretend I would take some sort of artistic high-ground were I in a similar position. Perhaps Larson will surprise us with a secret weird auteur project in the future. She’s got the means to do so. It’d be a shame to waste it, even if Captain Marvel 6 or whatever takes up all her time.