From Vertigo to Memento, cinema is fascinated with memory. It’s an ever-intriguing concept, one ripe with the opportunity for character development (and twists along the way). This year, both Captain Marvel and Alita: Battle Angel have their protagonists face the challenge of amnesia with hopes of developing their title protagonists into fully realized characters. Looking at how the two use their memory loss plot device, it’s safe to say that this goal has been achieved to varying levels of success.
Alita: Battle Angel wastes no time in introducing Alita’s (Rosa Salazar) forgotten past. As Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Ido picks up her detached head from a junkyard, it’s obvious that she is missing something — a literal body and, as we quickly find out, knowledge of her past. But the latter isn’t entirely forgotten. When Ido gets himself into trouble with some serial killer cyborgs, Alita comes to his rescue, instinctively kicking into gear as a fighter. She slowly remembers more about her life as a warrior for the United Republic of Mars and eventually finds a “Berserker” body that perfectly integrates with her system, apparently wrapping up the arc of restoring both her body and her past as the film doesn’t discuss either any further from there.
Captain Marvel meanders a bit more in getting to Vers’ (Brie Larson) past. The film starts with a quick montage of dreams and a mention of her not recognizing the Supreme Intelligence as her ex-mentor Wendy Lawson (Annette Benning) but, by all accounts, Vers is a complete character from the get-go. It is only when she is abducted by Skrulls probing through her memory that the picture of a forgotten life forms — a blonde little girl speeding in a race car; a focused, slightly younger Vers attempting a rope swing; Lawson offering Vers a pep talk.
Vers eventually discovers that she was pronounced dead in a test-flight crash with Lawson, where she gained Kree energy and lost her memories. She was actually taken to Hala, the Kree capital, and trained as a weapon, one kept under their control by Yon-Rogg’s (Jude Law) lessons of repressing emotions and a chip restricting her staggering powers. Upon learning that her life was stolen from her, she has a paradigm shift and becomes her own Carol Danvers, no longer the Kree’s Vers.
In both cases, this understanding of past makes for solid, effective characters, simply because we can use who these characters were in order to contextualize who they are. We know Alita as a warrior and see that she is one, both in past and present. We know Vers as a sarcastic Kree soldier and, with the recognition of her past, watch her grow as a sarcastic human hero. We get a full view of these characters; there’s no disputing that we know who they are.
But even in those watered-down descriptions of past and present, there’s a clear difference in what these films decide to do with the memory they return to their protagonists. Alita is an astonishing fighter in a big-eyed, small-waisted package and exciting to watch as a vision of moral perfection, sure, but she doesn’t change as a character with these supposedly grand revelations of who she was. She was always fighting earnestly to complete the mission; now the mission has simply shifted from URM’s to protecting Ido and helping her love interest. Ultimately, her loss of memory comes across as an elaborate MacGuffin to show that she has always been a dedicated fighter and to get her to a better, nanobot-equipped body and go through robot puberty. (That scene is just as weird as it sounds.)
Where Alita: Battle Angel falls short of using its amnesia plot device, Captain Marvel thrives in making Danvers regaining her memory as important (if not more important) on the character level as it is on the plot level. In doing this, Carol becomes not only a layered hero, but also a message of feminism. Yes, much like Alita’s nanobots, Carol gains physical ability as she breaks free of the restraints restricting her energy powers. But along with this, Carol regains her humanity, her existence as a female human on Earth who existed as a distinct person before her name was cut up and her identity molded to someone else’s wishes.
As a Kree on Hala, she is told by Yon-Rogg to keep her emotions in check (a comment that, though it wasn’t explicitly gendered, undoubtedly caught the attention of female audience members everywhere). As a Kree on Earth, she’s told to smile more. (That much is universal.) But Captain Marvel allows Carol to gain agency in her story as she gets her forgotten humanity back. In regaining her memories, she becomes a human on Earth— one who was told she’s not meant to race in fast cars, that she can’t do a ropes course, that she can’t be an Air Force pilot — but one who makes the decision to stand up after being knocked down all the same. With the path to the revival of Carol’s humanity through her memory, I came away from the film with one clear thought: of all the super things she can do, standing back up is by far the most awe-inspiring.
It’s this sense of struggle and overcoming that makes Carol Danvers, the inspiring feminist hero, as much fun to watch as Alita, the perfect female fighter. In fact, its this use of memory to enrich the character, not simply reinforce her, that gives Carol dimension as someone who can take control of her life, and that’s a feminist message we should never tire of seeing. I admit it: like Alita: Battle Angel, Captain Marvel is not a perfect movie— fine! But it certainly does right by its title character, offering her room to grow and become stronger because of something we all have and can use as sensationally as she does: humanity.