Brigid Molloy give us a newsflash onmovie flashbacks.
The latest MCU film, Captain Marvel, was released last month to much buzz, as it is the first Marvel film with a leading female superhero. Yet, what is most striking about the film is its heavy reliance on flashback. For most of Captain Marvel, both the protagonist and the audience do not know the details of Carol’s (Brie Larson) origin story because she has amnesia and cannot fully recall it herself. She only gradually learns about her past from the memories she uncovers in her dreams, which are presented to the audience through fragmented flashbacks. This device, the amnesia trope, is commonly used in film and television. It allows the writer to provide exposition in a way that otherwise would not seem natural. Characters can explicitly relay information without it feeling like an information dump.
The Bourne franchise, a series of action thriller films, is entirely built off this trope. In the first film, The Bourne Identity; Matt Damon is the amnesiac lead who must discover his identity, but it does not take him long to realise that he possesses skills only a CIA agent could need. The amnesia trope suits a thriller film such as this because it is natural for paranoia to fester about who the protagonist can trust, resulting in a tense and exciting film. Similarly, in Captain Marvel, the amnesia trope enables the protagonist to reconsider who she trusts or assumes to be the enemy, building on the overarching theme of the film, which is the influence of propaganda during wartime.
This trope has its disadvantages, and this is apparent in Captain Marvel. When an audience only learns about a character through brief flashbacks or other characters’ accounts of them, it can be difficult to feel a true connection with them. I did not feel like Captain Marvel gave the audience a chance to connect with its hero and even Brie Larson’s convincing performance could not atone for that. The film does eschew the typical origin narrative of many superhero films by using the amnesia trope. There have been so many superhero films in the last decade, I would imagine the filmmakers believed that this different approach to the film’s storytelling could prevent any criticism of the film being conventional. However, the origin story is an effective narrative for allowing the audience to directly see a character develop. In Captain Marvel, we never witness Carol forging a friendship with her best friend Maria or we never see her make mistakes or learn how to wield her powers. These vulnerable moments allow the audience to connect with a character and it is a shame that this opportunity was not provided in the film.
The amnesia trope is not only the plot device that relies on flashback; retroactive continuity is another example. Often abbreviated to “retcon”, when this device is used, a new piece of information is given to the audience which provides a different interpretation of previously described events. Retcon is used in Captain Marvel; we learn that Carol was the original Avenger who inspired Nick Fury to form a team of superheroes in the first place. This is an exciting revelation for the long running, successful franchise. It is a device that can be actively used by TV writers too; the classic supernatural series Buffy the Vampire Slayer deliberately used retcon during its run. Most notably, in Season five a new character Dawn, Buffy’s sister, was introduced, although viewers had always known Buffy as an only child, the characters interacted with Dawn as if she had always existed on the show. When retcon is used deliberately, it is a brilliant way to re-examine familiar characters. In this instance, it was clever to re-imagine Buffy as someone who not only has responsibilities as a slayer but also as an older sister.
Ultimately, flashback in its many reiterations can allow writers to innovate the narratives of films or TV episodes. These devices are not always effective, as it can take away from the emotional connection between character and audience. On the other hand, sometimes screenwriters can be accused of inadvertently using retcon because of the emergence of plot inconsistencies in a film or TV episode. Even still, flashback, whether it is effective or not, always manages to successfully challenge conventional storytelling techniques.