As the formula for all King Kong movies go, the gargantuan ape forms an unlikely bond with a towheaded beauty brave enough to be empathetic. In 1976, it was Jessica Lange; in 2008, Naomi Watts. This time around, it's Brie Larson’s turn, and I saw what Kong: Skull Island was trying to do with her character from a mile away.
With her no-nonsense expression and swashbuckling career in photojournalism, it's obvious: Brie Larson's character, Mason Weaver, was written to be the ideal action movie heroine. I could practically see the film execs nodding their heads smugly, saying, "We’ve done it. Here's someone so brave, so empathetic, and so tough that no feminist could find fault with her."
On the one hand, they’re right. Mason Weaver’s pretty perfect. On the other hand, that’s just the problem.
When we first encounter Mason, she’s developing photos in a run-down darkroom somewhere in Vietnam. But since the Vietnam War ended the day before, Mason's out of a job. What’s a heroic photographer to do?
Well, as it turns out, Mason gets word that a mysterious mapping expedition is setting forth from Thailand. Quicker than you can say “fearless heroine,” Mason’s strapped on her camera and is well on her way.
From her first scene on, Mason is posed as the antithesis to a damsel in distress. First of all, she volunteers to be on the trip. Clad in camo, she boldly goes where no woman has gone before: the Athena, the ship which will carry the expedition toward Skull Island. Not one but two military men raise their eyebrows when they discover “Mason Weaver,” a purposefully androgynous name, is actually a woman.
Once on the ship, Mason swiftly gets to work as the expedition photographer. The film briefly pauses on each photo Mason takes, showing images of soldiers huddled in groups, smiling, and goofing off. Through Mason’s lens, we see characters at their most relaxed and authentic selves. Mason’s the only character committed to spotlighting the mission's individuals, just as she’s committed to connecting with Kong later on.
From these two opening scenes, Mason establishes herself as a brave and empathetic woman, seemingly impervious to having her authority undermined by the film’s men. Yep, the holy grail of heroines.
But how does Mason’s intrepid personality hold up against the horrors of Skull Island, which puts each character to the test? Many of the men don’t handle the gigantic animals all too well. One scientist is constantly wishing to go home. Another soldier continually pauses to ask, “Can we talk about what just happened?”
Not Mason, though. Mason’s never scared.
Even in the most most dangerous of Skull Island settings, Mason's more concerned with taking the perfect photo than surviving. Take the helicopter ride through a thunderstorm over to Skull Island. While the pilots and scientists are freaking out, Mason calmly leans out the door and snaps photos of the storm. It's almost ludicrous.
In addition to being fearless, Mason's also kind. Mason’s the only character to show kindness to Kong. Kong takes a liking to our noble heroine after she rescues a supersized yak, and later the primate saves her life.
Adding up her actions in the movie, Mason checks all the boxes for admirable heroine. She’s brave. She’s kind. She’s cool. She’s beautiful.
Unfortunately, she’s also lacking in something important in a believable character: weakness. It seems that if a woman character is to run with the boys in an action movie, she has to be immune to fear and apprehension — even if the other supporting characters are perfectly allowed to voice their hesitation.
By the end of the movie, I was exhausted for Mason. As the only woman with more than three lines of dialogue, she had to embody the empathy typically assigned to women and be tougher than all the men, too.
I’m looking forward to the day when a woman action character showing a moment of fear or hesitation doesn’t discount her entirely. Had Mason cracked for just a moment, I would’ve admired her all the more. She wouldn't have been the ideal feminist hero dreamed up by a movie studio; she would've been a human.