If the Marvel movies are great at one thing, it’s casting. So much so that sometimes its hard to imagine their actors ever weren’t Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor and the myriad players to take the screen since. Maybe they always were and the universe just didn’t know it yet. So, with Avengers: Endgame mere weeks away and a title suggested by my friend Sean, let’s not do an entire MCU rewatch again, and instead take a look at some Avengers in other roles, starting with Chris Evans in the 2017 drama Gifted.
To be honest, my experience with Chris Evans’ filmography is pretty limited. There’s the MCU, where he plays a guy who takes part in a science experiment and becomes a superhero who’s really big and strong and long-lived. There’s the early ’00s Fantastic Four movies, which I will always enjoy, where he plays a guy caught up in a science experiment gone wrong and becomes a superhero who flies and is literally a Human Torch. And there’s Push, where he plays a guy with superhuman telekinetic powers who kind of becomes a reluctant hero to stop some bad guys who want to use special people in science experiments, and you see where I’m going with this.
So, Gifted, a film where he plays a guy just trying to raise his math-prodigy niece to be a good person with a normal life while fighting with his mother for custody, was a breath of fresh air.
After his genius sister’s suicide, Frank Adler (Evans), whose no slouch in the academic department either, takes his infant niece and moves to Florida to raise her. They live a simple life of fixing boats, watching UFC and just generally being adorable together, but eventually it’s time for 7-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace) to go to school. But while her classmates are learning simple addition, she’s on calculus and kind of a troublemaker, which catches the eyes of her teacher and principal who can get her a full ride to a fancy pants private school. Having seen what being so different did to his sister, Frank declines. And all of this makes Grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) realize Mary has the potential to finish her mother’s work on a Millennium Prize math problem. So she brings all her money and influence to town trying to win control of Mary and her future.
Gifted is such a good family drama both for the brokenness of the adult Adlers and the loving relationship between Frank and Mary and their landlord/best friend Roberta (Octavia Spencer), who cares for Mary like she’s her own. But it also has elements of a courtroom drama as Frank and Evelyn fight for custody and even a dash of romance between Frank and Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate). Everyone has ridiculous amounts of chemistry, and the film even went a few places I didn’t expect.
Grace (who you can also catch glimpses of as a young Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel) is fantastic as Mary, perfectly walking the tightrope of portraying a precocious genius child without being so over the top and irritating that I want to throw something through my TV. Mary has the sass and confidence that a life with Frank has thus far provided but also a sadness for what she’s missing, a curiosity for something challenging and just the right amount of impatience with the peers Frank so desperately wants her to bond with.
As for Evans, color me impressed. There are some shades of Captain America in his stalwart devotion to doing what’s best for Mary, but the real shining light comes from the doubt and fear that you just can’t show if your only job is to stoically lead a team of superheroes against an army of aliens, evil robots, and monsters.
Frank doesn’t know if his approach of emphasizing compassion and being a kid while maybe stifling her enormous potential is the right one. He’s afraid of ruining her life. These are the things that elevate the performance and give weight and importance to the decisions he makes and things he does. They make things matter, and that is just as impressive as the splashy effects and crazy stunts of any of those other films.
And there’s a one-eyed cat named Fred. Who doesn’t want that in their life?
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