Before the phenomenal creative and commercial success of Black Panther became a reality, Marvel Studios had planned to build a film around another under-represented protagonist with its first-ever female-led superhero film. And rather than make such a move with a character already introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe like Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow or Evangeline Lily’s Wasp, the studio dug a little deeper, turning to one of its earliest solo comic book headliners: Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel.
“If you're going to put that on anybody's shoulders, Carol's are the strongest,” says producer Jonathan Schwartz from the film’s production office during a set visit attended by ComicBook.com last year while the filming of Captain Marvel was underway. “She was always a character that excited us from the comic books. In all the mythology and all the characters we had to draw from, she always kept rising to the top. Her powers are super cool, her story's super cool, the world she gets to take part in is super cool.”
To that end, Marvel turned to a directing team known for their own brand of super-coolness, the husband and wife team of Anna Boden and Ryan K. Fleck, whose string of independent films – Half Nelson, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and Mississippi Grind – share a hip, witty, and artful cachet admired by the cinematic in-crowd. Like other recent Marvel filmmakers who came from smaller, but creatively distinctive roots like Taika Waititi, Scott Derrickson, and Jon Watts, it was their passion for unique characters and personal storytelling that earned them the keys to the type of mega-production every Marvel film has become.
“What we love telling about this story is that, as a character, as a superhero, she becomes more and more in touch with her own humanity,” says Boden. “Thor was a god and was always a god, but when she comes more and more in touch with her humanity is when she becomes her most powerful… Her own self-discovery is where she becomes as powerful as she can be.”
“It seems crazy moving from making little movies to making literally movies with Marvel, which are like the biggest movies that they make,” admits Fleck. “But it's actually probably the easiest transition into making movies like this, just because we're working with so many people who are so good at their jobs and collaborating with people who are literally the best at what they do. So we feel very well-supported and with creative people at Marvel who are also just really into being storytellers at the end of the day.”
"They're really sinking their teeth not just into the performances, and not just into the character, but the pre-viz, the action, and everything else that goes into making one of these movies," says Schwartz. "And they have amazing character instincts, amazing skills of getting performances out of actors, and really incredible action instincts and commercial instincts. So they're really bringing it all to the table."
Fleck says he and Boden were energized when they immersed themselves into Carol’s long and colorful history, from her origins as a supporting player for the initial Stan Lee-created Mar-Vell incarnation of Captain Marvel in the ‘60s under creators Roy Thomas and Gene Colon to her emergence as Ms. Marvel during a surge of female-led comics in the feminist-leaning ‘70s, and from her slightly troubling handling as a member of the Avengers to her adoption of the mantle of captain in the 2010s made popular by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick.
“We dig in here to dig into all the comics, the history – there's a lot this character has gone through a whole bunch of different changes over the years,” says Fleck. “We just kind of locked into the character that we liked from the Kelly Sue DeConnick run -- we were like, ‘this is the Captain Marvel we love.’”
“Kelly's actually been working with us on the movie and has been very helpful and consulted with us – and shot a cameo the other day, which hopefully you guys can all pick out," Schwartz notes. “She really understood Carol and really made her modern and vibrant and cool in a way that she wasn't always written.”
“She's amazing, and it was so cool meeting her for the first time, having read all of her comics, and her whole Captain Marvel run, and really falling in love with Captain Marvel through her comics,” adds Boden. “So many of our references and our ideas of who this person was and the things that we had pitched in a room to the Marvel folks, to Kevin Feige, about what we thought this character was were similar to her references and her touchstones.”
Carol’s literal and metaphorical durability touched a chord with the filmmakers, as did her penchant for self-deprecation. “She can make fun of herself and she can take a punch,” says Fleck. “She's a fighter, born fighter, and she's just tough.” Boden, meanwhile, admires “the idea of this superhero who's like one of the most powerful superheroes, but like you, she also has this scrappy personality. Because she wasn't always like that: before she was a superhero she was a woman in the Air Force, and in the story that we're telling a woman in the Air Force before women were allowed to fly in combat… Even when she's like super powerful and can just blow everybody out of the galaxy, she still has that core, that center of just, you know, having to fight for it.”
“We wanted to make Carol really inspirational – and not inspirational because she was perfect, inspirational because she was flawed,” says Schwartz, who pointed to the film’s unconventional unveiling of its lead character and her backstory, which veers away from the traditional origin story tropes, and unlike most Marvel films is set in period -- in this case, the 1990s.
“This movie is different structurally from our other origin stories, which is something we were consciously trying to execute,” he adds. “The movie starts with Captain Marvel character already in outer space, already having superpowers and already fighting on the side of the Kree in the Kree-Skrull war. You get a glimpse of her squad there, Starforce, led by the Jude Law character. Very quickly along this journey they get dispatched on a mission to an alien planet to fight the Skrulls.”
“She believes that she is a Kree, and has been inducted into their army – she’s proud as a person; she loves being a Kree. And then over the course of her adventure, realized there’s more to her story than that,” Schwartz continues. That story really begins blowing up big when Carol’s mission leads her to a singular blue planet known as Earth. “crashing through the roof of a Blockbuster Video, because it’s the ‘90s, and that puts her in contact with the younger, two-eyed version of Agent Nick Fury, and the two of them together have to stop the Skrull plot on Earth. And at the same time get to the root of Carol’s past.”
“One of the challenges with subverting that origin structure is you've still got to find a way to let the audience understand who that character is,” Schwartz says of the story’s somewhat unconventional and nonlinear structure. “There are some creative ways over the course of this movie where we're able to get that part of Carol's story across.”
Along the way, much of Carol’s comics lore will emerge in fresh, unexpected ways in the MCU. For example, yes, despite those set photos of her sporting a purplish-and-green take on the traditional Captain Marvel uniform, the more familiar version will take center stage. “It’s not a spoiler to tell you the blue, gold, and red costume is going to be in the movie – the green costume is more of the Kree Starforce colors,” reveals Schwartz. Other elements will appear as well, either as major plot points or in Easter egg form; Schwartz acknowledges a piece of production art on the wall featuring a Jack Kirby-esque disembodied alien head, “part of the fun of the Kree world is establishing the Supreme Intelligence. I don't think you could do Hala without it.”
Then there’s the stylistic approach to film, which again both confrms and veers askew from the usual Marvel expectations, in this case how recent the films have grafted a specific film genre approach to its signature superhero action – like Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s ‘70s conspiracy film pedigree or Spider-Man: Homecoming’s John Hughes-ian high school dynamic. In keeping with the period the film is set in, says Schwartz, “the genre is ‘90s action movie’… Movies like RoboCop or Total Recall or Terminator 2 or Independence Day. I think there are common action movie threads you can tease through those movies which are what we're trying to pick up on in this movie.”
“The list of movies that Captain Marvel is a love letter to is very expansive and strange,” chuckles Boden. “We even slipped a little of The Conversation into this movie.” But she and Fleck were particularly drawn to the model of RoboCop in terms of getting at the core of Carol Danvers.
“What is exciting to us about RoboCop was this idea of a character who's finding himself and finding his past,” she says. “And even though it's a dark movie, it’s also extremely emotional in that way. If you remember that scene of him walking into his own home and remembering those moments from his past life and remembering who he was – I mean, that's big! And that was one of the first things we talked to Marvel about in terms of this character -- the idea that self-discovery and reconnecting and rediscovering your humanity and who you were, and it's a huge part of this film.”
Of course, Avengers: Infinity War’s credit sequence revealed that Captain Marvel has a very critical role in the present of the modern day, Thanos-culled MCU, and in the concluding chapter, Avengers: Endgame, she’s expected to emerge as among the most prominent – and powerful – superheroes around. “By the end of this movie we'll have seen the full run of powers out of Carol – that's flight and strength and photon blasts,” says Schwartz. “Part of what made us excited about the character was that she was such a powerful character in the comic books, and one of the most, if not the most, powerful characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And seeing all that brought to bear is one of the big pleasures of the movie… seeing Captain Marvel kick a lot of ass.”1comments
“If we're lucky enough to be able to see more of her going forward, then I think we'll think about how to give her challenges that resonate with the audience still,” he adds. “Certainly I don’t think heading into other movies that you may see her in, you're going to worry about her feeling overpowered.”
Captain Marvel jets into theaters on March 8th.