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Every superhero origin story needs a good hero shot (or several), and from we’re sitting, Captain Marvel‘s looks downright epic.
Some magical combination of posture, costume, and camera angle has star Brie Larson looking several inches taller than she actually is. Her red-and-blue suit shines; her steely gaze says she’s doing exactly what she was put on this planet to do. All that’s missing is the glowing hair which, a Marvel producer reassures me and the other journalists gathered on set last May, will be added in post.
In short, it’s the moment the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first solo female lead warrants — even if what she really deserved was not to have to be the first solo female lead, 21 films into the franchise. It’s that familiar, instantly iconic moment, with a twist.
Captain Marvel reverses the origin story
In fact, Carol Danvers’ whole story is a variation on a tried-and-true formula. “In many ways, it’s a classic Marvel origin story but told in reverse, structurally,” producer Jonathan Schwartz explained to us. “You meet her as an awesome badass superpowered space hero, and then learn who the human is behind that aspect of herself.”
That journey takes her from the planet Hala, where she is battling Skrulls alongside Kree soldiers like Mar-Vell (Jude Law) and Minn-Erva (Gemma Chan), to her home planet of Earth. There, in typical superhero-movie fashion, she discovers that her forgotten past may hold the key to the ongoing war against the Skrulls.
Despite all that interstellar intrigue, Schwartz described Captain Marvel as more Captain America: The Winter Soldier than Guardians of the Galaxy. Or, better yet, like a movie from the era of Blockbuster: “It’s a ’90s action movie, like Robocop or Terminator 2 or Total Recall,” Schwartz said.
Carol’s comic-book roots get a makeover
Comics fans know, however, that Carol’s offscreen history goes back even further than that. She was first introduced in the ’60s a (human) love interest to Mar-Vell, the original Captain Marvel, and gained her powers after another Kree kidnapped her to use against him.
It’s not exactly the most empowering narrative for a woman in 2019, which is why the big-screen Mar-Vell and his role in Carol’s life have been updated to suit the times — in the movie, he’s Carol’s mentor.
“It’s interesting to read those books through a modern lens, because certainly, they were kind of at the edges of the feminism of the era. But reading them now, as a modern reader, it’s like, Wow. You can’t do a lot of this,” said Schwartz. “So there is a lot of homage and there is a lot of respect paid to those early days, but with a spin we think that moviegoers are really going to enjoy.”
What comic-book readers can look forward to in the movie is a Carol inspired by Kelly Sue DeConnick, the comic-book writer who helped define the character as we know her today. “That’s sort of become our North Star in terms of how the character should feel and how the dialogue and the voice develop,” said Schwartz.
Carol is super-strong — and not just because of her powers
What eventually emerged out of all these influences was a big-screen Captain Marvel who’s not just tough and funny and inspiring but irrepressibly, unapologetically herself. “We really grounded ourselves in that journey […] of somebody who’s kind of discovering her own power and realizing the more herself she becomes, the more powerful she becomes,” said co-director Anna Boden.
Such is the force of Captain Marvel’s personality that in the third-act sequence we saw being filmed, she was the one bossing around future Avengers organizer Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
“Brie is the most powerful woman in the universe.”
As the pair prepare to fight their way off an alien spaceship (which Jackson cryptically described as belonging to “a doctor from Carol Danvers’ past”), Carol instructs him to “take the Tesseract, leave the lunchbox” while she runs off to buy him some time.
Though Fury pushes back a bit (“Oh, you’re giving me orders now?”), there’s no question of who’s in charge here. And when the aforementioned hero shot follows, a bit later, there’s no question of why she’s in charge. She’s strong, yes — like, most-powerful-character-in-the-MCU strong — but based on what we saw on set, it’s her courage and her determination that earn her place beside the likes of Captain America and Black Panther.
In that way, according to co-director Ryan Fleck, she’s not so unlike Larson herself. “Brie is the most powerful woman in the universe,” he laughed. “No, really — her commitment, her dedication, she’s just so fierce. Everything she does is a hundred percent, and it’s like this every day when we’re super inspired and awed by her.”
Carol’s truest friends are the Rambeaus
But even a superpowered superhero can only get so far on her own; just ask any Avenger at the start of any team-up movie. Luckily, Captain Marvel’s got a ride-or-die bestie in the form of Maria Rambeau, a fellow fighter pilot. The two go way back, even if Captain Marvel can’t quite remember her at first.
It’s that former bond that helps Captain Marvel reconnect with her human past, since seeing Monica triggers something in her. “[Carol] has these flashes of the feeling, I think, of being herself, through seeing her friend,” said Lashana Lynch, who plays Maria.
That proves crucial to Carol’s journey of self-actualization. “Because there’s being a superhero and not knowing who you are, which is dangerous, and then there’s know who you are, and then using your superpower for good,” said Lynch. “I think that’s what she’s doing.”
Maria also happens to be the mother of 11-year-old Monica — a younger version of the fan-favorite comic-book character. How the younger Rambeau will factor into Captain Marvel or the MCU as a whole remains to be seen; even Lynch admitted she didn’t know at this point. But it seems reasonable to expect big things from this young girl, who’ll be learning a thing or two from her mom and her friend.
… But she meets some more familiar MCU faces, too
Along the way, Captain Marvel will also encounter a few faces that’ll be more familiar to us than they are to her. One is a young Nick Fury, here a younger two-eyed S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who knows nothing of aliens or superheroes until Captain Marvel comes crashing into his life.
“Things are changing, the world is changing for him, how he views it in terms of who we are with respect to the rest of the galaxy, and that there is a much greater thing out there than who we are and what we are,” said Jackson.
“At some point, we’ll find out how powerful she is and all the things that she’s capable of.”
Another is Phil Coulson, a S.H.I.E.L.D. rookie working closely with Fury and played once again by Clark Gregg. Not all the returning characters are so friendly, however; the roster also includes Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and Korath (Djimon Hounsou) from Guardians of the Galaxy. (The biggest bad is another newbie, though: Ben Mendelsohn’s Skrull commander, Talos.)
Where all these MCU connections lead, we may have to wait a while to find out. Schwartz told us in no uncertain terms that Captain Marvel would not move past the ’90s. But it’s clear our heroine is being set up for a crucial role in May’s Avengers: Endgame.
“I mean, [the Avengers are] up against some really, really tough odds right now, we saw throughout Infinity War,” Jackson teased. “So now we know we need something that’s as powerful as Thanos, and at some point, we’ll find out how powerful she is and all the things that she’s capable of. She’s one of the few people in the Marvel universe that can time travel.”
What does Captain Marvel mean right now?
And as the Avengers have learned, timing is everything. Which brings us back to one question that kept coming up throughout the visit, as we oohed and ahhed over Carol’s hero shot or listened to Larson gushing about her: Why now?
Because Captain Marvel has been so highly anticipated for so long — by Carol fans, by Skrull lovers, by MCU watchers who just want a female lead already — expectations can’t help but run high, and the filmmakers acknowledge they’re feeling the pressure.
Perhaps that’s why Boden, who is the MCU’s first female director, is careful to stress that Captain Marvel can’t be everything to everyone. “We’re not trying to make this movie about all women, we can’t make it about all women’s journeys, but just be really true to this woman’s journey,” she said.
That may be the truest way to represent women onscreen: through individual stories and specific details, rather than through all-encompassing generalizations. “You know, I’m sure there are movies for you guys as dudes, that you’re like, Whoa, that’s so true to my experience,” said Larson. “Just know we’ve never had that.”
And if all goes well? We may find ourselves in a world where it doesn’t matter quite so much that Captain Marvel is a woman — one in which she can “just be Carol Danvers,” as Lynch put it. “It enables young people to know they can use their own strength to get what they want, and that being a female is a power, not a restriction.”