Why Captain Marvel is the MCU's first female lead — and what they learned from 'Wonder Woman'

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·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
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  • Brie Larson
    Brie Larson
Brie Larson on the set of Marvel Studios’ <em>Captain Marvel</em> (Photo: Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel Studios 2019)
Brie Larson on the set of Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel (Photo: Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel Studios 2019)

In a classic case of better late than never, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will launch its first female-led superhero movie when Captain Marvel blasts into theaters this spring. With sky-high expectations in tow, fans are hoping it’s also a classic case of good things coming to those who wait.

Set in the 1990s, the MCU’s 21st installment will follow the intergalactic adventures of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), a former Air Force pilot who garners superpowers after an accident leaves her with alien DNA. But Captain Marvel breaks the mold of a typical origin story. The film will pick up with Carol already in the cosmos as part of Starforce, an interstellar police squad, and where she’s in the thick of a heated battle between two rival alien races, the Krees and Skrulls. The latest trailer, released during last night’s college football national championship game, lays out the basics:

Co-directed by indie darlings Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind), Marvel shot on location in Los Angeles early last year, where Yahoo Entertainment visited two different sets. There, the filmmakers explained why Captain Marvel — not a longtime Avenger like Scarlett Johnasson’s Black Widow — would make important history for the hitmaking studio.

“I think if you’re going to put that on anyone’s shoulders, Carol’s are the strongest,” executive producer Jonathan Schwartz (Guardians of the Galaxy) told us. “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. And that sort of all goes into the calculus of, what’s the next movie going to be?”

Brie Larson in <em>Captain Marvel</em> (Marvel Studios)
Brie Larson in Captain Marvel (Marvel Studios)

The strength of Carol’s shoulders is a subject comic-book aficionados are susceptible to debate, especially with Kevin Feige and Team Marvel touting that Danvers is going to be the most powerful superhero in the MCU. Does that mean she could fend off Thor and Hulk?

“I know better than to wade in the ‘Who can beat Thor in a fight [argument],'” Schwartz laughed. “But part of the fun certainly is that she is super-powered and kind of able to use her powers on a scale that we haven’t seen before. What that means for the movie, I think we’ll wait and see.”

“She’s a fighter, a born fighter, and she’s just tough,” said Fleck.

“[We loved] the idea of this superhero who’s one of the most powerful superheroes, but [she’s] like you,” added Boden. “She has this scrappy personality … [a] get-down-and-dirty personality.”

Co-director Ryan Fleck and Brie Larson on the set of <em>Captain Marvel</em> (Photo: Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel Studios)
Co-director Ryan Fleck and Brie Larson on the set of Captain Marvel (Photo: Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel Studios)

Larson certainly took Carol’s brute power to heart. As we previously reported, the 29-year-old Room Oscar winner tested her new muscles with various feats of strength, like pushing a Jeep uphill.

The actress appears to have less patience, however, for the inevitable slew of questions she’s getting (and has gotten since she was first announced in the part) about Marvel’s gender breakthrough, and how this movie could deviate from the MCU formula. “I don’t know how it’s any different,” she said. “To be honest, I don’t want it to feel different. [I’m] kind of over the, ‘First female blah blah blah,’ and ‘Wow, maybe women can actually do the same things that dudes can do.’ What a crazy concept. I feel like the more we talk about it, the more we perpetuate the myth that it’s an impossible task. No, if it wasn’t like that before, it’s because it was wrong. That was just wrong. Now we’re just doing what’s natural.”

Captain Marvel is coming almost two full years after the record-smashing DC franchise-starter Wonder Woman, which not only proved there was a hungry audience for female-driven superhero movies but likely made both DC and Marvel engage in some soul-searching on what took them so long.

Asked what lessons they were able to glean from the success of that Patty Jenkins-directed blockbuster, Schwartz said it was all about gauging reactions.

“What was so great about Wonder Woman was talking to female audience members afterwards about how they felt watching the movie,” he remembered. “And a lot of the people I talked to just said, ‘I’ve never felt like that watching a movie before in my entire life. That character resonated [with] me in ways I didn’t even know a character could resonate with me.’ Which was great to hear, and kind of an amazing thing.

“I think it helped us understand how important movies like this are. So in terms of making the movie feel distinct, I think all these movies chart their own courses anyway. … We don’t want to make a movie that people have seen before. But I think that means making the movie feel distinct, not just from other female-led movies, but from all the other Marvel movies as well, which I think we try to do on every movie. It wasn’t a new challenge, necessarily, but it was one I think we were extra excited for because of the nature of what this movie means to people.”

Joked Samuel L. Jackson, who is de-aged via CGI to player a younger version of Nick Fury: “DC almost figured it out with that movie.” (Or at least we think he was joking. To be perfectly frank, it can be tough to tell sometimes when Mr. Jackson is joking.)

Co-director Anna Boden and Brie Larson on the set of <em>Captain Marvel</em> (Photo: Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel Studios)
Co-director Anna Boden and Brie Larson on the set of Captain Marvel (Photo: Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel Studios)

Like Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince, the emergence of Carol Danvers is sure to evoke feels in audience members — and perhaps present a character with just as much vulnerability as strength. “I think we wanted to make Carol really inspirational. And not inspirational because she was perfect, inspirational because she was flawed,” Schwartz explained.

Having appeared in eight of those first 20 MCU movies (albeit sometimes very briefly), Jackson recognizes the significance of Captain Marvel. He’s also a major booster of Larson, having already twice worked with her in the past (in the monster mash Kong: Skull Island as well as the Larson-directed shoestring-budgeted indie Unicorn Store).

“To know what’s going to happen when this movie does actually hit theaters for women and little girls is going to be amazing,” he said. “Just because of who she is and what her understanding of her responsibility to not the male audience, but the female audience that’s coming to this film. To be able to be alongside her, support her and to give her what she needs to be this strong character questing for self-identity. … It has been a real honor for me. ‘Cause I want Brie to succeed in a very real, very strong way.”

Larson, however, is not making any assumptions on how the film — and her role in it — will be welcomed.

“If it is something, then I want to be surprised. I don’t want to have expectation,” she said. “You don’t get to decide if you’re an inspiration to people or not. … Since I’ve agreed to do this role, people have said, ‘Oh, well, you’ll be a role model, blah blah blah.’ I’m just going to do what feels true to me, and if people want to tag along, they can, and if they don’t, they can bounce, and that’s cool. I’m not going to go out of my way to do things in order to be something to people.

“All of my heroes were just unapologetically themselves. And they were flawed at times, and that’s okay. So for me, it’s part of who Carol is, too. She’s flawed. She’s not perfect. So in order for me to feel comfortable stepping into this position, I have to accept my humanness, and remind everybody that I’m a human, and I’m an artist. And I just want to make art, and that’s really it.”

Captain Marvel opens March 8. Watch another trailer:

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