When “Captain Marvel” opens next Friday, it will be a moment of great satisfaction mixed with lingering frustration.
The film, which stars Brie Larson as that spacefaring comic-book superhero, is the 21st entry in the interconnected Marvel movie franchise since it began in 2008 but only the first to focus principally on a woman.
By now, audiences have grown accustomed to superhero movies that put women in the spotlight. In 2017, “Wonder Woman,” based on DC Comics’ Amazonian warrior, was a worldwide hit for Warner Bros.
Marvel has built its own fortunes on a decades-old supply of costumed adventurers that doesn’t lack for women. And the studio has been criticized for its slowness to create movies emphasizing its female characters.
So what took Marvel as long as it did to reach this point? And will “Captain Marvel” be the movie that makes good on this long unfulfilled potential?
The answer to the first question, at least, lies in a tangle of social, cultural and economic factors. They parallel similar issues that Marvel has faced in making strides toward female representation in its comic books over the past 60 years — efforts that gradually helped bring Captain Marvel to prominence in the publisher’s pantheon and make the movie more likely.
The people behind “Captain Marvel” — the movie as well as the comic books that inspired it — acknowledge the problematic history that led to these more welcome developments.
They also see opportunities for women to have an equal place on the page and on the screen, and for the Captain Marvel character to grow as an icon of female representation and empowerment.
“What Captain Marvel needed to be when she debuted in the 1960s is very different than what she needs to be in 2019, when she’s anchoring a major film,” said Kelly Thompson, the current author of the Captain Marvel comic book series. “The film has her poised to be more important to more people than ever, and comics gets to be the proving ground for the character.”
Marvel, the Disney-owned home of the Avengers superteam, has become an important bellwether of diversity in Hollywood. The studio has broken ground with films like “Black Panther,” its 2018 blockbuster with a black director, screenwriters and leading actors.
In recent years Marvel has also gained a reputation for giving opportunities to filmmakers who don’t have a background in tentpole action movies. That category includes the “Captain Marvel” directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who are better known for low-budget offerings like “Mississippi Grind” and “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.”
Recalling an early meeting with Marvel, Boden said they told the studio, “All we have is the character stuff. And they said, ‘We know how to explode things — we need directors who can tell a story.’”
(“Captain Marvel,” written by Boden, Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, is also the first Marvel movie to have a female director and only the second, after 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” to credit women as screenwriters.)
Larson, an Academy Award winner for the 2015 drama “Room,” said she was initially wary when she was approached for “Captain Marvel” and unsure if she wanted to take on such a high-profile role.
But the actress, who has called for greater participation by women and people of color in the film industry and in the media covering it, said the global rollout of “Captain Marvel” could help bring her advocacy to a wider audience.
She said she felt invested in the moral lessons of her smaller films like “Short Term 12.” But when it came to “Captain Marvel,” Larson said she asked herself, “Could I still do the same thing of caring about the content and making sure it has a message while also playing all over the world? Being able to shape the conversation is what female leadership looks like.”
In Captain Marvel’s favor, Larson said that while other Marvel heroes are weak and lowly at the start of their origin stories, “she was a badass before she got her powers.”
A former Air Force test pilot named Carol Danvers, she gains superhuman abilities from an alien race, and Boden described the movie as a mystery of sorts in which Danvers must investigate her own past.
“As she gets to know herself and embrace what makes her her, she really achieves her true power,” Boden said. “Part of that means rejecting the voices of people who tell her she’s not strong enough and doesn’t belong. I feel like a lot of people will be able to relate to that, particularly women.”
THE CHARACTER OF CAROL DANVERS has been on a journey of her own since Marvel introduced her in the comics in 1968. At the time, she was not much more than a Lois Lane-type love interest for a male hero (an extraterrestrial soldier who was the publisher’s original Captain Marvel).
Marvel, where its audacious editor Stan Lee led a roster of talented writers and illustrators, was celebrated in that era for its inclusivity. But its earliest efforts at female representation can now seem like tokenism.
“You can’t help but think that if Stan Lee wasn’t a conscious sexist, he certainly was so traditional,” said Heidi MacDonald, editor of The Beat, a comics culture website. “He gave his female characters the weakest powers — ‘Oh, I can get very small.’ ‘I can turn invisible.’ ‘I can move a teacup with my mind.’”
In the 1970s and ’80s, Marvel put out its first solo female superhero comics and introduced Spider-Woman and She-Hulk, gender-swapped versions of its best-known characters who were intended, in part, to protect the publisher’s copyrights.
In a nod to the growing feminist movement, Marvel transformed Danvers into Ms. Marvel, giving her a solo series in which she battled intergalactic villains and wore a navel-baring costume.
The character would go in and out of vogue over the years, a period when many women would drift away from comics. The publications became harder to find at bookstores and newsstands, and female readers were alienated by sexist story lines and artwork that reduced women to sidekicks and stereotypes.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, we made comics that were actively insulting to women,” the writer Kelly Sue DeConnick said. “Women left in droves. Because why are you going to read stuff that’s actively insulting to you, that you have to get at a specialty store where you’re not always welcome?”
DeConnick sought to counteract this when she reintroduced Carol Danvers in a 2012 series in which the character finally assumed the title of Captain Marvel and donned a jumpsuit more appropriate to her military background.
In the preceding years, DeConnick said, “she had gone from wearing a gymnast’s leotard with side boots to a thong. It was the most disingenuous thing in the world.”
DeConnick, whose father served in the Air Force for 20 years, said she wanted to inscribe Danvers in the tradition of the pilot aces she’d long admired.
“I grew up on Air Force bases and have a real soft spot for the history of aviation,” DeConnick said. “My argument was, Carol is Air Force — so was Pappy Boyington, so was Chuck Yeager. You can have swagger and you can still be military.”
At the same time, female readers were returning to comics, encouraged by new publication formats and more inclusive plots and characters.
The revitalized Carol Danvers had become a central player in Marvel’s comics universe, and the publisher successfully introduced a diverse array of characters like a young new Spider-Man, Miles Morales, who is of black and Puerto Rican descent, and a new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, who is a Muslim teenager.
Most crucially, said Thompson, the current Captain Marvel author, “Marvel put their support behind these characters. You have to put good talent on their books, but you have to support and advertise for them and push them as premier characters. Let’s not ignore that part of the equation.”
MARVEL’S MOVIES, HOWEVER, DID NOT KEEP PACE. The studio’s earliest releases were focused on establishing core male heroes like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor; though its cinematic universe had included female characters like Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) as members of larger teams, there were no solo films in development for them.
Even Marvel seemed prey to a longstanding Hollywood fallacy that while women will watch movies about men, men will not watch movies about women. “Because women are low-status in our culture,” DeConnick said, “you will aspire up, you will not cross-identify down.”
That perception of the studio appeared to be reinforced by the leak of a 2014 email from Isaac Perlmutter, the chairman of Marvel Entertainment, in which he disparaged female superhero films like “Supergirl” (1984), “Catwoman” (2004) and “Elektra” (2005) for their poor box-office performances.
Similarly, when the Marvel studio was reorganized in 2015, allowing its president, Kevin Feige, to report directly to Disney and sidestep Perlmutter, industry observers assumed that this gave Feige the freedom to pursue more diverse movies like “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel.” (Marvel and Disney declined to comment on this.)
Boden and Fleck, the “Captain Marvel” directors, said it was difficult to escape the grip of Hollywood tradition, in which most genre movies still focus on male leads.
“Even looking at our own films, why did it take us five films to have one about a female protagonist?” Fleck said. “Hopefully we get to the point where these stories are being told all the time.”
Asked what conclusions he and Boden had reached by reflecting on their own body of work, Fleck replied, “We haven’t arrived at the insights yet. I think they’re coming though.”
For all of the unresolved questions that “Captain Marvel” raises, MacDonald, the Beat editor, said that Marvel still deserved credit for getting the movie produced and generating enthusiasm for the character.
“There’s definitely a lot of history that they had to buck to get ‘Captain Marvel’ made,” she said. “They built a real basis for this character and a passion for what she stood for” as well as a fan base that is “very powerful.”
She added, “Is it millions and millions of people? No, it isn’t. But it doesn’t need to be. It needs to be that core, that spark.”
There is no expectation that “Captain Marvel” will match the monumental box-office results of last year’s “Black Panther,” which grossed $1.3 billion worldwide, or “Avengers: Infinity War,” which took in $2 billion globally and ended on a catastrophic cliffhanger that fans have waited almost a year to see resolved. By comparison, Marvel’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” a summer 2018 release that starred Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly, had global grosses of $622 million.
Recent tracking reports estimate that “Captain Marvel” will bring in more than $100 million in its opening weekend, and MacDonald said the movie will probably appeal to multiple constituencies: not only fans of the character and women who want to watch female-led films, but also Marvel obsessives who want to see how it ties into Marvel’s next battle royale, “Avengers: Endgame,” which opens April 26.
“Kevin Feige is very smart,” MacDonald said. “He’s releasing the movie that would be the hardest sell in a position where it’s going to lead into the greatest final act in movie history.”
It’s unclear whether “Captain Marvel” will be the start of a trend or an outlier for Marvel. Hollywood trade publications have reported that the studio is preparing other female-led projects, including a Black Widow movie, starring Johansson and directed by Cate Shortland (“Lore”), and a film adaptation of the Eternals, directed by Chloé Zhao (“The Rider”). But Disney said it could not confirm Marvel’s development slate.
Whether “Captain Marvel” can be a harbinger for other movies like it, Larson said, “is a larger question, a systemic thing.”
“That change is scary,” she said, “and it takes time for it to come. It’s slow but it’s happening.”
The only way such progress can happen, Larson said, is if she and her peers use the influence afforded by movies like “Captain Marvel” to strive for further changes and to make them permanent.
“Part of why I’m pushing really hard now is because I do have a little bit of power, and I’m going to use it,” she said. “You don’t know when it’s going to shift again or who’s going to have the power next. But I’ll push it as far as I can. Because it’s the right thing to do.”