Inside Marvel's Long Road to Finally Putting a Female Superhero Front and Center

Carol Danvers' arrival has been a longtime coming.

By Billy Nilles Jul 20, 2019 3:00 PMTags
Watch: "Captain Marvel" Won't Be Like Other Superhero Movies

Welcome to the MCU, Carol Danvers. It's been waiting for you.

With the arrival of Captain Marvel this past March, the 21st film in the wildly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe made a bit of necessary history in the process. Perhaps you've heard, but we'll say it again because it bears repeating: It's the very first one in the studio's history to make a female superhero its star. And the road to bringing the lesser-known, but instantly iconic character, played by Oscar-winner Brie Larson—or any female at all, if we're being honest—to the forefront in a film of her very own was a long, meandering one, full of excuses and outdated modes of thinking butting up against the hopes and dreams of half the world's movie-going population longing to simply see themselves represented on the big screen.

The drumbeat for progress began as early as the arrival of Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow in the MCU's third film ever, Iron Man 2. And, if we're being frank, it never really let up. 

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And yet, despite the twin longings to see a female superhero and a superhero of color get a movie of their very own, each successive film announced by the studio centered squarely on yet another straight, while male. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk's Bruce Banner, Thor, Captain America, Guardian of the Galaxy's Star-Lord, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man; each one with the same XY chromosomes as the last. Sure, there were usually women and people of color in their orbit, but none of them were the stars of the show, the hero who was called upon to save the day. 

And after a while, that sort of pattern begins to send a message. One that ran a bit antithetical to Marvel Comics' rich and diverse history. After all, this was the publishing house that the temerity to introduce the first superhero of African descent with Black Panther all the way back in 1966, before introducing the first iteration of Carol Danvers—hardly their first female hero, mind you—two years later. (Competitor DC had beat Marvel to the punch in terms of introducing female superheroes thanks to Wonder Woman's arrival in 1941.)

20th Century Fox

So, what the hell made them take so long?

The age-old notion that female-led films, let alone one that's trying to appeal to comic book fans, don't sell tickets, inspire enthusiasm, you name it, of course. And, to a degree, those pushing that narrative had numbers on their side. When this current wave of superhero cinema first revved up with the arrival of X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man in 2002, there were a few female-fronted films to make their way to cinemas. In the days before Marvel Studios even existed, Fox, who was in the habit of leasing Marvel characters, granted Jennifer Garner's Elektra a Daredevil spinoff film that bowed in 2005 and was both a commercial and critical failure, recouping only $56 million against a production budget of $43 million. And the less said about Halle Berry's 2004 stinker Catwoman, the better.

At that point in Hollywood's history, the prevailing wisdom—if you can even call it that—was that if one female-fronted superhero film fails, then they all would. And so everyone steered clear.

Brie Larson Meeting a Mini Captain Marvel Will Make Your Day

Marvel Studios would launch their first film, then distributed by Paramount Pictures, in 2008 with the debut of Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man. Central to getting the MCU off the ground was producer Kevin Feige, who was named president of the nascent studio a year prior. And for better or worse, he's been the man who's steered the MCU through three, soon to be four, distinct phases and the Walt Disney Company's purchase of Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009, the gatekeeper who's decided which characters are worthy of making the coveted leap from page to screen. 

By the time the franchise had reached the 2012 release of The Avengers, it was clear that this world-building was a massive success and the studio could very likely do next whatever they please. Soon, the idea of Captain Marvel was being tossed around. "There's obviously a drumbeat that is banging louder and louder that we want a female lead superhero," Louis D'Esposito, co-president of Marvel Studios, told in 2013. "[W]e have strong female characters in our films from Black Widow to Pepper Potts to Peggy Carter and you never know. Maybe there's an offshoot film with one of them. Or Captain Marvel, you know?"


Yet, they stayed the white, male course. And when the massive Sony hack occurred at the end of 2014 unearthed an email from Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, another piece of the puzzle over why came into view. 

As dug out of a trove of leaked emails in May of 2015, an exchange sent to Sony executive Michael Lynton from the summer prior found Perlmutter seemingly questioning the profitability of a female-led superhero film. In the brief email—for which there is no context provided for its existence—he mentions both Elektra (though he spelled it incorrectly) and Catwoman, linking to both of their box office returns, as well as the 1984 film Supergirl. After calling "Electra" "very, very bad," he dubbed both of the DC adaptations "disasters."

Around the time Perlmutter's email had been written, Feige had been trying to do damage control as the voices questioning why Black Widow wasn't getting the star treatment despite Johansson's proven ability to carry action films—Lucy, released that summer, grossed more than $463 million on a budget of $40 million—and the success of female-fronted films like The Hunger Games.

Captain Marvel Movie Posters

"I think it comes down to timing, which is what I've sort of always said, and it comes down to us being able to tell the right story. I very much believe in doing it," he told Comic Book Resources in August 2014. "I very much believe that it's unfair to say, 'People don't want to see movies with female heroes,' then list five movies that were not very good, therefore, people didn't go to the movies because they weren't good movies, versus [because] they were female leads. And they don't mention Hunger GamesFrozenDivergent. You can go back to Kill Bill or Aliens. These are all female-led movies. It can certainly be done."

While Feige wouldn't commit to any solid details at the time, which saw Marvel's slate planned out through 2017 at that point, he did admit that he was hoping to introduce some diversity into the mix. "I hope we do it sooner rather than later. But we find ourselves in the very strange position of managing more franchises than most people have," he continued. "But does it mean you have to put one franchise on hold for three or four years in order to introduce a new one? I don't know. Those are the kinds of chess matches we're playing right now."

Marvel Studios

Speaking with IGN that same month, he copped to the fact that fans were hungry for characters like Captain Marvel and Black Panther to make their way to the MCU. "They're both characters that we like, that development work has been done on, is continuing to be done on. And certainly the public—it's the question I get asked more than anything else," he said. "More than Iron Man 4, more than Avengers 3. That's sort of the first time that's really happened to us, so I think that makes a difference. I think that's something we have to pay attention to."

That October, both Captain Marvel and Black Panther would be announced by Feige as part of the MCU's Phase Three. Speaking about Carol Danvers' impending arrival on the big screen, he said, "This film has been in the works almost as long as Doctor Strange or Guardians of the Galaxy before it came out, and one of the key things was figuring out what we wanted to do with it. Her adventures are very earthbound, but her powers are based in the cosmic realm."

(The following August, and a few months after Perlmutter's infamous email caused a minor bit of outrage, Marvel Studios went under a reorganization that took it out from under the Marvel Entertainment CEO's control, with Feige now reporting directly to Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn instead, leaving him free to chase a more diverse slate than the CEO's tastes might otherwise permit. Coincidence? You tell us.)

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With Captain Marvel on track for a targeted release date of July 6, 2018 (oops) and DC's competing female-fronted Wonder Woman due to arrive in 2017, it was time to put together a film that would come to, unfairly or not, carry the weight of a social movement on its superpowered shoulders. And key to that was finding just the right woman to step into Carol Danvers' costume. But before that could happen, a story had to be written.

Feige tapped the MCU's first—and until then, only—female writer, Guardians of the Galaxy co-screenwriter Nicole Perlman, and Meg LeFauve, co-screenwriter of Inside Out, to handle the script. And as Perlman told WIRED in July of 2015, the task was more stressful than she'd initially imagined. 

Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

"We've been talking a lot about archetypes and what we want this movie to be about and just how to write a strong female superhero without making it Superman with boobs," she told the outlet at that year's San Diego Comic-Con. "Meg and I are doing a lot of brainstorming and we'll catch ourselves and say, 'Wait a minute, what are we saying [here] about women in power?' Then we have to say, 'Why are we getting so hung up on that? We should just tell the best story and build the best character.' And then we have this constant back-and-forth about how to tell a story that is compelling, entertaining, moving, kick-ass, and fun, and also be aware of what those larger implications might be. It's a lot more complicated than just writing Guardians."

Before the role could even be cast, the film would be pushed back two more times, from the original July 2018 release date to November 2018 and finally to March of this year. 

Upcoming Movies

By the next summer, Marvel would finally be ready to reveal who would be taking on the role of Carol Danvers, the former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot whose DNA was fused with that of the Kree, an alien race, during an accident, leaving her with superhuman strength, energy projection, and flight, with Larson, fresh off her Oscar win for Room, emerging as a front runner. And as she told E! News in February, it took some time for the self-described introvert to find herself ready to step out onto that stage at SDCC in 2016 for the official casting announcement.

"Well, it was a longer process, you know? It was a lot of meetings, a lot of privacy, not being allowed to talk to anybody about it," she said. "A bit of time for me to sit with the decision…and then there was the final phone call where I was like, 'I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm going to do it.'"

As she admitted, starring in a film of this magnitude wasn't ever really on her to-do list.

Watch: Brie Larson Says "Captain Marvel" Cast Is "Naturally Very Diverse"

"It was something that I had thought about a little bit just in that I started experiencing more and more that film can be very powerful and that it can transport people. It can bring you closer to yourself, it can bring you closer to people that look different and live in a different place than you," Larson said. "So that concept and knowing that there was a possibility at some point that I could maybe make a movie that isn't just an indie film that's there for seekers, but could be something that's more available to people was exciting to me. But I didn't have big aspirations for that. For someone who's a big dreamer, I don't dream of doing giant movies. I'm not interested in world domination, it's just, I really like this character."

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With Larson's casting secured, it was time for Feige to find the right filmmaker to see this thing through. Or filmmakers, more accurately. With a groundswell of voices pushing for the studio to finally hire a female director for the first time, and after Ava DuVernay's name was briefly mentioned in discussions for helming either Captain Marvel or Black Panther, the filmmaking duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck landed the gig in April of 2017. And with that, Boden made her own bit of history, becoming the MCU's first female director.

As for why Feige decided to entrust the duo, who had, up until that point, only crafted much more intimate, small-scale fare like Half Nelson, It's Kind of a Funny Story, and episodes of The Affair, with bringing the story of the MCU's most powerful superhero to the big screen, he told Vulture that May. "For us, what Anna and Ryan have done so spectacularly well in all of their movies, albeit on a much smaller scale than they're about to do, is create a singular character journey. The stories they've told have been so diverse, but regardless of the subject matter, they can dive into it and hone in on that character's journey."

The decision completed a string of outside-the-box hires that saw New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi handed the reins for Thor: Ragnarok and Ryan Coogler granted the key to Wakanda for Black Panther. And it's one imbued with an importance that's not lost on Boden, herself.

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"Would that it weren't a newsworthy thing that a woman's directing one of these movies. Hopefully, it won't be five, 10 years from now," she told E! News. "It's important that we're conscious of including people, not just women but also people from underrepresented groups, behind the camera as well as in front of it. It's clearly an important thing for Marvel, as well. I can't speak to that as well as they can, but the truth is we have this superhero who's one of the most powerful superheroes we've ever met and it's a woman. Her story is about finding and accepting her true self, and that making her the most powerful she can be. Part of that is rejecting the voices who have told her she is not good enough or that she ought to be a way that she isn't. I feel like a lot of women can probably relate to that. Other people can relate to it too, for sure, but it feels like a powerful message. We wanted to include as many women in the writing and telling of this story as we could."

As Boden and Fleck got to work on the film, taking over screenwriting duties with Tomb Raider reboot co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet, another female-fronted superhero film made its way to cinemas. And the arrival of Wonder Woman in May of that year truly changed the game. It went on to gross over $800 million, becoming the eighth-highest-grossing superhero film ever and rendering Plermutter's email and the thoughts process it represented obsolete. 

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"I've always said, I root for all genre movies because the success of those movies helps us," Feige told Entertainment Weekly in September 2018. "Because not everybody knows the difference between what studio makes what movie or what comic book company what character comes from. So I'm very pleased when any film in our genre [does well] — not just superheroes, but action or sci-fi or anything. The success of Wonder Woman made me very happy because as I've said before in the press, I'd much rather the question be, 'Oh gosh, what did you think about that successful female-led hero that came out a few years ago?' Rather than the question I used to get, which was, 'Are you afraid that people don't want to see a female hero?'"

It also had a big effect on Larson, who took in a screening before she began shooting, as well.

"As a kid, I wanted to be an adventurer," she told The Hollywood Reporter in February. "I wanted to be a smart-ass. I wanted to get my hands dirty. But it wasn't until being in the theater seeing Wonder Woman ... I was like, 'Why is this making me cry so much?' I realized 'cause I hadn't had that, and there was a kid in me that was like, 'Oh, my God. I can do that?'"

Marvel Studios

By opening weekend, all eyes are on Captain Marvel and whether or not it can replicate the DC film's success. Larson, for one, wasn't fazed by the chatter. 

"There's this sense of setting this thing up," she told the trade publication. "I know it's exciting and fun to be like, 'Will it sink or will it float?' 'What's going to happen?' 'Can women exist in the world?' 'We're not sure yet!' But women have been opening movies since the silent era. We have been part of every major art movement. People just push us away once the movement gains momentum and act like we were never really there."

Feige, meanwhile, hoped the film would be able to replicate the success of that other groundbreaking Marvel film that was announced on the very same day as Captain Marvel. "Knock on wood," he told THR, "one will work out as well as the other." Black Panther, you'll recall, made over a billion dollars at the box office and landed the studio its first Best Picture nomination at this year's Academy Awards. 

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Before Captain Marvel could go on to gross over $1.1 billion worldwide, making it the first female-led superhero film to pass the billion-dollar mark and the second-highest-grossing film of 2019, Feige was hopeful that the release was just the beginning when it comes to female-fronted films from his studio. 

"We feel like it'll be the first of many," he told THR. "There were a lot of men in that initial run of Avengers."

Teasing "many [female-fronted] movies to be announced in the near future" when speaking with EW last year—Johansson's long-awaited Black Widow film is officially in development, for starters—the studio head reiterated his commitment to making films like that something of a regularity. "I'm anxious for the time where it's not a novelty that there is a female-led superhero movie, but it is a norm," he told the publication. "And it is less a story of, 'Oh, look, a female hero,' and it's more a story of, 'Oh, what's this about? Who's this character? I'm excited to see that.' And I think we can get there."

As for this film and what fan should take away from it, whether it would leave them in tears like Larson was with Wonder Woman, the actress was hesitant to say. 

"That's what I'm excited to find out. I have no idea, you know? I just try to fit in as many revolutions as possible and tell something that felt true to me and an experience that felt true to me," she told us. "But I feel like the world already tells us so much about how we're supposed to think and feel and what we're supposed to take from things and how we're supposed to live our lives. It's not up to me to decide how people interpret art. That's up to them. It's just something that I made and it's there whenever you want to look at it."

As that unprecedented box office proved, for a great many people, "whenever" was right damn now.

(This story was originally published on March 8, 2019 at 3 a.m. PST.)

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