Female Filmmakers: Past, present and to the future – Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck and ‘Captain Marvel’


Photo courtesy of Disney / Marvel Studios

Story by Maria de Guzman / Contributing Writer

March is Women’s History Month, and during this exciting transitional period of Hollywood where there continues to be demand for diverse stories told by women, it’s important to consider the kinds of stories women have told in order for us to look forward to what they could tell next. Each week, I will be highlighting a different female director and her directing style, as well as examining one of her most popular works.

This week’s female filmmaker is Anna Boden, the co-director of Marvel Studios’ latest installment “Captain Marvel.”

Boden got her start in film school, shooting documentaries rather than fiction film. It was at film school that she met her future directing partner Ryan Fleck and thus began a fruitful collaboration that would spawn future film festival successes. The two started out making documentaries with just a camcorder and a boom microphone.

Breakout success for Boden and Fleck came in the form of their first feature film, “Half Nelson,” which debuted at Sundance Film Festival in 2006 and received critical acclaim. In comparison to the rest of the films that came out that year – “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Departed” were just some of the Best Picture nominees – “Half Nelson” was still within the realm of small independent film but certainly made an impact. Ryan Gosling’s performance in the film earned him an Academy Award nomination and Boden and Fleck suddenly became known names in the film industry.

After “Half Nelson,” the size of Boden and Fleck’s production increased in small increments. When they signed on to direct “Captain Marvel” in April 2017, it was like being launched onto a bottle rocket; the pair went from independent films with modest budgets to a massive Marvel spectacle with more money than anyone would know what to do with. However, at the heart of every film, even with a Marvel film, there are two consistencies that Boden and Fleck value.

One of them is the importance of creating a character-driven story. A major strength in the Boden-Fleck partnership is their ability to center an entire film around a character’s journey.  “Half Nelson” is about a drug addicted history teacher who strikes an unlikely friendship with one of his students. “Sugar” is about a young Dominican man who dreams of playing in Major League Baseball. Even as a grand spectacle, “Captain Marvel” is still a story about a woman who struggles with her own power and identity. In an interview with Screen Rant about “Captain Marvel,” Boden explained that she and Fleck wanted to explore the theme of self-discovery and finding power in our vulnerabilities. It was this strength – along with their solid vision of Captain Marvel inspired by Kelly Sue DeConnick’s version of the character – that convinced Marvel Studios president and producer Kevin Feige that they were the right people for the job.

Another important consistency is the flexibility and trust in Boden and Fleck’s partnership. They started out together making small documentaries with camcorder and boom microphone, and as the scope of their crew members continues to grow with each film, their rhythm remains the same. Boden and Fleck co-write every film together. Sometimes Fleck will be the sole director, with Boden serving as producer and helping out with directing. Most of the time, they’ll be co-directing. Boden has served as editor for all of their films except “Captain Marvel,” when the two relied on other people with more experience with action films to help achieve their goals. Producers, movie studio executives and crew members come and go, but Boden and Fleck remain and rely on each other to achieve their collective vision. With every project, they are each other’s equals.

Boden and Fleck’s partnership and their dedication to character reflect heavily in “Captain Marvel”.

Set in at a time long before Tony Stark even thought about being Iron Man, the film follows Carol Danvers, a Kree warrior who gets caught in the middle of an intergalactic war between two alien races, her nation Kree and the Skrulls. With some of her backstory told in a series of flashbacks, Danvers seeks to not only learn more about her true past but also bring peace when the war is brought to Earth.

Carol Danvers and her relationships with every character play a key part in the film. When we’re first introduced to Carol Danvers, she’s a stoic, no-nonsense warrior who is focused on her mission. She’s impulsive, aggressive and quick tempered. She is at odds with herself, trying to reconcile the practices of the Kree people with her human flaws. It’s only when she develops a friendship with a young S.H.I.E.L.D agent Nick Fury and her former pilot friend Maria Rambeau that she finds the strength in her flaws.

Boden and Fleck’s dedication to the character of “Captain Marvel” is what makes this film so important. At the heart of the film – beyond the explosions and alien makeup – the co-directors tell the story of a woman who struggles to reconcile the person she feels she has to be and the person she already is, which is a story that resonates with many women and girls.

Even with a strong message and devotion to character, the film comes with its own share of flaws. Since “Captain Marvel” is part of a grander cinematic universe that’s nineteen movies in, it’s impossible for it to truly be a standalone film, even if it occurs before “Iron Man.” There are many Easter eggs planted throughout the film that wouldn’t make sense to someone who watched this film by itself. For example, if someone were to watch this film as their first Marvel movie, they wouldn’t have much background of the Kree or its leader Ronan the Accuser, both of which were introduced in 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”.

Because of this film’s deep integration into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the tone of it is a bit strange. Boden and Fleck’s background in character-drive dramas couldn’t really prepare them for fitting in the tone that Marvel audiences had become accustomed to. While there is that signature cheesy Marvel humor and fun action sequences to dated songs, the tone of the entire film just felt like a tug of war between what a Marvel film is usually like and Boden and Fleck’s indie roots.

Regardless of those flaws, it’s still an important to see a female-led superhero film, not just for entertainment, but for representation.

When Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” was released in Summer 2017, there were numerous social media posts of little girls dressing up as a female superhero. At the premiere of “Captain Marvel,” there were little girls dressed up as Carol Danvers. With this film and hopefully many more in the future, there will be a new generation of young females who will aspire to be strong and embrace the power they have within themselves.

If Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck end up returning to the indie drama roots, their Marvel careers far behind them, they’ll still go down in history as some of the leading filmmakers that helped bring female-led superhero films to the forefront.

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