From one angle, the movies that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe are about as ambitious as filmmaking gets. They’re epic-scale, mega-budget, multi-character operas, all tied into a Very Big Story, and designed expressly to rake in big bucks. From another vantage point, though, the Marvel movies are a series of limited opportunities: flat-looking, box-ticking widgets that can’t ever be too distinct, lest they distract from that Very Big Story.
Marvel’s choice in directors has everything to do with that stylistic conformity. After entrusting the early films to Hollywood veterans (Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor), the studio started to get a little frisky. Joss Whedon piloted The Avengers, and Edgar Wright was lined up to write and direct Ant-Man, the idea being that these talented comic-fan directors would add a little nerd-verve. Whedon’s two Avengers movies were massive hits, but he exited the franchise after explaining that the second film left him "beaten down"; Wright and the studio, meanwhile, never saw eye to eye, and Ant-Man was eventually pushed through by Bring It On director Peyton Reed. From there Marvel turned to extremely competent craftsmen like Joe and Anthony Russo, who made their name directing episodes of Community, to handle the biggest brand-expanding films: the Captain America series, as well as the forthcoming Avengers sequels. In recent years, the studio has shifted again: Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn proved these movies could have a sense of humor, Creed director Ryan Coogler was hired to write and direct Black Panther, and New Zealand oddball Taika Waititi is responsible for this fall’s Thor: Ragnarok. Of late, Marvel has looked like a studio more comfortable than ever with the idea of directorial voice.
This week provides further evidence that Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is relaxing his grip. Variety reported Wednesday morning that Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson and slated for a 2019 release, will be directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. This is … surprising! Boden and Fleck are best known for a few well-loved indie movies: Half Nelson, which gave us Serious Ryan Gosling; Sugar, a muted and brilliant look at a Dominican minor leaguer in Iowa; and Mississippi Grind, a lovely little gambling movie starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn that is catnip for movie bros everywhere. Boden and Fleck’s films are small-scale, character-driven affairs, more interested in exploring silence than firing off one-liners. The idea of the two of them applying that sensibility to a massive Marvel picture is exciting — not least because Boden will become the first woman to direct a Marvel movie.
It’s plenty common now for massive franchises to draft filmmakers (especially white men) from the indie talent pool. That’s how Colin Trevorrow went from directing Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World, and then Star Wars. And as Variety notes, "Boden and Fleck have experience in both the TV and film world, which Marvel considers a strength." But in the context of the Marvel Universe, their hiring suggests that changes are afoot. The Captain Marvel news comes a day after a series of orchestrated press visits to Marvel Studios revealed a little bit about the company’s upcoming slate, most interestingly 2018’s Black Panther. That movie — written and directed by Ryan Coogler — will be the first of the studio’s prestige-aspiring efforts to hit the screen, and the early reports are promising. The cast — Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela freaking Bassett, like 12 other extremely talented players — is tremendous. And, per Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan, "Black Panther doesn’t look like any of the other Marvel movies," in part because Coogler eschewed Marvel’s in-house crew for his own cinematographer, composer, and cowriter. Things are looking up.
The Black Panther reports suggest that Marvel has learned a thing or two since it punted Wright off of Ant-Man, and that its efforts to place these movies in the hands of talented directors — while letting them be who they are — is genuine. Cast in that light, Captain Marvel just might be the kind of emotionally intelligent feature that Boden and Fleck like to make. The Titanic that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe is hard to steer — but it’s encouraging that Marvel is letting some excellent directors try.