How did Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the barely known directors behind indie darlings Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind (and not much else), find themselves at the helm of Captain Marvel, one of the most anticipated superhero movies ever?
In the beginning, superhero movies stole screens from independent directors; now, Marvel and DC are hiring those same directors to strengthen their franchises—and maybe give them the kind of cred money can’t buy. As the critical praise for Thor: Ragnarok demonstrated, hiring a filmmaker with a little bit of personality like Taika Waititi can bring a fresh perspective on the clichéd story of superheroes joining forces to save the world from yet another tyrannical villain (for instance: Waititi got Jeff Goldblum to play the bad guy). And as the box office success of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman made clear, having a female director—and a protagonist who isn’t played by a white man named Chris—can take the superhero genre to new heights. It only makes sense, then, that the film adaptation of Captain Marvel finally happened, and that it’s codirected by Boden and Fleck. But their filmography itself features key attributes that made them especially appealing to a studio hoping to bring some humanity and authenticity to its story of an alien woman who trades a latex suit for a Nine Inch Nails tee. They may seem like outsiders in terms of name recognition, but their interest in anxiety, empathy, and culture clash puts them right at home with Carol Danvers.
With only five other films under their belt, Boden and Fleck have nevertheless already made their mark on American indie cinema, working across different genres and always offering intriguing and heartfelt character studies. Starting with their 2006 debut feature, Half Nelson, the duo has repeatedly shown an interest in the human condition. The film earned Ryan Gosling his first Oscar nomination (at age 26!) for the role of Dan, a junior high school teacher struggling with drug addiction and striking up a strange relationship with one of his young female students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), who is herself growing up around illegal substances. In Half Nelson, the hand-held camera used by the director duo always concentrates on the faces of the cast: of Dan, as he talks passionately about history with his young pupils, or when he wakes up on his couch in a stupor, clearly confused as to how he got there; or of Drey, when she sits silently in class and observes her teacher, noticing perhaps what no other kid can. When their eyes meet again, after she’s found him high on crack in the school’s bathroom, they don’t have the luxury of words to discuss what happened, but they don’t need them.
In their follow-up film, Sugar (2008), Boden and Fleck gave their humanist spin to the very American genre of the sports movie. The titular character (real name Miguel) is a 20-year-old Dominican baseball player whose talents allow him to attend spring training in Arizona. The baseball scenes are spatially coherent and physical, but once again, it’s the camera’s focus on Sugar’s face, projecting ambition and fear—of failure and rejection, by his sport and new country—that adds an existential dimension. Actor Algenis Pérez Soto (who returns in Captain Marvel) remains mostly collected, having to show resilience even as doubt creeps up on his self-confidence, but Boden and Fleck rightly trust that simple observation of behavior will be worth a thousand words. In the end, a casual gesture and a glance let us and one of Sugar’s teammates know that the young man won’t go on with his training, and yet the feeling is not of tragedy—this is just the hard reality of the game.
This same empathy toward anxious characters appears even more visibly in Boden and Fleck’s 2010 YA adaptation, It’s Kind of a Funny Story. The protagonist Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is the most nervous person possible: an awkward teenage boy worried about his academic, romantic, and spiritual future who checks himself into an adult psychiatric ward after having suicidal thoughts. Through a voice-over narration (again, this is based on a young adult novel), Craig shares his spiraling inner monologue, while Boden and Fleck visualize this relentless cycle in playful montages or colorful animation: an appropriately convoluted cinematic language to address the messiness of young chronic depression and anxiety.
The antihero of Boden and Fleck’s 2015 gambling buddy dramedy, Mississippi Grind, meanwhile, is the second-most nervous person possible. Gerry (an outstanding Ben Mendelsohn) is divorced, lonely, and mildly addicted to gambling, and he owes money to almost everyone he knows. For these filmmakers, a casino is a smart context in which to explore once again the vicious cycle of anxiety: It is often said that a defeatist mind-set when playing poker or even darts can lead to losses, and as Gerry declares, “some guys are born to lose.” However, even after Gerry starts winning—seemingly thanks to the magical presence of Curtis (Ryan Reynolds)—he can’t help but self-sabotage; his lack of confidence runs a lot deeper than expected, and makes Mississippi Grind much more crushing than it first seems to be.
This fear of inadequacy is key to Boden and Fleck’s oeuvre, and always comes paired with the paradox of a loner longing for connection. Dan in Half Nelson is a friendly charmer (the type of role that Gosling was born to do, and the polar opposite of the taciturn loners he’s been playing lately), but he becomes distant with his colleague and lover the morning after they have sex. And yet he can’t help caring for Drey. The meeting of his addiction and his altruism makes for uncomfortable situations: He shouldn’t have danced with the young girl at the school ball. Connecting when you have anxiety is just as challenging for Sugar, whose all-too-symbolic kiss with a blond, Christian, American girl leads nowhere; Craig in Funny Story projectile-vomits when he’s nervous; and Gerry in Mississippi Grind is too self-conscious to respond to the signals that Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton) sends him in one extremely intimate and moving scene (Ben Mendelsohn holds a kitten then plays the piano for her!).
Gerry’s reluctance to kiss Vanessa seems also to arise from his feeling out of place. “I have problems with money,” he tells her, suddenly, just as they are about to kiss. “I just wanted to tell you about it.” Gerry is playing high sums in casinos despite being broke, and he understands this irony. The same sense of not belonging rules and riddles all the heroes in Boden and Fleck’s films. Their characters often occupy spaces in which they are the odd one out. Dan is a white man in an African American Brooklyn neighborhood, and a white crack addict who finds himself trying to prevent a young black girl from dealing drugs herself. Sugar experiences an intense culture clash when he moves to Arizona and then Kansas City, Missouri, and the filmmakers spend time on the Christian traditions that the young man has to get accustomed to: saying grace before each meal, going to a church meeting, and eating foods he never experienced before. The other side of this coin, of course, is the rare jubilation of finding common ground with people from different walks of life. When Sugar moves to New York, the lights of the city are at first confusing to Sugar, but in this cosmopolitan place, his desire for companionship finds itself fulfilled: He meets with countless fellow immigrants and ex–baseball players who may not be coming from the same place but who, like him, haven’t sustained the pressure of their ambition. He manages to carve himself a place in this foreign world by joining forces with people who share his pain, just as Craig in Funny Story manages to relate to not only the teen goth Noelle (Emma Roberts), but also to the adult, six-time suicidal man Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), as well as an Egyptian patient and a Hasidic Jew.
If the meeting and merging of cultures in these films seems idealistic on paper (especially in Funny Story), Boden and Fleck don’t circle around their difficulties in practice, instead engaging with the discomfort of such encounters: Dan is well aware that his interest in the civil rights movement, as a white man, may look suspicious, and he is careful not to present his way of life and his idea of family as necessarily the correct ones. In one of Half Nelson’s most devastating montages, Boden and Fleck contrast the self-satisfied and denial-riddled dinner conversation among Dan’s family and the genuinely warm exchange that Drey is having with the local drug dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie) and his girlfriend. Dan is quietly mortified by his parents’ and his stepbrother’s vanity and their refusal to notice the bruises on his face, while Drey is being cared for. Sometimes, you can feel stranded in the most familiar places.
Just as they anchor their films in distinct locales with images of landscapes and public places, Boden and Fleck also employ music to both translate their characters’ states of mind, and to make their work belong to a time. Their pop sensibility—in the sense that they aim for the dynamic and the relatable—often makes them veer close to the mainstream, but without compromising the emotional depth of their films. Sugar ends with Moby’s “In This World,” but most of its tunes come from the Dominican Republic; Funny Story is pure early-2000 rock, featuring Broken Social Scene and a discussion about whether a girl like Noelle would really like to see Vampire Weekend live (if “Diane Young” won’t change your mind …); Mississippi Grind gets its ’70s luster from its cool, regionally appropriate blues soundtrack, which doesn’t feel antiquated but rather accentuates Gerry’s very modern self-destructive streak.
The sensitive filmmaking of Boden and Fleck makes them unsurprising picks for Marvel—and especially for the character of Captain Marvel, a woman searching for her place in the world and the universe, who is forced to be both strong and open. In theory, their interest in anxiety could match up with her amnesia as she struggles with false memories, just as her story’s 1990s setting could be well served by their sense for places and periods. But as The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey noted, Boden and Fleck’s “movies [were] forged in the tradition of ceaselessly independent movies you might have seen … in the ’90s.” One wonders whether the paradox of having them direct a franchise film set in that time period may not be putting a half nelson on these generous filmmakers. In the end, this may be a new age of creativity in the superhero genre, or a sign that Marvel’s crippling anxiety and desire for connection with audiences is becoming desperate.
Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.