Nia DaCosta survived the roller coaster of making “The Marvels,” but London’s rush hour traffic threatens to make her sick.
It’s late October, weeks from the Nov. 10 release of the $250 million superhero movie, and DaCosta is conducting a Zoom interview from the back seat of a car as it inches toward her home. “I apologize for the motion,” she says.
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The setting is apropos for how DaCosta’s life has played out over the past seven years — racing from one project to the next. DaCosta was 28 when her debut feature, “Little Woods,” starring Tessa Thompson and Lily James, won the Nora Ephron Award for female filmmakers at the Tribeca Film Festival. Then, with 2021’s “Candyman,” she became the first Black female director to hit No. 1 at the box office on opening weekend. When that milestone was announced, she was already on set for “The Marvels.” At 31, DaCosta became the youngest person — and the first Black woman — to helm a Marvel Studios picture.
“Kamala Harris tweeted about it before it was officially announced, and I couldn’t respond,” DaCosta recalls, laughing. “I feel like it really ruined my moment to connect with her.”
She’s got the vice president talking, but how does DaCosta feel about shattering so many glass ceilings?
“Most people seeing the movie aren’t going to know or care about that,” she says. “For other young Black women who want to be filmmakers, I think it’s important to be an example.”
“The Marvels” centers on three heroes: Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel (Oscar winner Brie Larson), Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani). It’s a direct sequel to 2019’s “Captain Marvel,” which introduced Carol and her “niece” Monica (played by Akira Akbar), but also picks up threads from the Disney+ shows “WandaVision,” where Monica is all grown up and gets her superpowers, and “Ms. Marvel,” which chronicles Kamala’s superhero origin story.
The all-female team-up movie makes good on the promise of “Avengers: Endgame” and its six-second sequence in the fight against Thanos where all the MCU’s super-women rally behind Captain Marvel. With “The Marvels,” DaCosta gives fans an hour and 45 minutes of that same energy as the trio join forces to face a new villain — also a woman (Dar-Benn, played by Zawe Ashton).
DaCosta’s pitch was punctuated by a few big ideas: First, she wanted to make a movie that was “fun, funny and full of heart.” “What I like about Marvel films is that they have a consistent energy,” she says, “but they can feel really different depending on what the vibe is or who the filmmaker is.”
She also wanted to satisfy the Blerd (Black nerd) in her, who’d grown up absorbed in comic book culture. The Brooklyn-born filmmaker was especially keen to tell Kamala’s story because she was a huge fan of the Ms. Marvel comics, which debuted when she was in her teens. “Usually I’m not like, ‘I like this person because I see myself — a tri-state area nerd who loves superhero and comic stuff and writes fan fiction,’” DaCosta says. “But she’s a great street-level hero, an heir to Spider-Man.”
The director was also intrigued by the complicated dynamics between the characters — who are physically entangled due to their light-based superpowers, but also have emotional ties, which grounds the high-flying film.
“These three women are basically like sisters: Carol’s the oldest, Kamala’s the youngest and Monica is in the middle,” she notes.
Monica is wrestling with the grief of losing her mother Maria (Lashana Lynch) and feeling like Carol abandoned them, while Kamala must learn that her idol is just another person. Carol’s journey is about learning that the fate of the world doesn’t rest wholly on her shoulders. “Because Carol has been on her own for so long, it was important to show what it is actually like, for this woman to live a life where she thinks she’s the only thing holding everything together. Which is a story that a lot of women can relate to.”
Isn’t that a lot like directing? “Directing is incredibly lonely,” DaCosta admits, recalling that she’d once heard Mira Nair say the same thing, but didn’t understand the sentiment until she had a few projects under her belt.
But when she first signed on at Marvel, longtime executive Victoria Alonso (who’s since exited the company) called to let her know she wasn’t going to shoulder the big-budget burden alone. “She was like, ‘This is going to be like the hardest thing you’ve ever done; it’s also going to be the most fulfilling. We’ve got your back.’”
While DaCosta found the Marvel team to be incredibly supportive, working within their machine was an exercise in learning to “Trust the process.” Early in the production, Larson — who’s appearing in her fifth Marvel title — encouraged the filmmaker to brace for change, advising her not to hold on too tightly to anything.
“I was like cool, but here’s what I can tell you. Yes, set pieces will change and script pages will change, but the reason why they wanted to make this movie in the first place, and why I’m invested in this emotionally, are these things. … As the script changed and evolved, the specifics of that emotionality was always the same.”
But that doesn’t mean transitioning from working as an indie director to a Marvel moviemaker is easy. “There is an adjustment that has to be made in channeling your filmmaking through that system,” DaCosta says of the company’s unique process — which she found endlessly fascinating. “They’ve built something that’s never existed in cinema before.”
She particularly relished watching Kevin Feige come up with ideas using a scene she’d shot for “The Marvels” as a tag to “Ms. Marvel.” That’s the kind of stuff she geeked out over. “I wanted so much more of his time. I was like, ‘Can we please be best friends? Here are all my ideas.’ I pitched him so many movies over sushi,” she adds, laughing. “He’s just a very good guy who just really loves what he does, and that’s all you could ask for in a boss and a collaborator.”
Fan theories also come with the Marvel territory. As a fan herself, DaCosta loves an Easter egg hunt, especially when they’re elaborate. But now she’s been in Marvel’s inner sanctum, DaCosta can authoritatively say that “sometimes stuff is just a coincidence.”
When it comes to speculation around this film, there’s no chance of DaCosta spilling secrets. Oh, the Bifrost bridge featured in the film’s teasers has made fans think either Thor (Chris Hemsworth) or Valkyrie (Thompson) could appear? “It’s so interesting that you’d say that,” DaCosta replies elusively. “I won’t squash any dreams. The dreams can be squashed or fulfilled when they go see the movie.” (Of course, Marvel spoiled that bit for her earlier this week by revealing Thompson’s cameo and teasing yet another.)
But she will address another theory: the film’s first trailer was scored with the Beastie Boys hit “Intergalactic” and beyond its obvious cosmic connection to the movie’s space setting, fans interpreted the song choice — which DaCosta credits to her editor Catrin Hedström — as a little bit of trolling. The lyrics, “Well, now, don’t you tell me to smile,” seemed especially pointed, evoking an early scene from the first “Captain Marvel” where Carol is approached by a smarmy biker who revs his motorcycle engine to get her attention and says, “You got a smile for me?” When Carol doesn’t react, he calls her a “freak” under his breath and heads into a store at an L.A. strip mall. Her revenge: stealing the jerk’s bike.
With that context in mind, choosing “Intergalactic” felt like a middle finger to all the haters of the “Captain Marvel” franchise (of which there are alarmingly many). But, for DaCosta, it wasn’t that deep.
“That’s the first time I’ve realized that those lines are in the song,” she says, responding to what I thought was an obvious question. “I cannot say that that was on purpose on my part. Sorry to be disappointing.”
Of course, there’s the slightest chance DaCosta’s playing politics instead of further enraging a particularly dark corner of the internet. Like other IP-based movies that star women and people of color, the impending release of 2019’s “Captain Marvel” met with such malignance that Rotten Tomatoes changed its policy to bar audience reviews on unreleased titles. In 2022, “Ms. Marvel” faced the same level of internet hate. And now, any post about “The Marvels” is flooded with comments criticizing Disney for “going woke” and rooting for the film to flop.
DaCosta is familiar with the negative side of fandom — after all, she’s been a “big ol’ fan of nerdy shit for a long time” — but she’s not letting it get under her skin.
“There are pockets where you go because you’re like, ‘I’m a super fan. I want to exist in the space of just adoration — which includes civilized critique,” she explains. “Then there are pockets that are really virulent and violent and racist — and sexist and homophobic and all those awful things. And I choose the side of the light. That’s the part of fandom I’m most attracted to.”
“The Marvels” — the MCU’s 33rd movie — premieres two days after the director’s 34th birthday. “This birthday is sort of like ending this chapter of my life,” DaCosta says. “I did these three films back-to-back. They were each so unique and so special and so different. And with each film, I was able to grow as a filmmaker, and rise to different heights in my career and in the industry. It’s nice to have a ‘What’s next?’ moment after doing a Marvel film.”
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