For every fan of cinema, there’s that one film that changes everything. It reboots your system. Gives you a new lease on life. Or, perhaps in less dramatic terms, it reroutes your perception of film in general. These rare movies give you a totally new understanding of the art form and can show you what this wondrous medium can do. They provide unforgettable epiphanies and serve as luxurious early showcases for how authentic, inviting, delicate, invigorating, and downright humane cinema can truly be.
To some, such a formative film may be as grand and epic as Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Perhaps it’s The 400 Blows or Richard Linklater’s freeform debut, Slacker. For me, it was 2006’s revealing, deeply absorbing character study, Half Nelson, starring an on-the-rise Ryan Gosling in his first Oscar-nominated role. And, more notably, directed by similarly up-and-coming young talents Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
It’s not merely that the film was very good. And I’m not saying it broke new ground or changed the landscape of cinema. Instead, it completely reworked my perception of film at a time when I needed it the most. At the age of 13, Half Nelson’s intense, quietly compelling, thoroughly unpolished, but altogether meaningful look at drug addiction from a listless public education teacher (Gosling) became a watershed moment. It gave me a window into a world I had never seen before in my suburban upbringing, and it revealed a gentle means of telling stories I didn’t yet know was possible.
Half Nelson hooked me in, and it never let me go. It had such a strong, lasting impact at such an important, intuitive age in my life that, to this day, I’m afraid to revisit the film. I’m worried my early memories will be tarnished or damaged by a more seasoned, maybe cynical eye. Perhaps that’s silly to say, but I don’t want to damage my fond memories of Half Nelson or break the spell it cast on me. I want to savor and forever retain what this beautiful film did for me at such a distinctive, focal point in my early life. It was, in short, a powerful and meaningful experience.
Furthermore, Half Nelson was the start of a beautiful, enduring relationship I’ve held with the filmmakers. For over a decade, I’ve continued to follow the versatile works of Boden and Fleck with keen interest. 2008’s Sugar—their rich, eloquent follow-up to Half Nelson—is a similarly grounded film rooted in sincerity and meaningful character development. 2010’s earnest-if-not-quite remarkable It’s Kind of a Funny Story has charm and heart to spare. And 2015’s riveting Mississippi Grind is an appropriately ferocious and addictive return to form.
In 13 years, Boden and Fleck have yet to disappoint as filmmakers. And they continue to follow a recurring theme: a diligent, unrelenting focus on humble, down-on-their-luck characters working hard—often against insurmountable odds—to overcome their troubles and afflictions. Whether that might be addiction, as it was the case in Mississippi Grind and Half Nelson, or the disorders that plague their worldview, similar to what it was like for the main protagonist in their film adaptation of It’s Kind Of A Funny Story, or the social shortcomings that prevent great talents from reaching their true greatness, which is the struggle for the main character in Sugar.
Boden and Fleck make movies that are essentially about people just trying to get by. They tell stories about the downtrodden, who don’t have everything going their way yet still want to propel themselves past their own limitations, or the world around them, into a place where they can fulfill their dreams.
So when Marvel announced that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s fifth film would be Captain Marvel, the news gave me pause. Not because I didn’t think they were worthy of the project. And it wasn’t that I felt they were selling themselves out. Rather, I just felt like a glossy, high-budget studio movie was against everything these filmmakers stood for as storytellers up until this point.
For artists who make movies about salt-of-the-earth folks, having Boden and Fleck be at the forefront of the latest Marvel movie felt like they were dipping their hands into sugar (no pun intended, given their second film). Not to dismiss the property or suggest this project was beneath them. It just seemed like it was against their usual sensibilities. It wasn’t what I anticipated from them, particularly after Mississippi Grind. Therefore, I was nervous and maybe a little excited to see them take charge of a major film that would be seen by millions of people around the globe. What a time to be alive.
But as I watched Captain Marvel, I became more nervous than excited. The beginning had a nice campy charm, but it was entirely space-bound. For filmmakers who make movies about people grounded in reality, having these opening moments take place completely out of this world was, dare I say, against everything I’ve come to expect from the same storytellers behind Half Nelson.
I’m all for filmmakers expanding themselves and jumping into something out of their comfort zones. I love it, in fact. But the whole enterprise felt strange under their guidance. The thunderous, action-heavy first act of this blockbuster had more of Marvel’s DNA attached to it than the softly-humming works of quiet tenderness I expected from Boden and Fleck. I was confused as to why producer Kevin Feige—who, I must admit, is typically brilliant at picking the right directors for the right individual pieces in his continuously-growing, franchise-connecting puzzle—allowed these two ripe, indie virtuosos to get lost inside his constantly-spinning movie-making machine.
But then, midway through Captain Marvel, it all started to click for me. And I understood why Boden and Fleck attached themselves to this enormous, imposing Disney adventure.
At its core, Captain Marvel is a movie about identity. It’s about our main character, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), trying to discover her role in the mix of two separate worlds: one on Earth and one in the orbit of the planet Hala, where she is known by the Kree alien inhabitants as Vers. She doesn’t know exactly who she is, and it wasn’t clear until the halfway point that the film itself mirrors this disjointed structure. Captain Marvel doesn’t come together quite as smoothly as the viewer would hope, and it doesn’t appear to be as confident and commanding as other impressive standalone entries in this recent phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), including the phenomenal Black Panther and invigorating Spider-Man: Homecoming. In a wayward fashion, however, Captain Marvel parallels the plight of the directors, who are also eager to expand their horizons.
Where Boden and Fleck’s other films have found their characters decidedly stuck in their own ways, Captain Marvel is based around a character who begins to find herself drifting away from her space-based beginnings and must acclimate to new, earthly surroundings. As she makes a crash-course landing in our humble, blue planet (and, of course, a Blockbuster video store), we are given both our first clunky bit of nostalgia pandering and a perfect metaphor for what Boden and Fleck are doing with their latest project. As Carol begins to learn more about her true origins, she begins to form a buddy relationship with Nick Fury (an impressively de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), and we finally begin to see the influence of our previously low-budget filmmakers returning to what they do best.
Boden and Fleck have a deep understanding of what makes characters work, and it’s the little moments in this new blockbuster that ultimately stand out over the flashier action-based beats. That’s not to say the action is bad. I enjoyed some of the fight sequences more than most, based on conversations with my colleagues. But these bits of spectacle don’t have the same impact as our decidedly less grand and somewhat simpler segments taking place in the middle of the film. It reminded me of how Taika Waititi’s influence on Thor: Ragnarok felt more apparent during the middle moments; ironically, when he was away from Earth and Asgard, the two planets our title character finds more familiar.
Where Waititi felt more alive when he wasn’t weighed down by the gravity of Marvel’s machinery style of filmmaking, Boden and Fleck feel similarly free when they have time to let loose and allow some breathing room for our shifting central characters. While Waititi was more comfortable when he wasn’t restricted by the metrics of Marvel or Thor’s usual storytelling mechanics, Boden and Fleck welcome the gravity that is afforded to them in these Earth moments. They seem to relish in grounding their story when the time finally comes.
Waititi didn’t want to be restricted, and he was rewarded when given his opportunity to reunite Thor and Hulk with a bouncy sense of jubilance. In a similar, yet completely different way, Boden and Fleck didn’t feel comfortable until they were weighed down again. Not by the messiness of the superhero story—which they co-wrote—or the listless stream of characters and set-ups the filmmakers needed to put together in this crucial bit of staging for next month’s Avengers: Endgame. No, they welcomed the feeling of being lost, of trying to find yourself in a world that doesn’t exactly work the way you want it to, or being trapped in your own head and your own failings.
That’s the Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck I know, and they finally came into the picture after an extended bit of seemingly impressionable filmmaking. But once the message became clear, I began to breathe a little easier. At last, I was starting to see the bigger picture, and while the film’s sense of identity didn’t come together as well as I hoped when Carol/Vers finally became the Captain Marvel we waited so long to see, the final product accomplished the dexterous and thematic depth I hoped to find. Even if it’s filled with stumbles, I can see Boden and Fleck’s talent shining through in key moments. And while they don’t quite reach the stars, they were always more suited for the ground to begin with. In the case of Captain Marvel, it’s better to appreciate what works than to mourn what doesn’t.
No, this isn’t Boden and Fleck’s masterwork. No, they don’t achieve the same delirious heights as before, let alone what we hoped for with this first woman-led and woman-directed entry into the MCU. But Captain Marvel is still a movie directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. It isn’t the same earth-shattering experience for me as Half Nelson was all those years ago. But that’s okay. It didn’t need to be that movie for me. The target audience for Captain Marvel is a new generation of younger audiences—primarily young girls, though not exclusively them, of course—who see Carol/Vers kicking butt and finding her identity amidst the chaos of her two-planet life.
As kids watch Captain Marvel live up to her namesake, they will hopefully begin to grow in their femininity and rounded personality. They will see Captain Marvel as a gateway into other films with women at the forefront, and they will be opened up to a world of cinema filled with badass ladies who don’t need to prove themselves to anyone but themselves. In that spirit, Boden and Fleck will once again bring the wonders of cinema to audiences just like they once did for me when I rented Half Nelson on a whim and began to see the marvels of cinema anew.
For these wide-eyed youngsters, who are no-doubt ready to take on the world around them during especially dark times, Captain Marvel soars. It’s still strange to acknowledge that Boden and Fleck, of all people, directed one of the year’s biggest films. But I’m also glad we can say they kept themselves grounded to their sensibilities and never lost themselves in the process.
Will Ashton is a Pop Culture writer for CinemaBlend and one of the co-hosts of Cinemaholics. He also co-hosts the It Ain’t Ogre ‘Til It’s Ogre podcast and considers himself a “Garfield Enthusiast.” For now.