'Captain Marvel': Everything We Learned on the Set of Brie Larson's Intergalactic Origin Story
By John Boone
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
In May of 2018, ET was blasted into orbit on a Kree spacecraft with the superhero Captain Marvel, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Nick Fury and a shapeshifting Skrull alien. Which translates, in earthly verbiage, to trekking down to the Los Angeles set of Captain Marvel, where Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn are deep into filming Marvel Studio's latest offering.
The production, operating under the code name "Open World," occupies four sound stages at Sony Studios in Culver City. Stage 30 is a big, tan-colored box surrounded by tan-colored boxes with a red "CLOSED SET" sign warning no admittance without authorization. Inside is dimly lit, what light there is bouncing off the blue screens surrounding what is undeniably an enormous alien spaceship. That's the setting for my interviews with the cast and creative team of Captain Marvel and, below, is everything I learned during my set visit.
An Origin Story in Reverse
"At the beginning of the movie, we find [Captain Marvel] on the planet, Hala, fighting on the Kree side of the Kree-Skrull war," explains producer Jonathan Schwartz. "She doesn't have any memory of her life as a human. The movie is about her ending back on earth and realizing that she has these human origins that are tied to much bigger aspects of that war. In many ways, it's a classic Marvel origin story but told in reverse, structurally."
Which means we will meet Captain Marvel before we meet Carol Danvers: "You meet her as an awesome badass super-powered space hero," Schwartz says, "and then learn who the human is behind that aspect of herself."
Though the movie pulls inspiration from the comic books -- especially the tone and voice of the Kelly Sue DeConnick run -- how Carol receives her powers is different on the screen than on the page: "That origin story had to be updated a little bit for a modern audience," Schwartz teases. "I'm really curious to see what fans of the character think about what we've done with that moment."
Captain Marvel is a period piece set in 1995, more than a decade before Tony Stark would out himself as Iron Man, which means plenty of throwback references (like, Blockbuster) and era-appropriate tunes. "There's not a '90s mix CD that she carries with her through the movie, like Guardians might have," Schwartz hedges. "But I think part of the fun of the movie is all the '90s music cues and having fun with the '90s period element."
The origin of the pager from the Avengers: Infinity War post-credits scene will be revealed here. "This movie will lead in a very direct way to what you saw in Infinity War," Schwartz promises. "And it'll lead very organically into what you will see in Avengers: [Endgame]. But for the movie itself, it's its own self-contained adventure. You get a full, complete, satisfying experience that has tendrils reaching into other branches of the cinematic universe if you're looking for them." (For one, a key McGuffin is a Happy Days lunchbox carrying the Tesseract.)
The First Lady of Marvel
Captain Marvel is the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first female title character, a milestone after 20 male-fronted titles. (And one co-headlining female hero in Ant-Man and the Wasp.) "I had a meeting with Marvel and what we discussed is they wanted to make a big feminist movie," Larson says. "The story lends itself to it," co-director Anna Boden, the first female director to helm a Marvel movie, adds. "We're not trying to make this movie about all women. We can't make it about all women's journeys, but just be really true to this woman's journey."
Larson's take on Captain Marvel is something of a wild woman. "The fact that she is just herself and cannot be contained is pretty awesome. It means that she's, like, wild!," she smiles. "I love that she's unapologetic. I love that she's not apologizing for her strength, first as a human in the Air Force. That she's never trying to shrink herself because of who she is. She can't even be somebody else if she wanted to. She can't."
The Captain Marvel of the comics began her superhero career as Ms. Marvel, and her movie will pay tribute to that. "There certainly are aspects of the movie that draw from those early comic books and those early days," Schwartz says, noting the material needed to be updated for the modern viewer. "There is a lot of homage and there is a lot of respect paid to those early days, but with a spin that we think movie goers are really going to enjoy."
In person, the Captain Marvel suit looks slick but functional, with armor-like kneepads and sturdy boots, and less bulky than I'd anticipated. "Marvel has an amazing group of people who work on the visual development for all of their movies and work on those characters," says Boden. "They've been working on the different iterations of that costume since before we even became involved." On this particular day, Larson is also wearing small red plugs around her head. "By the time this shot rolls around, she has gone full binary," Schwartz points out. "There will be a lot of glowing effect and photonic energy circulating around her."
Captain Marvel will be the strongest character this cinematic universe has seen thus far, with a power set even greater than what her comic book counterpart is capable of. "[The Avengers] are up against some really, really tough odds right now -- we saw throughout Infinity War -- so now we need something that's as powerful as Thanos," Jackson says. "At some point, we'll find out how powerful she is and all the things that she's capable of. She's one of the few people in the Marvel universe that can time travel, so..."
His Name Is Fury. Just Fury.
Captain Marvel also doubles as an origin of sorts for Jackson's Nick Fury. (Jackson will be digitally de-aged back to his '90s self.) "It's been amazing to have Sam Jackson on set for this long," Schwartz gushes. "In the past Marvel movies, it's been a pop here or a pop there and they haven't really been Nick Fury-centric. For a lot of the movie, this really is a two-hander between Captain Marvel and Nick Fury."
Nick Fury of the '90s is becoming "disillusioned" in a post-Cold War world. "I've been riding a desk at S.H.I.E.L.D. and trying to figure out where the next threat will be coming from... never thinking that there were extra terrestrials," the actor fills us in. Schwartz adds, "Suddenly, this superhero and these aliens come down from the sky and open his eyes to a bigger universe. So, before he showed up at Tony Stark's house saying, 'There's a great big universe out there, you just don't know it yet,' someone had to teach him that."
The movie will reveal the beginnings of Nick Fury's relationship with his future right-hand man, Phil Coulson, with Clark Gregg returning to the movie side of the MCU's for the first time since 2012's The Avengers. "He's brand new," Jackson says of their dynamic. "He's just joined S.H.I.E.L.D., so he's a rookie and I have to ask his name at a certain point. Who are you again?"
Expect to receive answers to many of your pressing Nick Fury questions. "There are things we talk about in his backstory that haven't been talked about before: where he's from, what he's done," Jackson says. "We talk about him being in the war, leaving the war, being a spy." We'll also see a two-eyed Nick Fury without his signature eye patch and, Jackson states, "You'll see, specifically, the origin of what happened to his eye, maybe."
One fact about his character that Jackson is willing to reveal now is, "That everybody calls him Fury, even his mother." (As for the rest of the Furys, "You will find out that he does have a family, that's referenced," the actor says. "You don't see them, but they are referenced in another way.")
The Original Photon
Marvel fans -- and especially fans of the Captain Marvel comics -- will recognize the surname Rambeau. Monica Rambeau is a longtime friend of Carol's and a superhero in her own right who once held the mantle of Captain Marvel before becoming Photon. In Captain Marvel, we will meet Monica's mother, Maria (Lashana Lynch), an Air Force pilot who uses the call sign Photon.
Maria Rambeau is a tertiary character in the comic books -- a seamstress married to a retired fisherman – but this version reframes her as a single mother and a fighter pilot, both of which radically defined Lynch's portrayal. "Being a female fighter pilot is more than just being strong and being able to do a good job," she explains. "It's a whole life. It means moving around a lot. It means training with only men, especially in the '80s, which is when [my character] would've gone to college."
If Maria shares any of her daughter's eventual superpowers, Lynch hasn't been clued in yet. "I have feelings," she says. "[Marvel] goes by the comics, but they also switch things up to keep us on our toes, to keep us excited. And as a Marvel fan, I'm always excited to see why they didn't go by the comics for that particular detail and how it unravels down the line. I'm gonna say yes for me and a question mark for the MCU."
As Carol is unable to remember her life on Earth, Maria becomes the key to unlocking her past. "Through conversations and through me nailing it into her head that she is her, giving her some history about herself, giving her some might through my words," Lynch says, "it all comes flashing back and she can be herself." As for how Maria reacts to her best friend now being part alien? "She's not scared at all. Neither is Monica."
Yes, Monica is in the movie. Her name is right there on Maria's nameplate necklace -- "That was my idea! I'm proud of it," Lynch exclaims -- and I happened upon a crew member scrolling through movie stills, one of which shows Carol and a young girl (Akira Akbar) sitting on lawn chairs and staring up at the sky. "Carol was very close with Monica. I would say she helped raise her," Lynch says, adding of young Monica: "You see her strength, actually, from the jump. You can see Monica being Monica, even at 11."
I <3 SKRULLS
The entire crew wears "I <3 SKRULLS" pins that Larson handed out on set. Skrulls first appeared in the pages of Fantastic Four #2 in 1962 and have since evolved into a race of technologically advanced shapeshifters. Ostensibly, they are also the villains of the movie. "We're the tough guys of this universe and surrounded by a lot of punks," Mendelsohn teases.
Mendelsohn plays the "face" of the Skrulls, Talos. "I mean, he's bad. He's a Skrull. He's badass," the actor says. "We're going to pull a lot from the comic book mythology about the Skrulls in general," Schwartz elucidates. "Ben's character in specific is something that's been more or less invented for the movie but will make a lot of sense in the context of the Kree-Skrull War."
Captain Marvel finds herself caught between the Skrulls and an opposing alien race, the Kree. "From my point of view, she's a kind of unfortunate human-type creature. They have to be dealt with, these humans, these Kree," Mendelsohn says. "And so what can you do? You've got to interact with them, you've got to infiltrate them and you gotta be able to find out what's inside them."
And then, you shapeshift into them, at which point the Skrull emit a guttural, gurgling noise. "It's a universal noise for malevolent evil," Mendelsohn chuckles, while Schwartz says, "The gurgling is related to the Skrull's shapeshifting. But what is he going to shapeshift into?" We will see Talos in all his green Skrull glory, with his pointed ears and fangs, but Schwartz adds, "Ben gets to play a couple of different parts over the course of the movie that utilize all of Ben's chameleon-ness to adequately portray what these Skrulls are capable of doing."
The set of the Skrull spaceship is so massive it fills an entire soundstage and requires various "You Are Here" maps throughout the structure. The ship is a labyrinth of paneled corridors, low ceilings and narrow tunnels lit up by LED panels, leading into a domed room that, we're told, previously contained a torture device.
The Art of Kree-Skrull War
Captain Marvel is set against the backdrop of the Kree-Skrull War, intergalactic warfare played out over a dozen or so comics in the '70s. It's a substantial storyline to introduce into the franchise, especially bookended by two Avengers movies. "Part of the fun, I think, of the movie is seeing how Earth fits into the Kree-Skrull War mythology and how that affects earth and affects Nick Fury going forward," Schwartz says.
The Kree have been MCU players since Guardians of the Galaxy introduced Kree zealot Ronan (played by Lee Pace), and Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou). Both reprise their roles here, alongside new additions Att-Lass (Algenis Pérez Soto), Bron-Char (Rune Temte) and Minn-Erva (Gemma Chan). The latter Kree make up an "elite squadron of Kree soldiers called Starforce."
Perhaps the most well-known Kree character is Mar-Vell, who assumes the human identity of Dr. Walter Lawson and is the source of Carol's powers in comic book canon. "The character of Mar-Vell in the comic books is really important to Carol's origin story and Mar-Vell is equally important to Carol's origin story in this movie," Schwartz teases. "I think anything beyond that is going to be a little too spoilery."
Jude Law, who plays an as-yet-unnamed mentor to Carol, has long been rumored to be the movie's Mar-Vell, though the actor wasn't on set the day of the visit and no one spoke of his character directly. The closest mention to Mar-Vell by the cast was when Jackson said of the scene being filmed: "We're entering a ship that belonged to a doctor from Carol Danvers' past. She's trying to find some answers to what happened [and] why he was on Earth."
The Kree were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for the pages of Fantastic Four and the movie pulls aesthetically from the source material. "The Kree in the comics always have this sleek, techy world, which is something we wanted to honor in the movie as well," Schwartz explains during a tour of a Kree ship, which is comprised of metal corridors covered in detailed symbols written in the Kree's cryptic language.
Cat Got Your Tentacles
In the comics, Carol's beloved pet cat is Chewie, but he's been renamed Goose for the movie. "It's a Top Gun reference," Schwartz confirms. "Carol's cat friend is a very important part of the comic book that we thought would be really cool to see in a movie. That's where it comes from, and it's awesome."
Goose, like Chewie, is a bit more...complicated than your average tabby. "I've heard the cat referred to as a Flerken," Jackson says. "I didn't know what that meant, so I vaguely have an idea now what that means." It means Goose is actually an alien that only looks like a cat, one that can lay hundreds of eggs and manipulate space and time and has tentacles in his mouth.
Four different cats play Goose. "In order to have a cat on screen, you have to have a team of cats who all have a specialty," Schwartz explains. "So, there's a cat that you hold and a cat that rubs up on your leg, a cat that will swipe at you and a cat that's just the face cat." Reggie is the face of Captain Marvel -- the "hero cat" -- but he shares the role with Gonzo, Rizzo and Archie.
Reggie, whose screen credits include The Hateful Eight, was cast because of his "vibes." "Never did I think I would be auditioning cats, but we did it," Schwartz says. "Reggie was cooler than the other cats. We sat down with a bunch of cats and had them do tricks, and Reggie had the coolest vibes. He definitely had a little bit of attitude, but still would hit his marks."
In addition to the four real cats, there's a stuffed Goose used on set. In one scene, Jackson is holding the stuffed Goose -- which has been fitted with a futuristic muzzle, because Flerkens are harmless when muzzled -- and drops it when the cat comes in contact with the Tesseract. "Obviously they will make the cat look alive," an onlooker advises. "Wait until you see the CG cat," Reggie's wrangler adds. "It's so close to him."
And Everything Else
Genre-wise, Captain Marvel is "a '90s action movie," Schwartz says. "Along the lines of RoboCop or Terminator 2: [Judgment Day] or Total Recall. It's a high concept '90s action thriller."
While both cosmic and comedic, Captain Marvel is no Guardians of the Galaxy. "Tonally, it's not quite the same movie. James Gunn has a very specific sensibility that he imparts on those Guardians movies," Schwartz notes. "Ryan [Fleck] and Anna have their own kind of humor. But there will also be a lot of drama, as well, a lot of emotion, a lot of things you expect out of Marvel movies."
If anything, the Captain Marvel team looked to the Captain America franchise and focused on character-based performances and naturalism. "[Anna and Ryan] had a really cool sensibility and a take on the sci-fi genre that was a little more grounded than I think what we’d seen in some of the other Marvel movies," Schwartz says. "They really liked Winter Soldier and they really liked Civil War and wanted to make this movie feel a little more like that than the Guardians movies had."
Don't expect cameos by Robert Downey Jr. or other MCU heroes. "We wanted to let Captain Marvel carve her own space, especially since she's kind of the first superhero on the scene in the Marvel Cinematic Universe," Schwartz says. "If there was a way to fit Tony organically in the movie or Stark Industries organically in the movie, I think we'd have been up for it. But she gets to have her own turf."
But do brush up on Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S.: "That's an interesting little bit, huh?" Schwartz played coy of the cargo crates labeled "PEGASUS, UNSC" found aboard the Kree's ship. "Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S. plays a big part in the movie. We are going to see more of their inner workings as it existed in the '90s."