‘The Marvels’ director Nia DaCosta makes her mark on Marvel history

Nia DaCosta, director of the upcoming “The Marvels,” has a diagnosis for the recent struggles of superhero movies. It basically comes down to, she says, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.”

Success inevitably breeds bigger budgets. Box-office expectations get inflated. Even superhero spandex can’t sustain endless cycles of wash, rinse and repeat.

“Growth has to stop at some point,” says DaCosta. “As you make more and more films, you want those films to be more interesting, more dynamic and to appeal to different audiences. But that requires risk. And there’s a conundrum where you’re so big that you can’t take risks. I think that’s what the audience is feeling. They’re like: ‘I’ve seen it before, and I liked it the first time.’”

When “The Marvels” opens in theaters Friday, it will be debuting in uncommonly uncertain times for superhero films. There’s talk of over-saturation. DC and Warner Bros. are in makeover mode. Box office-dominance this year has been ceded to Barbie and Mario.

While no one’s doubting the supersized place of superheroes in Hollywood, mass success for Marvel no longer seems quite so automatic. For DaCosta, whose two previous films were the Jordan Peele-produced horror remake “Candyman” and the acclaimed 2018 indie crime drama “Little Woods,” it’s imperative that superhero movies aspire to be fresh and daring — films, she says, like “Across the Spider-Verse.”

“The more we can do that as an industry, the better,” DaCosta said in a recent interview, praising the originality of that animated Marvel movie released earlier this year. “I also think you have to not set your sights on such a big box-office return so then you can comfortably take risks.”

“The Marvels,” which stars Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani and Samuel L. Jackson, isn’t anyone’s idea of going far out on a limb. It’s loosely a sequel to 2019’s “Captain Marvel,” which surpassed $1.1 billion worldwide. By any measure, “The Marvels” is one of the fall’s most anticipated titles.

But it’s also a big-budget attempt to try some new things. It’s the first Marvel movie to feature not just all-female leads but a female villain (Zawe Ashton plays Dar-Benn), as well. DaCosta, 33, is the youngest filmmaker to helm an MCU release. More importantly, she’s the first Black woman to direct a Marvel movie.

“Day to day, I don’t really think about it. But it is nice to finally have a Black woman directing one — it just happens to be me,” DaCosta says, laughing. “What was cool about realizing that, I was sort of like: Wow, I’m the first Black woman. But I’m also the third woman and the fourth or fifth person of color. It was cool to see that I wasn’t just stepping into an all-white, all-male world.”

This image released by Disney shows Brie Larson, left, and Iman Vellani in a scene from ‘The Marvels’

This image released by Disney shows Brie Larson, left, and Iman Vellani in a scene from ‘The Marvels’
| Photo Credit:
Laura Radford

“The Marvels” brings together Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Larson), Monica Rambeau/Photon (Parris) and Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel (Vellani). While originally conceived as a post-“Endgame” follow-up to “Captain Marvel,” Marvel chief Kevin Feige was drawn to the chance to unite Captain Marvel with Rambeau from “WandaVision” and Ms. Marvel of her standalone Disney+ series.

In “The Marvels,” the trio has become linked. Every time they use their powers, they swap places with each other, causing their worlds to collide in comic and surreal ways.

“When I was reading the outline that they sent me initially before I was pitching, I was like, ‘This is insane,’” DaCosta says. “It felt so comic book-y. I was like, ‘Wow, they’re really going for it.’”

DaCosta was drawn to what she calls “a really crazy, sci-fi space opera” that was wacky and tonally different from most MCU films.

“I wanted to honor what they set out to do, which is make something very frankly strange,” she says.

The heart of the film for DaCosta is about the dichotomy of Danvers and Ms. Marvel. While Danvers has been tirelessly doing the solitary work of Captain Marvel out in deep space, Ms. Marvel’s foundation is her family.

This image released by Disney shows, from left, Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel, Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, and Teyonah Parris as Captain Monica Rambeau in a scene from ‘The Marvels’

This image released by Disney shows, from left, Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel, Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, and Teyonah Parris as Captain Monica Rambeau in a scene from ‘The Marvels’
| Photo Credit:
Laura Radford

DaCosta, a self-described workaholic, can relate.

“I mean, this my third film in six years and I’m onto my fourth,” she says. “I’m from New York City and my family’s mostly there and I’ve never shot there since I’ve been working. My mom once forgot to invite me to a family thing because she forgot I was in town. Stuff like that makes me go, ‘I need to connect more.’”

That’s hard, though, when you’re one of Hollywood’s fastest rising directors. DaCosta’s ascent has been meteoric but steady, yet she’s more comfortable with self-deprecation than self-promotion. Instead, her level-headed filmmaking talent — particularly for conjuring atmosphere and playing with perspective — has fueled her success.

DaCosta was speaking from London where she’s preparing to make an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” with “Little Woods” star Tessa Thompson. With the SAG-AFTRA strike holding up all studio productions, DaCosta was itching to get going – and only occasionally pacified by her half-Yorkie, half-Maltese dog named Maude.

After making “Candyman,” a Marvel movie was, DaCosta says, “definitely not in my near future.” But it also wasn’t entirely off her radar. She’s wanted to direct one since she started making films and traces her interest directly to Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man.” She saw it when she was 12. “And I still love it,” she says.

When DaCosta was tapped to helm “The Marvels,” Feige encouraged her to reach out to other Marvel movie directors for advice. The bit that most stuck with her came from “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler. He said simply: “Be yourself.”

“I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ Then I kind of got it,” says DaCosta. “He was like: Just bring yourself to it. It’s a big thing. It’s really a Kevin Feige movie, it’s a Marvel film. But they chose you for a reason.”

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