Science (Not Anime) Influenced Captain Marvel Goku-Style Powers in the MCU

Marvel VFX supervisor Christopher Townsend: "We didn't want it to look like she was on fire."

Back, when Marvel released Captain Marvel in theaters (now on Digital HD and Blu-ray), fans and critics pointed out how much Carol Danvers’ superpowers resembled that of another glowing alien who can fly and fire lasers: Goku, the hero of the Dragon Ball anime franchise. But it wasn’t Goku who influenced Carol’s powers in Captain Marvel.

It was, as a matter of fact, science. It was also “one of the hardest things we had to do,” Marvel visual effects supervisor, Christopher Townsend tells Inverse.

Tesla coils, oil on water, fireballs, and even photographs of photon energy, all these and more informed Townsend and the crew who worked with him on the visual cues of Captain Marvel’s solar powers. And it’s a look Marvel will reference going forward, even after Avengers: Endgame and into Phase 4.

“We wanted her to feel incredibly powerful,” says Townsend, a veteran visual effects supervisor who has worked on many films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Iron Man 3 (2013), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017).

“We wanted it to feel it wasn’t her suit that was energized, it was her,” he says. “The energy was coming from her, and that’s difficult when she’s wearing a full body suit. So we talked about ideas. Maybe the suit should be perforated so you can see the energy through. We had visual tests.”

It wasn’t easy. The concept alone, visualizing perhaps the most powerful superhero in the Marvel Universe, was a challenge as imposing as Thanos.

“Trying to create something where she has a bit of over-the-top powers, visualized in a way that feels organic,” Townsend says. “One of the challenges was to create this all-encompassing and powerful look but fitting in with the rest of the film, which was very analog in its indie vibe, which is what [directors] Ryan [Fleck] and Anna [Boden] brought to the film.”

Captain Marvel VFX Superpowers
Brie Larson shines in 'Captain Marvel,' quite literally. Veteran VFX supervisor Christopher Townsend oversaw the development of Carol Danvers' onscreen superpowers.

The beginning started with some early, obvious references: Marvel’s vast library of Captain Marvel comics, her appearances in video games, and even fan art. “Everything that we looked at had all these references for how those powers within the past had shown,” says Townsend, who first worked with Marvel’s visual development artist, Andy Park, on defining Carol Danvers’ superpowers.

But did Marvel reference Dragon Ball Z at all? Not really. “We did look at anime, certainly,” says Townsend, “but it wasn’t the strong influence. I’ve seen Dragon Ball, I know what it looks like, but it wasn’t the intent.”

Deciding what Captain Marvel’s powers looked like was one long journey. Figuring out how it looked in motion was another quest. “You get to a point pretty quickly that you need to see this stuff moving,” says Townsend.

Luckily, the team had early access to Brie Larson shortly after she was cast as Carol Danvers. “We were fortunate to photograph Brie early in the process. We went to Trixter in Germany to start developing the look. We talked a lot about what we didn’t want. We didn’t want it to look like she was on fire.”

So what did Townsend and Trixter want? They didn’t really know. So everyone working looked at “the real world.”

“Out there references of using Tesla arcs, using oil on water, powerfilm being lit up, fireballs, lightning, photon energy photographed on a microscopic level. Every aspect of reality and trying to figure out, ‘How do you capture this energy field?’” Townsend says Trixter, which also worked on Marvel films like Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, and Captain America: Civil War, “took it a long way.”

Captain Marvel Brie Larson
Brie Larson, powering up as Captain Marvel, in 'Captain Marvel.'
Oil on Water liquid light show
Oil on water, a phenomenon that produces a stunning effect which the VFX team of 'Captain Marvel' referenced, among others.

But the climax whereCaptain Marvel really glows — Townsend describes it as “this Binary moment,” referencing the brief time in the ‘80s when Carol became a solar superhero — was handled by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).

“ILM completely developed the look of the Binary, took all those layers Trixter created and continued to develop it,” he says. “Keep it organic and real and science based as much as you can. It is trying to keep it in a world that is still very real. It was a really challenging process to find solutions to.”

Townsend, who assures me that there will be more Marvel movies in the future, says this look for Captain Marvel’s powers will be her look for years to come. “The movies very much are separate, but at the same time we’re all very familiar with what everyone is doing,” he says. “When we come up with a solution we don’t have to reinvent the wheel if we don’t have to. That’s the great thing about Marvel.”


Captain Marvel is available now on Digital HD and Blu-ray. It will be available to stream on Disney+ when it launches on November 12.