The Superhero Issue
Indie auteur Nia DaCosta shows off her comic book roots in 'The Marvels'
“I like to call myself Marvel trash.”
Getty / Marvel / Inverse photo illustration
In Little Woods, written and directed by Nia DaCosta, two sisters in rural North Dakota, Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James), struggle to survive in the wake of bad decisions fueled by a lack of options and their mother’s death.
There is a quiet desperation throughout the film; a haunting reminder of how poverty can have devastating consequences. It was a stunning debut that DaCosta followed up with Candyman, a sequel to the 1992 film of the same name, which updated the urban legend with a more complex and nuanced telling.
“How do you actually deal with being the most powerful being in the universe?”
Now, DaCosta is working on her third film, The Marvels, a sequel to Captain Marvel, the 2019 film that introduced the moviegoing public to astronaut, test pilot, and superhero Major Carol Danvers. The Marvels, like all Marvel projects, is hotly anticipated, but DaCosta is rising to the occasion. The native New Yorker is currently in England where she is hard at work on her current project. We spoke by telephone as she drove home after a full day of filming about what it’s like to work on a really big film, how she empowers women characters, and the limits of collaboration.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Roxane Gay: This is your third movie and each movie has gotten progressively bigger. Now, you're making a Marvel film. I’ve read you didn't want to only get stuck making small movies, so what are some of the pleasures of making a really big movie?
Nia DaCosta: You get to work with the best people in their field. My gaffer's amazing, my grip is amazing. It's been a really interesting experience because I've always had great crews, but there's something interesting about feeling like we were just totally in good hands at this huge scale.
My first film, if we didn't get it within the schedule, it was never going to happen. There was no additional photography. There was no, “Don't worry, shoot it till you get it right, we'll come back the next day.” Whereas on this, I'll be like, “Oh God, I have to rush,” and they're like, “No, don't rush. Don't finish it today, finish it tomorrow.” Having those resources is so helpful to tell the best story you can.
RG: Resources go so far when you want to make something really great. It's amazing what gets made without resources. Now, superhero films often follow a pretty strict formula. Are you able to challenge that formula to bring your own aesthetic to The Marvels?
ND: That's a really good question. For The Marvels, my biggest thing going into it was making sure I approached these characters as human beings and not necessarily as superheroes. I want to know more about Captain Marvel. Who is she? What are her fears? What drives her? How do you actually deal with being the most powerful being in the universe? How does that weigh on you? That's the sort of thing I want to explore.
RG: How do you then take a character and allow them to be a hero? And how do you define a hero?
ND: Someone who's trying their best with the information and resources and tools they have at the time. They'll always get it wrong. Heroes are complicated in a real-world sense because they are basically vigilantes; they don't have any oversight. Half the time no one's even asking for their help. It's tricky in that way, but integrity is a big part of it, choosing to put others before yourself, that sort of thing.
But then also, something I've always found interesting about a character like Superman or Batman is that their power is equal to their pain. In terms of the most successful heroes, no matter how much power you have, you never really have control over yourself. That's something you see in characters like Magneto, for example. His emotional life is always going to overpower his actual power.
RG: I think a lot about superheroes and pain, especially with Batman, I’m a little obsessed, because I’m always like, “You're a billionaire.” Now, I know you can't replace parents, but, “Sir, let’s process and get some therapy here.”
ND: I think it’s a burden.
RG: It is a burden. It’s always a burden, in fact. When you were doing press for Candyman, you noted that racism tends to make people unwilling martyrs, which is so very true. We see it all the time. And superheroes are often unwilling martyrs, though under vastly different circumstances. Do you see a connection there?
ND: Oh wow. I didn't think about it in that sense, but I think Candyman, especially in the way we shifted his lore bit in my film, is a hero. Something I like to say a bit flippantly about Captain America is that the Snap is all his fault because he was trying to do his best, trying to do the right thing. There is a world in which he’s a villain because, at the end of the day, he should have just sacrificed Vision. He chose one robot’s life, albeit a sentient one, over literally the entire universe. There’s a sort of anti-hero in that if you want to look at it through that lens.
“Something I like to say a bit flippantly about Captain America is that the Snap is all his fault.”
People would say I’m crazy for thinking that way, but there’s something connected to the journey of the anti-hero and the hero. The hero’s pain is something that spurs them to martyr themselves, and an anti-hero’s pain is a thing that kind of starts their journey as opposed to ending it.
RG: In The Marvels, I’m excited we’re not going to just see Carol Danvers, but also Kamala Khan and Monica Rambeau taking center stage. How are you allowing them to have space in a movie where people are inherently going to see Captain Marvel as the main character?
ND: It’s interesting, and something we thought about and worked through a lot, which was how do we get each of these really big, exciting heroes space in a two-hour film? Captain Marvel has a history from the first film, Kamala will have her Miss Marvel show, and Monica Rambeau, we’ve only seen her a little bit in WandaVision. A lot of what we've been thinking about is what part of the journey do we need to see for each of them? How do we honor the part of the story they're at in terms of the canon, while also within our story making them equal?
RG: How much of the canon were you familiar with? And what kinds of research did you do to feel well-versed in the canon?
ND: I like to call myself Marvel trash. Actually, my friends call me that. I will go see all the movies. Even if it’s bad, I’m like, “Well, there are some good things about this.” I grew up with the comics. I grew up watching the Spider-Man cartoon and the Fantastic Four. I knew a lot about the Marvel universe in general.
“I like to call myself Marvel trash.”
But my research was going into the history of Carol Danvers first and foremost, because it is a crazy wild ride, what they did to her in the comics in the ‘80s. And then with Monica, she’s really fun, her origin story and her introduction in the comics. I tried to not get overwhelmed because, as with most comic book heroes, there are like seven different origin stories and there’s different power sets that kind of contradict and don’t really overlap well. It was really choosing what’s been established already in terms of the MCU and then what’s going to work, most compellingly, for our story. You read enough so you can stop reading, in a way.
RG: You're now the youngest director to helm a Marvel film. Do you feel the pressure of expectation, and if so, how do you shoulder that pressure?
ND: I do, but nowhere near as much as I’m aware I should. To get through the day and to get through this movie I am just like, “I’m doing a cool job. It's really great that I like my job a lot.” Every so often, I’ll have a “Holy shit, I’m making a Marvel movie” reminder to myself.
“I’m doing the best I can as a fan as well as a creator and storyteller.”
How do I deal with the pressure? Something I’ve been exploring since the pandemic started is work/life balance. This is my third movie in four and a half years, and that’s too much. I’m trying to put less significance on my worth through work. That helps me shoulder that pressure because I’m also thinking, “Am I a good friend? Am I a good sister? Am I living in the right city?” I also try to come at it like, I’m a fan. I'm doing the best I can as a fan as well as a creator and storyteller.
RG: I saw Little Woods and loved it. It’s so rare to see a story about a Black woman in the Midwest in really the middle of nowhere. How did you come to this story?
ND: I wanted to tell a story about two women who lived in a rural part of the country and who were dealing with poverty because I had this moment of realization that I grew up not super well off, but I grew up in New York City. And from where I live now, I can literally walk to a hospital. I can sit on the train and travel really quickly from place to place. I have so much at my fingertips. Whereas if you’re living in, say, Williston, North Dakota which is basically around where the fictional Little Woods is set, there is only one hospital for like thirty miles, and if too many women are having babies at the same time, they don’t have enough beds.
It’s something I’d never even thought of before. I was like, “Okay, I need to explore this, and I want to tell a story about this because it’s important.” Then I went about figuring what I wanted the story to be.
“No, dude, this is fucking America in the year 2017.”
I knew women’s healthcare had to be a part of it. I realized, “One of the characters needs to get an abortion and it’s going to be really difficult.” And so I asked myself, “Where’s the hardest place in the contiguous United States to get an abortion?” At the time it was northwest North Dakota. Now it’s anywhere near Texas basically. I was in a writers’ group at the time in Brooklyn, and one of the people said, “Is this post-apocalyptic? Is this in the future? Or...” I was like, “No, dude, this is fucking America in the year 2017.”
RG: You want to make stories where women are active rather than passive, which is something I think about all the time in terms of women in film. All too often, we’re just set dressing. Things happen to women characters; they don’t instigate anything. I was curious, and broadly speaking, what are some choices you make as a writer/director to keep women active in their own stories?
ND: That’s such a good question. I try to make as many of them as possible main characters. I try to make sure what they do affects the plot in a real way. God, I do think about this all the time, especially when I have women of color and white women in the same story, it’s like, “Okay, are they relating to each other, and is one able to speak more or move the story forward more, and what’s the balance there?” The simple answer is making sure that the decisions they make push the plot forward, but also that they’re motivated by character.
RG: You’ve directed two movies you’ve written or co-written. What are the benefits of being able to direct your own script and have that control and ensure women are self-actualized?
ND: It’s so great to direct something I’ve written because there’s so much emotionality I have to have on the page first. I need that freedom to go beyond the page, but it’s really helpful when I’m the one who started the page in the first place.
RG: Do you find yourself to be a control freak? I ask that as a control freak.
ND: Sometimes I worry I’m not enough of a control freak as a director, but once I see the thing I want or something that’s better, I’m happy. It’s so important for my actors, especially my female actors, to have agency, because I have a lot of friends who are actors and just to hear the stories about feeling like they have no control over their bodies or image, what they say. I’m just like, “Oh no, that’s not how we work. We collaborate in my house.”
RG: Collaboration is important to your process. Do you find ever that there are limits to collaboration?
ND: All the time. When we bring the actors in, I'll usually say, “I would love to see what you guys want to do here. I’ll let you know if you're standing in a place that's terrible for camera.” When I say it that way, it’s reminding everyone, this isn’t regional theater in the park. We are making a movie, it has to be specific, we’re all technicians at the end of the day, but I want you to also feel like you own the space.
RG: I have one final question, something I love to ask any creative person. What do you like most about your work and how you do it?
ND: I like the emotionality of my work because I really do love working with actors and I love bringing out different sides to them. Working with Tessa on Little Woods was so gratifying because she’s a phenomenal actress and being able to see those sides of her was really great. I’m good at that, but also, when I watch my movies, movies being two of them, I’m often just really, really happy with the performances, and I feel the journey of my characters.
The Inverse Superhero Issue challenges the most dominant idea in our culture today.