In terms of domestic dollars earned, Captain Marvel is the biggest movie of 2019 to date. As of this writing, it’s soared past the $350 million mark and topped $650 million across the globe. That’s a full-on billion for a film based on a character many less-versed in comic books were only made aware of recently (or had confused with Zachary Levy‘s superhero character, Shazam!). Arriving a decade after the genesis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain Marvel also represents a culmination of sorts. First, by going out of its way to bring the U in MCU back to Earth; and second, by putting its makers, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, on the map.
That’s not to say the pair was unknown before. Boden and Fleck have spent almost 20 years making things together and apart—including documentaries, short and feature films, and various episodes of television—while carving out their career niche. Over that time, the ambition of their productions has grown, while still remaining small-scale. None of Boden and Fleck’s previous work suggested they’d find themselves writing and directing a big budget comic book adaptation together, let alone banking major Marvel money. On that latter note, the pair’s career can now be deemed an unequivocal success, all those years of toil amounting to the steadiest paycheque in Hollywood.
Yet in recalling
Half Nelson (2006), their debut feature film, it’s possible to see how Boden and Fleck got to this surprising new high point, while noting what’s been lost in the process. We can surmise what the career boost was worth then, but also track the cost.
Set in Brooklyn, Half Nelson revolves around two characters: teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) and student Drey (Shareeka Epps). They’re from contrasting backgrounds, of differing races, and stand by the nature of their relationship in opposition to each other. The playing field between them is levelled when Drey discovers her teacher’s weakness: Dan is a drug addict. He’s hiding his habit and carrying on as if it’s not getting worse. Based on Boden and Fleck’s short film Gowanus, Brooklyn (2004), Half Nelson expands from there to address working-class stresses, race relations, and the legacy of addiction with a clear-eyed empathy. Despite this breadth, the film could have been just another precious indie darling, beloved at festivals and under-seen everywhere else. Then Gosling earned a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and attention came Half Nelson‘s way.
Gosling is merely an obvious entry point to the film, though. He, along with future Marvel-ite Anthony Mackie, does imbue Half Nelson with much of its easy charm; but for depth of feeling, the film leans instead on Epps’ steely and singular debut performance. Coupled with note-perfect supporting turns—from Dennis O’Hare, Deborah Rush, and others—the film constructs a small lived-in world, one appearing to create itself as it goes along. That spontaneous energy is fostered by Boden and Fleck’s behind-the-camera work, their naturalistic writing, and the film’s carefully balanced emotional dynamics. In effect, the film owes something to the gambolling aesthetic of the ’70s—albeit one filtered through an unmistakable mid-00s vibe.
It’s precisely that filter, however, that makes any Half Nelson remembrance a mix of fondness and embarrassment. For all its qualities, it’s still very much a “first” film, one filled with a relatable and almost painful earnestness. The same can be said of Gosling’s nominated performance, which is vulnerable and full-bodied but also laughably strained when viewed against the longer run of his career. The film does take risks, it’s just clear that Boden and Fleck are still finding their voice—and relying on some easy clichés, like that of the white saviour, instead of pushing their narrative into new territory. And unlike many of its ’70s forebears, Half Nelson closes on a happy ending, one not entirely earned by its troubled protagonist. It takes more than a clean shave to rid a person of drug addiction, after all.
Still, it’s telling that Boden and Fleck build a discussion of dialectics into Half Nelson as both an overarching motif and a broader artistic statement. While Gosling’s Dan explains the concepts of change through conflict, the film finds tension between its standard inspirational teacher-student narrative and its looser, more exploratory elements. At their best Boden and Fleck’s filmmaking is this idea in action; they create characters that feel real, use places that actually exist, and illuminate characters’ lives that could continue on after the film comes to an end. The final product is truly a show of oppositional forces, an unruly fight against a storyteller’s impulse for completeness.
Boden and Fleck’s second feature, Sugar (2008), finds them at the peak of their powers in this regard. In description the film is a staid underdog sports movie about a Dominican baseball pitcher named Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto). Along the way, however, it transforms into a moving portrait of one more immigrant in America—and ends on a believably bittersweet note. In the decade since, Boden and Fleck have written and directed two more features, the forgettable adaptation of It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010) and the return-to-form Mississippi Grind (2015). The former is noteworthy as Zach Galifianakis’ first strong dramatic turn; the latter employs both Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds to supercharge the film’s charisma, and its randomness. The common thread in all of them: the films are strongest when threatening to fly off the rails.
This is what makes Boden and Fleck’s choices in Captain Marvel so disheartening. In its conclusion, true to Marvel movie form, plot threads are left dangling. Except we know exactly where, when, and how Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) will be back. Boden and Fleck are still earnest in their writing, crafting a story of female empowerment, but they’ve lost their unpredictable energy. The uncertainty of their early career is gone now, but it’s translated to their films too, been stamped flat by the sheer competence of the Marvel machine. Boden and Fleck’s early films, meanwhile, didn’t pay off at the box office, but they at least amounted to a distinct body of work.
Watching Half Nelson in that light acts as a bracing look back. Unlike the ’90s fetishization of Captain Marvel, the nostalgia at play now is more complex and far less calculated. Boden and Fleck may have graduated onto a much bigger stage of their career, and it’s possible they’ll be given more leeway for their next non-Marvel project. But even if it’s embarrassing, like a yearbook inscription written by their younger selves, the open aspiration of the pair’s early films is something to cherish and foster. They wanted to be filmmakers, and now they are, writ large. Here’s hoping it doesn’t always carry on like just another job.