Women of Marvel: Straight talk from real-life superheroes behind the blockbusters
They're directors, producers, costume designers. Six high-level women at Marvel Studios share the highs and lows of their Hollywood lives.
Caitlin PetrakovitzDirector of audience
Caitlin Petrakovitz studies the Marvel Cinematic Universe like it's a course in school, with an emphasis on the Infinity Saga years. As an audience expert, she rarely writes but when she does it's most certainly about Star Trek, Marvel, DC, Westworld, San Diego Comic-Con and great streaming properties. Or soccer, that's a thing she loves, too.
Patricia PuentesSenior Editor, Movie and TV writer, CNET en Español
Writer and journalist from Barcelona who calls California home. She'll openly admit to having seen The Wire four times. She has a mild-to-severe addiction to chocolate and book adaptations to the screen (large or small). She's interviewed Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Guillermo del Toro and Kenneth Branagh but is still waiting to meet Emma Thompson and Kathryn Bigelow. She's lived in Paris, Los Angeles and Boston. Now she's amazed by Oakland's effortlessly cool vibe.
As executive vice president of production, Alonso, along with a growing crew of female directors, production designers, costume designers and cinematographers, is working to diversify the role models we see on screen. Their goal: to inspire kids of all genders to think differently about what a superhero looks like.
"I think children should have a choice," says Alonso, who's been at
Studios since 2006. "Sometimes we are lucky enough to be the ones to create the choices for them."
We're seeing more of the choices she's created now that Marvel -- one of Hollywood's most influential film studios -- has released Captain Marvel, the 21st film in the
Marvel Cinematic Universe
and the first in the franchise to feature a woman as the solo lead. Oscar winner Brie Larson plays Carol Danvers, a former US Air Force fighter pilot with superhuman abilities. The movie is co-directed and co-written by a woman, Anna Boden, and it features music written by the first female composer of a superhero film's soundtrack, Pinar Toprak.
"Just seeing a character who says how she feels and says what's on her mind and doesn't let people stand in her way is incredibly empowering," Larson told Entertainment Weekly in September.
To make a lasting difference, though, Captain Marvel needed to rely on more than a kickass female lead and a story shaped by a female director's perspective. DC Entertainment already checked off those boxes with the Patty Jenkins-directed Wonder Woman. The movie was so well-received that kids in theaters across the country lined up to have their pictures taken with a life-size cutout of the Amazon princess.
Marvel knows it needs to match, or even exceed, that impact. It's one reason the studio hired 14 women, from different races and backgrounds, to oversee departments for award-winning blockbuster Black Panther, the first film in the MCU to feature an African superhero.
The movie also gave us fierce, sexy female warriors called the Dora Milaje, with shaved heads and combat boots instead of high heels. And then there's Leticia Wright's Shuri, a princess who happens to be the smartest scientist in the universe.
"It's a commitment of what's to come," Alonso says while dealing with Los Angeles traffic on her morning commute to work. "We are determined to have more female directors, more heads of department that are female and more balance in our characters so that everyone can be represented."
Marvel has shown that its commitment is real. In addition to Black Panther and Captain Marvel, the upcoming Black Widow solo outing sees Scarlett Johansson return as Natasha Romanoff, under the direction of Cate Shortland, best known for helming the post-WWII drama Lore.
But can changing how blockbusters are made and presented really affect how we see ourselves?
Maybe, as long as the studio behind that storytelling has the reach to influence opinion and makes this a priority. Sarah Coyne, an associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, thinks Marvel, part of the Walt Disney Company, could be that studio.
"They do have a lot of power and they do have a lot of reach and they do have a responsibility to tell all sorts of different stories," says Coyne, who explores how film and social media influence behavior and body image. "I would love for them to be able to show women and men being strong in all sorts of ways."
Six high-level executives and creative professionals at Marvel -- all women -- spoke to us about their challenges. They agree the culture in Hollywood is finally shifting, but all say progress is slow.
"When people awake to the beauty of collaborating with a range of viewpoints, perspectives, backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses, we realize we are all better off for it," says Sarah Finn, head of the Sarah Finn Company, casting director for every Marvel movie in the MCU, except The Incredible Hulk. "I think there's a greater openness now than there has ever been."
Captain Marvel co-director Boden and her partner, Ryan Fleck, have been writing, directing and producing movies together since 2003. Their character-driven films include Half Nelson, starring Ryan Gosling as a middle-school teacher; It's Kind of a Funny Story, featuring Viola Davis and Zoe Kravitz; and Mississippi Grind with Ryan Reynolds.
Captain Marvel is the pair's most expensive project to date, with an estimated budget of $152 million. While that puts the film in the bottom-half of production budgets at Marvel (Black Panther in comparison, cost $200 million), it does raise the stakes for Boden as Marvel's first woman director.
"I do feel a responsibility that is a little bit bigger on this movie just because there's such a bigger audience for it," she told us in November. "But we've been just really trying to delve into the character like we would with every film."
Boden says her sense of responsibility goes beyond making a film that's both good and profitable. She also thinks it's important to help other women in Hollywood, with its "us versus them mentality."
"Women supporting women is really important," she says. "I have been thinking about [this] while making a movie about a very powerful female character.
"Ten years ago, I just wanted to be seen as a director. Now I look around, and I see so many women doing amazing things in this industry. It's been amazing for movies, as more voices have been stronger and prouder and more present."
Trinh Tran is one of those strong and present voices.
An executive producer, she's in near-constant collaboration with writers, directors and postproduction crews as she guides Marvel films from inception through development up to release. And Tran uses her voice to make sure other women are heard, both onscreen and behind the lens.
"The more diverse we can be in front and behind the camera, the more diverse and unique our stories," Tran tells us. "I'm always looking for moments to make our female heroes shine. But it can't be one-sided. We're seeing a lot more female directors and [women] behind the camera. That's really going to help our storytelling."
Not there yet
Ruth E. Carter doesn't think Hollywood is changing anywhere near fast enough.
"It's always small changes," the Oscar-winning costume designer says of the industry she's worked in for more than 30 years. "You can take three steps forward and two steps back. ... I had to really struggle, and crawl, and fight my way to be here and to be celebrated."
"There's lots of times when I'm in a gathering, I don't see a lot of diversity but I see a lot of people who are asking the question, How do I get in? How do I start?
"The exposure is not there for them, and that I find to be a problem," she says.
Carter has become one of Hollywood's top costume designers by thinking creatively about what the costumes say about the characters, the context and the location of the story. The designs reflect character psyche, and perhaps subconsciously Carter's too.
Consider her thought process for Black Panther, which features strong female characters. Danai Gurira, the cover star of the spring issue of CNET Magazine, plays Okoye, the head of the Dora Milaje. Angela Bassett plays Queen Ramonda, and Lupita Nyong'o gives us Nakia, who seems to have little interest in marrying the prince and enjoying a life of leisure. She'd rather fight injustice around the world.
"We're mothers; we're girlfriends; we're CEOs; we're the bookkeepers of the family," Carter says. "We do so much. To paint us in one light -- in making us a sexy superhero image -- is just a disservice to womankind."
"We want the women to look wonderful and be very female, but we also want them to be more realistic," says Makovsky, costume designer for Avengers: Infinity War. "We want them to be tough women, smart women, intelligent women. We've tried to get away from that traditional, bras and catsuits [uniform]."
For the record, Captain Marvel's outfit is a full-length gold, red and blue jumpsuit.
How to watch every Marvel Cinematic Universe film in the right order
Still, slow and steady change may ultimately win the race for women gaining greater recognition and responsibility in Hollywood.
Among the changes needed to diversify the industry in the #OscarsSoWhite era, Carter and others say, are apprenticeships for training a wide range of up-and-comers.
"People are always complaining, 'Why aren't there more women getting Oscars or getting the jobs?' We have to get them trained first," Makovsky says. "The Oscars can only judge what's out there."
It helps that Wonder Woman did so well two years ago. And that Black Panther racked up $1.35 billion in worldwide ticket sales, $700 million in the US alone. That's made it the highest-grossing film by an African-American director, highest-grossing film with a predominantly black cast and the biggest moneymaker in the US in the 11-year-long MCU franchise.
Just as important, today's younger generation is already responding to the studio's diverse lineup of role models. It wasn't just Alonso's daughter who wanted to emulate a female superhero. Boden's young son did too, dressing up as Captain Marvel last Halloween.
"That was an awesome moment for me," the Captain Marvel co-director tells us. "Of course, it matters because she's a woman, but it also doesn't matter. My little boy looks up to her."
Alonso wants to keep the momentum going.
"Just because you have one triumph doesn't mean you're done," she says.
"It's every day, every movie, every team. The idea is to try to have 50 percent male, 50 percent female."
That would be progress everyone can see.
A version of this story appears in the spring 2019 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.