Wet snow is falling outside a Washington, D.C., movie theater as Christie Joesbury spots her target: a man wearing a baseball cap with the word “geek” bolted to the front in plastic letters. As the organizer of a D.C.-based group called Geek Nite Out, Larry Waldman, the man in the cap, has arrived two hours before the theater’s 7 p.m. showing of “Captain Marvel.” He traveled from his home in Maryland to secure a spot in line and to greet the 30 or so group members who have signed up to attend the film’s opening night. Joesbury, a data support specialist originally from England, is the first to arrive.
It’s a big deal, this movie, to fans of the superhero world. Not only is it the first female-led blockbuster in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, introducing audiences to Carol Danvers, a former Air Force pilot who returns to Earth as an alien super-soldier with a murky sense of her past — the release also falls on International Women’s Day.
“It makes me happy,” Joesbury says of Marvel’s first female lead. “But superhero movies make me happy.”
Joesbury, 26, says her love of comics and fantasy began when her father took her to see “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” when she was a child. From then on, hers was a world filled with hobbits and Harry Potter.
For a while, she and Waldman kill time by discussing comic books and various spinoffs; they debate the merits of Eric Bana’s Hulk versus Edward Norton’s Hulk. Eventually, a few other male Geeks join the crew, including Christian Fernandez-Duque, a paralegal in D.C. who also works the phone banks for NARAL and Planned Parenthood. “It fits the moment,” he says when the conversation turns to “Captain Marvel’s” release against the backdrop of #MeToo and the election of a historic number of women to Congress this past year.
Brie Larson, the Academy Award-winning actress who plays Carol Danvers, has been fighting a few off-screen battles herself: In an interview with Marie Claire, Larson said she noticed the film critics were “overwhelmingly white men” while doing press for the movie. This did not sit well with some men’s rights advocates, who called Larson a “social justice warrior” and urged their supporters to boycott her movie.
Those critics seem not to have hampered “Captain Marvel,” which had the highest-grossing domestic opening weekend of any film so far this year.
When the doors finally open, the lobby is populated with clusters of women in puffy jackets and knit beanies. Conversation soon turns to costume design. “When I saw ‘Wonder Woman,’ I was like, ‘Please don’t be too revealing with those Amazon costumes,’” says Jennifer Lindstrom, who feared that Larson would take to the skies in a bathing suit. Lindstrom, 43, drove in from Maryland to watch the film at D.C.’s AMC Uptown theater — which, she says, is the best screen around for watching superheroes. Lindstrom, who heads up the off-campus student housing services office at the University of Maryland, says she loves origin stories.
Luckily for her, this film reveals how Danvers transforms into Captain Marvel — and how she fits into the larger Marvel universe, which is populated by characters such as Captain America, Thor and Iron Man.
“And,” Lindstrom continues, “speaking from an African American perspective, I love that [Danvers’s] best friend is a black woman. With ‘Black Panther’ doing so well, it’s a sign of the times.”
Lashana Lynch plays Danvers’s best friend in the film: Maria Rambeau, a fellow Air Force pilot and a single mother. The two women are supportive of each other, and their conversations pass the Bechdel test — a measure of a film’s portrayal of women, popularized in the 1980s, that requires movies to have two named female characters talk about something other than a man.
Eventually, around a dozen Geek Nite Out-ers take their seats in the balcony before the previews begin. Jackie Hardwick, another group member, is reading “The Girl Who Circumvented Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making,” a young adult fantasy novel. But it was the Elfquest comic series that, she says, put her in the rabbit hole.
“In my 20s, I spent $500 a month on comics and comic book paraphernalia,” she says. A native of D.C., Hardwick, now 51, jokes that she’s the same age as the theater. Throughout the movie, she howls at references to Blockbuster, Radio Shack and the search engine AltaVista — cultural relics of ’90s.
Among an otherwise subdued audience, Hardwick, who works in accounts payable for a nonprofit, stands out. She’s the one making all the noise: clapping her hands when Marvel Comics editor and publisher Stan Lee, who died last year, makes his requisite cameo; whooping when Samuel Jackson first appears onscreen; and cheering when Larson engages in a fight scene set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.”
But after the credits roll, Hardwick turns quietly reflective, pausing to consider the themes the movie is able to explore with a woman as its lead. The fact that Larson trembles with emotion while using a photon-blasting space gun, for example, allows her to be a full character: both strong and vulnerable at the same time.
It’s a significant message for her, too. Hardwick recently joined Women Who Code D.C., and is finding it to be a completely new, and at times overwhelming, universe. “Captain Marvel,” she says, has given her courage.
“I can do this. I can be determined. I can get up,” she says to herself, creating her own mantra. “And if I need encouragement, I’ll just watch the movie again.”