Who is Captain Marvel?
Captain your own destiny.
Brie Larson shines, finally bringing a female lead story to the forefront of the MCU - with a subtle, wry wit, in a story with more than a few surprises.
By Tym Stevens
“Identity/ Is the crisis, can’t you see?”
-X-Ray Spex (1978)
Who is Captain Marvel?
Captain Marvel is the gift that kept getting taken. In 1940, Fawcett Comics debuted the original Captain Marvel, a lovable red-suited champion who switched places with a boy via magic lightning. Because he outsold Superman, DC Comics sued him out of existence in 1953. (Britain then converted him into their Marvelman, who in the ’80s would be revised into the first postmodern superhero, Miracleman, by Alan Moore.) While DC sat smug on the Fawcett rights without using the character, their rival Marvel Comics rewrote him as Thor (1962) before just boldly taking the name outright. Their Captain Marvel, as best defined by writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane in 1968, was a cosmic alien named Mar Vell who could change places with an Earth teen. They gained the right to use the name as long as they kept that title in print. By 1973, Jim Starlin made him the cosmic Superman at the heart of his epic Thanos vs. Avengers stories. Meanwhile, DC finally woke up to bringing the original Captain into their pantheon, but were forced to name his series after his magic changing word, “Shazam!”
Who is Carol Danvers?
Beyond the name, Mar Vell was essentially a rewrite of Green Lantern, making his girlfriend Carol Danvers a swipe of Carol Ferris. But by 1977, feminism prodded Marvel to empower her as Ms. Marvel along with her peers She-Hulk, Spider-Woman, the Daughters of the Dragon, and the women of the X-Men. Carol was now a rewrite of Supergirl (down to the last name, Danvers). While Ms. Marvel emerged as one of the most powerful heroes around, Mar Vell died in 1982 and five other people used his mantle across time to retain the name’s copyright. In 2012, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick had the brilliant common sense to finally redefine Carol as the new Captain Marvel (essentially wearing Miracleman’s costume with Miraclewoman’s hair). Like a lightning rod, she emblematized empowerment and became a popular feminist icon, propelling her emergence as the cosmic Superman of Marvel films.
Captain Marvel works on all levels for film fans. For the movie crowd, it’s an exciting galactic adventure underlined by a heartfelt backstory. For the comics fans, it’s all the big mythos and a much-loved character finally getting her due. For the deepheads, it’s a perfect bookend: a prequel to all the Marvel Studios films, and the crucial hinge to its turnover future.
Identity is the key. Black Panther was self-aware and declaratory, but indie directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck complement it with a subtler tact. Here the proud fist is offset by the found heart; Carol pieces together her true identity on her own, empowered by personal degrees, literally coming into herself in front of us to stand tall. As such, it is the story framework of Thor (2011) now made radical, the clean zing of Iron Man (2008) culminating more downhome. (If Tony Stark is Richie Rich, Carol Danvers is Huck Finn.) The creators’ mantra is streamline the past, recast the future. As such, they subvert and liberate expectations of the character’s history continually. The comic book Mar Vell started out with cold militarism and arrogance before evolving into better awareness, but Oscar-winner Brie Larson’s Carol transmutes this into sly side-eye and a wry smirk, a confidence gradually dawning into empathy and warmth. Paralleling, Nick Fury and Agent Coulson get an origin, the Skrulls gain dimension, and the Rambeaus glow with future promise.
The message is in the mosaic. The Kree-Skrull War (1971) is a legendary Avengers epic by Roy Thomas and artiste extraordinaire Neal Adams. After rights issues, it finally makes its screen debut here, with Adams’ designs and Starlin’s concepts alongside newfound story depths and possibilities. Set in 1995, when women exploded to the fore in music, the canny soundtrack is energized by Garbage, Elastica, and Hole. (Caveat: some mainstream choices could’ve been replaced with Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl,” Sonic Youth’s “Swimsuit Issue,” Salt-N-Pepa’s “Step,” Portishead’s “It’s a Fire,” L7’s “Fuel My Fire,” Bjork’s “Army of Me,” or Skunk Anansie’s “Rise Up.”) And Carol’s ascension bodes well for the possibility of directly unleashing the A-Force, Photon, and the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, onto the screen.
Who is Captain Marvel now? The woman who kicks your ass. Catch up to the Captain, in command of the future.