It’s a long way from standard damsel-in-distress to the heroine of a comic series and upcoming movie. Carol Danvers’ story begins with Captain Marvel1 rescuing her in standard super-hero fashion, but then she becomes the hero(ine) of her story, becoming Captain Marvel herself.
She wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet at the start, since she was an Air Force officer when she first met the man who would change her life.
Still, the comic handled her in typical fashion, putting her into a love triangle story involving Captain Marvel, herself, and an alien named Una, who died during a shoot-out between duelling aliens. The hostage-taking wasn’t about her either: the alien Yon-Rogg just used her as bait to lure the hero.(Captain Marvel #18) After rescuing Danvers, Marvel went on his superhero way, having all sorts of cosmic adventures with his sidekick Rick Jones.
That’s Ms. Marvel to you
The second version of Captain Marvel (sorry, Ms. Marvel) emerged in a 1970s series, in which Carol Danvers was experiencing the aftereffects of exposure to radiation when Yon-Rogg’s laser exploded. That incident had left her seriously injured, but as she recovered, she began to develop super-powers. The explosion had melded Marvel’s genes with hers, and she became a Kree-Human hybrid.
(Note for those unfamiliar with the Marvel Comics universe: two alien races, the Kree and the Skrulls, have been battling it out for centuries, with Earth becoming one of the theatres of their war. You may have seen them on Agents of SHIELD.)
I can’t help but see this as metaphorical – at a time when superheroines were moving out of the girlfriend/sidekick ghetto, we see Danvers having to assimilate the DNA of superherodom, and becoming a different kind of being in the process. (Although much of Captain Marvel’s costume seems to have been recycled into a scarf.)
Danvers had left the Air Force, becoming editor of WOMAN magazine, sporting 70s fashions and terrorizing J. Jonah Jameson (Peter Parker’s old boss). She seemed to have it all, except for the blackouts. It was her therapist who put it together and realized that Carol Danvers had a secret identity. When she wasn’t campaigning for equal pay, she was fighting evil as Ms. Marvel.
At first she seemed to suffer from split personality, but as she accepted her new abilities, she integrated the Ms. Marvel persona (a very 70s name). The split personality seems like another metaphor for the struggle over what it would mean to be a superheroine and woman.
Still, Carol never let it slow her down. If she has an equivalent in the DC universe, it’s Power Girl: connection to a famous, powerful male, brash, aggressive personality and an inappropriately revealing costume. Ms. Marvel joined the Avengers and butted heads with Iron Man, while Kara Zor-El had pretty much the entire Justice Society to argue with.
It’s pretty obvious, though, that Ms. Marvel was meant to compete with Wonder Woman. Both are pilots, both are incredibly powerful, both are liberated, strong women who aren’t afraid to show compassion. The first issue of Ms. Marvel made the comparison, as a bystander remarks: “That little lady makes Lynda Carter look like Olive Oyl!”. (The Wonder Woman show was airing then, and apparently in the Marvel universe people were watching it.)
And then it gets creepy….
Ms. Marvel’s time with the Avengers did not end well. She attracted the attention of a being called Immortus, who fell for her and wouldn’t take no for an answer. This is one of the most infamously creepy storylines in comic history: suddenly Ms. Marvel finds herself pregnant, then three days later she gives birth. The baby rapidly grows to adulthood, as man called Marcus. He then reveals that he was trapped in Limbo, and essentially brainwashed Ms. Marvel into having sex with him, so he could be reborn on Earth.
After he explains this to her and the other Avengers, Carol Danvers feels so sorry for him that she decided to accompany him back to Limbo, as his own personal Jocasta. No one says anything to dissuade her, and she leaves. Later of course, she realizes the truth, and returns to Earth, where she bitterly confronts her so-called friends and tells them that they should have realized she was being brainwashed, and stopped her.
This was definitely a low point for Danvers, and the 1980s and 1990s were quiet periods for Ms. Marvel. She reappeared as Binary in the 80s and Warbird in the 90s, with new powers and costumes. It’s tempting to make a connection to Susan Faludi’s backlash, and say that superheroines of all stripes had a hard time of it during this time.
Which is true, but both Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman were always going to struggle in a time when anti-heroes like the Punisher were so popular, and the prevailing mood was so grim.
Danvers is back!
Ms. Marvel returned in her own comic in 2006. Her costume now covered her stomach, but was still a leotard and boots – a black turtleneck with a zig-zag flash across the front, with long black gloves and high boots. She kept the red scarf, for continuity, although she now wore it around her hips.
In the 2012 comic series she became Captain Marvel, and switched to a more space-suit like outfit. (See picture at top of page.) She also acquired a sort of helmet/mask although the scarf was still there.2 The starburst returned, too, which is only right for a heroine who is essentially a super-powered astronaut.
The new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, has adopted the lightning flash3 and scarf, although she wears an outfit more appropriate for a Muslim teenager.There’s a sweet scene in the new Ms. Marvel comic, by the way, where Kamala meets Carol, and Cap tells her how proud she is of the younger girl’s efforts.
The new Captain Marvel is a pretty cool character, and I keep thinking if Tim Handley of Wonder Woman Unbound would switch allegiance, he’d probably like her a lot. She has women friends, supports other female characters (Kamala), and is a strong leader.
In the 2015 series, she acquired a mentor in a storyline about a pioneering female pilot who served as a role model for young Carol. The by-play between these two shows how intensely competitive and independent a fighter pilot would have to be, and how tough these two women are. The writer, Kelly deConnick, said in an interview that she grew up around Air Force pilots and tried to give Carol that sort of Type-A personality.
In 2016 Marvel re-launched a number of their books, including Captain Marvel. The new series has Agent Carter producers Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas as its writers. The editor, Sana Amanat, says: “This is really meant to be the next level for Captain Marvel. Carol is really meant to be a soldier and a commander, and also a diplomat. We’re really trying to build up this space complex and this space world.”
And as if a ninth comic series wasn’t enough, now Carol Danvers is slated to have her own movie, coming out in 2019. IMDb is silent on who will be in it, but the rumour mill is buzzing. As far as I am concerned, the only thing that would make this better is if Carol’s old pal Spider-Woman gets a part.
When Ms. Marvel debuted, back in the 1970s, there were complaints from fans that Marvel Comics had gone the Supergirl route: making a heroine a pale copy of an established male character. But like DC’s Batgirl, Captain Marvel has gone on to forge her own identity and far surpassed whatever marketing calculus called her into being. You almost feel sorry for the original Captain Marvel, who has faded away completely.
1. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because of the copyright battles involving the original Captain Marvel, a DC character now known as Shazam. Once Marvel comics got the rights, the only way they could keep them was to put out a comic using the name every so often. It sounds awful, but it probably kept the Carol Danvers character in circulation.↩
2. Perhaps, like Superman’s cape, it’s meant to be a reminder of her origins.↩
3. The lightning flash is the last link to the DC character Shazam, who changed into the superhero whenever he spoke the word “SHAZAM”, always accompanied by a burst of lightning, which became his symbol.↩
Chris Claremont says Avengers “boors” who should’ve realized Immortus was up to no good: http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2013/03/03/meta-messages-chris-claremont-sticks-up-for-ms-marvel/
Tumblr blog: http://fuckyeahcaroldanvers.tumblr.com/
A quick guide to Carol Danvers: http://panels.net/2015/12/21/captain-marvel-carol-danvers-primer/