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Captain Marvel, explained by the people who reimagined her

Meet Carol Danvers, the strongest Avenger

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Trailers for Captain Marvel have revealed hints at her origin story: A woman drafted into an alien war, haunted by scattered memories of the life she used to have. But what is the Marvel hero’s real origin story? Who is Carol Danvers?

“I think of Carol as someone who is forever running, forever chasing, always in motion,” says comic writer Kelly Sue DeConnick. She would know.

While DeConnick didn’t create Carol Danvers, she did reshape the hero’s legacy from Ms. Marvel into Captain Marvel, a move that immediately ignited a community, captured imaginations and proved that Danvers could shoulder the weight of being the first female character to get her own Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Captain Marvel will hit theaters on March 8, 2019, with Brie Larson in the title role.

Captain Marvel #1, written by DeConnick and drawn by Dexter Soy, came out in Sept. 2012 and immediately sold out. Eight months later, Marvel executives had a script for a Carol Danvers movie on their desks. By late 2014, Captain Marvel was officially announced.

Captain Marvel, despite carrying the publisher’s name, was never a character who got much attention outside of the world of Marvel Comics — or even inside of it. Unlike many of her cinematic counterparts, Carol Danvers’ movie adaptation is arguably based on less than a decade of storytelling, primarily from one writer. She’s a character who might not exist if not for U.S. trademark law. She was made a superhero explicitly to tap into the feminist movement of the 1970s. And when she hits screens, she’ll be the most powerful superhero in the MCU.

Carol Danvers’ adoption of the title rocketed Captain Marvel to new prominence, thanks to the core tenets of good comic books: Pairing the right words with the right images. This is how it happened.

Carol Danvers on the cover of Captain Marvel #9, Marvel Comics (2013).
From the cover of Captain Marvel #9.
Jamie McKelvie/Marvel Comics

The core of Captain Marvel

Before she was a superhero, Carol Danvers earned the rank of colonel in the United States Air Force, where she served as a pilot, an intelligence officer and a NASA security officer. During her career she also had some adventures with an undercover alien soldier named Mar-Vell, the original Captain Marvel, who was posing as a human scientist on Earth.

During one of those adventures, her experience awakened her suite of superhuman abilities. Although Carol wouldn’t discover the truth until 2018’s Life of Captain Marvel miniseries, her mother was also an undercover Kree soldier, who had defected when, like Mar-Vell, she realized that humanity did not deserve to become yet another casualty of her homeworld’s eternal war.

Carol would use those abilities she would use to become the superhero Ms. Marvel, and later assume the mantle of Captain Marvel after Mar-Vell’s death. As Captain Marvel, Carol has a straightforward superhero powerset: She’s super strong and super durable, and she can fly and hang out in the vacuum of space without dying; you know, Superman stuff. But she can also absorb any kind of energy and release it as concentrated blasts, usually from her hands.

The cover of Captain Marvel #10, Marvel Comics (2013).
The cover of Captain Marvel #10.
Joe Quinones/Marvel Comics

When Carol graduated from high school, her father refused to pay her college tuition because he believed that a woman’s place was in the home and a college degree was an unnecessary pursuit. She joined the Air Force to prove him wrong, growing estranged from her family. Her father died before they ever really reconciled — and before Carol could tell him that she was Ms. Marvel.

DeConnick told Polygon that Carol’s need to prove herself, despite her immense power, is the key to understanding her character.

“She’s always try to outrace everything. ‘Higher, further, faster, more,’” DeConnick said, referencing the motto of her 2012 series, repeated in the marketing for Captain Marvel as “Higher, further, faster.”

“It’s two things: It’s running from this pain and then also trying to prove to her now dead father that she was just as good as the boys. This is a wound that’s never going to heal; dad’s dead, you know? She’s never going to get that moment of satisfaction of ‘You’re right, kiddo. You’re amazing.’ And so there’s that thing that she is forever chasing.”

As Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel, Carol has led the Avengers, adventured with the X-Men and saved the world over and over again. She’s one of the most powerful Marvel superheroes who isn’t simply a god. And in the MCU, where characters like Storm and Jean Grey don’t (yet) exist, she’s inarguably the most powerful superheroine around.

“Carol falls down all the time,” DeConnick says, “but she always gets back up — we say that about Captain America as well, but Captain America gets back up because it’s the right thing to do. Carol gets back up because ‘Fuck you.’

”I think that quality in her attracts people who are the same; who are always kind of trying to get back up and do better, and who have something to prove.”

Where does Captain Marvel’s costume come from?

Carol’s Captain Marvel look was the work of Jamie McKelvie (The Wicked + The Divine, Young Avengers), a comics artist and a regular contributor to Project Rooftop, a blog created by comics industry folks as “a catalyst to improve costume design in the industry.”

“Nearly final” progress art of Jamie McKelvie’s Captain Marvel redesign.
A “nearly final” version of Jamie McKelvie’s Captain Marvel redesign.
Jamie McKelvie

McKelvie redesigned a costume that was essentially a bathing suit, thigh-high boots and opera gloves into a look inspired by an Air Force flight suit. The design was bold, stylish and gave an aura of practicality missing from her previous incarnations.

“It looks like she’s in a superhero branch of the military,” DeConnick says, “the dress uniform for the superhero branches of the military. It’s kind of dignified but also utilitarian. I absolutely loved it and [editor Stephen Wacker] loved it … and the rest, as they say, is history — and now Vans shoes and jackets.”

McKelvie’s redesign struck such a chord that there was already fan art of Carol’s new costume before Captain Marvel #1 hit shelves (and choice pieces were featured in the issue). Fans of the new Captain Marvel — largely, but not exclusively, women — knitted hats, got tattoos and spread their love of comics in the name of the Carol Corps.

“There’s a joke about Velvet Underground,” DeConnick says, “that Velvet Underground only had a thousand fans [...] but every one of them formed a band. And Matt [Fraction (Hawkeye, Sex Criminals), DeConnick’s husband] says about Captain Marvel, that I had about 30,000 readers, but every one of them got a tattoo. And I think it has something to do with Carol. I think the way that her character plays out, people who are drawn to that chase that ever trying to do better.”

What is Captain Marvel’s origin story?

Marvel’s first Captain Marvel series (featuring the alien hero Mar-Vell, created by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan in 1968) was published primarily to establish Marvel’s trademark on the phrase “Captain Marvel.” That trademark soon became equally desired by DC Comics for their own recently acquired Captain Marvel (you might know that character by another name — Shazam.)

Marvel’s Captain Marvel was rebooted and retooled again and again to defend the company’s trademark, regardless of whether audiences was clamoring for the character. (For example, in 1982, Marvel had Mar-Vell die tragically of cancer. It’s still the story he’s arguably most famous for.) When Carol Danvers found her groove as Captain Marvel in 2012, she was the sixth character to use the name. And it’s ironic that it took her that long, since she’d been created as a supporting character for Marvel’s first Captain Marvel comic.

Invented by the same team that created Mar-Vell, she first appeared alongside him in 1968’s Marvel Super Heroes #13 and subsequently became a regular supporting character in the Captain Marvel series. Almost a decade later, in the thick of the Feminist Movement’s second wave, she got a significant upgrade.

She left the military, got a job as the head editor of a women’s magazine and became a superhero, all in the pages of her own solo series, Ms. Marvel. The comic made a significant retcon to one of her adventures with Captain Marvel, explaining that an encounter with an alien device called the Psyche-Magnitron had amplified Carol’s desire to “stand with Mar-Vell as an equal,” merging her genetic makeup with his and giving her his fantastic powers.

The cover of Ms. Marvel #1, Marvel Comics (1977).
1977’s Ms. Marvel #1, written by Gerry Conway “with more than a little aid and abetment from Carla Conway.”
John Buscema/Marvel Comics

As previously mentioned, this would later become rewritten history when Carol was revealed to be secretly half-Kree all along — in current continuity, the Psyche-Magnitron merely awakened her existing powers. And in any case, that’s just the story of Ms. Marvel from inside the comic. Inside Marvel editorial, Ms. Marvel was a book made from practical concerns, according to Gerry Conway, who wrote Ms. Marvel #1-3.

“I was working at Marvel and had a contract which required them to give me X number of titles to write,” Conway told Polygon, “but we were also looking to expand our reach to a wider audience, and to reach young women and young girls as potential audience […] Marvel had, historically, not had very many solo female lead books. DC [Comics] had a few, but Marvel had not very many at all.”

When Marvel published Ms. Marvel in 1977, the X-Men’s most powerful heroines, like Storm and Jean Grey, were just beginning to gain traction. At the same time, DC’s Wonder Woman was beyond popular, with the first season of her television show having just wrapped. In Ms. Marvel #1 alone, Conway cheekily has a character compare the superhero to Lynda Carter.

“Carol Danvers had never really had much play in the original [Captain Marvel] series,” Conway said, “but I felt that she had potential because, unlike some of the female characters that we had in other series, she wasn’t somebody’s girlfriend; she wasn’t somebody’s daughter. She was a security officer on the base, and as such had her own distinct role to play. She seemed like a natural to be given powers and upgraded to her own solo title.”

From Ms. Marvel #1, Marvel Comics (1977).
New York City bystanders watching Ms. Marvel defeat the Scorpion in Ms. Marvel #1.
Gerry Conway, John Buscema/Marvel Comics

Tying the book to modern feminism was a given to Conway and Marvel, considering the intended audience, and the writer worked closely with his wife at the time, Carla Conway, on the concept. Naming the character Ms. Marvel, rather than Miss, was a direct tribute to Gloria Steinem and Ms., as was Carol’s day job as the editor of the fictional Woman magazine under J. Jonah Jameson.

“There were definite attempts to create this kind of feminist role model,” Conway said. “And very specifically on the first or second page of the book, I had a small girl character react to Ms. Marvel’s arrival, going ‘Wow. She’s really cool. I wanna be like her when I grow up,’ which was intended to say, ‘Hey, we’re trying to reach a female audience, and we’re looking for girls to be as inspired by comics as boys.’”

Contrary to what you might expect from today’s comics, Conway says he doesn’t remember any pushback over creating an overtly feminist superhero.

From Captain Marvel #1, Marvel Comics 1977).
“The way I see it, a woman’s magazine should have articles that are useful, like new diets, and fashions, and recipes. Things like that.”
Gerry Conway, John Buscema/Marvel Comics

“What’s so frustrating for creators today [about] things like the ComicsGate nonsense and the misogyny is that back when these books really were a boys club type of industry, any effort to create feminist characters was met with no pushback at all,” he said. “Actually, they were welcomed, they were perceived as fun additions to the mythology. People loved characters like Phoenix and Storm, and Ms. Marvel became fairly popular. There wasn’t an us-vs-them type of attitude. At least I didn’t perceive one, and that to me is what’s so idiotic about the current, quote, ‘controversy.’ There shouldn’t even be a controversy! Back when we were really breaking ground with this stuff as clumsily as we did, nobody was objecting.”

The weirder parts of Ms. Marvel’s history

Conway left Ms. Marvel after three issues for DC Comics, leaving the book in the hands of legendary X-Men writer Chris Claremont, who saw it through 20 more issues. Unfortunately, after that, Ms. Marvel’s history is notable for one major, editorial mistake.

Infamously, 1980’s Avengers #200 featured a story, written by Jim Shooter, George Pérez, Bob Layton and David Michelinie, in which Carol became suddenly and inexplicably pregnant and gave birth to a son named Marcus, who aged rapidly into an adult man with a goatee. Marcus revealed that he was actually a being from outside of time and space who’d needed an “exceptionally strong” woman to give birth to him to bring him into our plane. But it was all OK! Really! Because, according to Marcus, he’d already brought Carol into his dimension and totally romanced her until she totally fell in love with him and totally allowed him to impregnate her with himself — at which point she was transported back to reality with her memories of their relationship erased!

Inexplicably moved by his story, Carol volunteered to go back with him to his dimension forever, saying, “While I still don’t know what I felt for you in Limbo, some of that feeling still lingers. And that, combined with the fact that by some bizarre logic, you are my ‘child’ — makes me feel closer to you than I’ve felt to anyone in a long, long time.”

And the Avengers let her, only feeling sorry that they had accidentally ruined Marcus’ one chance to stay in our dimension forever.

Hawkeye and Iron Man in the final panels of Avengers #200, Marvel Comics (1980).
Hawkeye and Iron Man in the final panels of Avengers #200.
Jim Shooter, George Pérez, Bob Layton, David Michelinie, Dan Green/Marvel Comics

Chris Claremont called the story “callous,” “cruel” and “unfeeling,” and as soon as he was given the chance, he wrote Carol’s return from Limbo. She confronted the Avengers with the obvious fact that Marcus had lied when he said their relationship was mutual: He had brainwashed her, and the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes had happily allowed him to take her back with him to his dimension, alone.

Carol Danvers as Binary on the cover of Uncanny X-Men #164, Marvel Comics (1982).
Carol as Binary, on the cover of Uncanny X-Men #164.
Dave Cockrum/Marvel Comics

Under Claremont’s pen, Carol quit the Avengers and joined up with the X-Men, where the mutant known as Rogue — then still a villain — permanently absorbed Carol’s powers (which, incidentally, is why Rogue is super strong and can fly). On another adventure, an encounter with aliens gave Carol the superpower of absorbing and projecting bursts of energy, and she took on the superhero name Binary (for the binary star that fueled her). In the 1990s, a plotline restored her traditional powers alongside her Binary powers, and she started going by “Warbird.” Finally, in 2006, when she got her own solo series again, she went back to her Ms. Marvel code name.

What do we know about Captain Marvel, the movie?

Captain Marvel is set in the ‘90s, decades before the Avengers first assembled — which is how it’s continuing the story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe without stepping all over the ending of Avengers: Infinity War.

According to Entertainment Weekly, the movie will begin with Carol already in space and with superpowers, as “she’s left her earthly life behind to join the elite military team Starforce on the Kree planet of Hala.” Judging by the movie’s first trailer, it also seems like her memories of her life on Earth have been tampered with, which has some precedence in the comics. In her very first adventures, Carol never remembered her adventures as Ms. Marvel, and when she was Ms. Marvel, couldn’t remember that she was Carol Danvers; later story arcs with the character have often messed with her sense of self.

In Captain Marvel, Jude Law will play Carol’s kree mentor and trainer. Annettte Bening seems to be playing a Kree scientist who may have given Carol her powers. Lee Pace and Djimon Hounsou will also be on hand to reprise their roles of Ronan the Accuser and Korath from Guardians of the Galaxy. This time around, however, Ronan isn’t an extremist villain, he’s a high-ranking member of Kree society, and Korath appears to be a member of Starforce.

But don’t worry, there will clearly be plenty of Earthlings in the plot, too. Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg will be on hand to play younger versions of Nick Fury and Agent Coulson. Fury, in particular, is just a “lowly S.H.I.E.L.D. desk jockey,” a far cry from the unflappable director of SHIELD we’ve seen before. And Lashana Lynch will be taking on the role of Maria Rambeau, “a top-notch Air Force pilot with the call sign ‘Photon,’” and the “single mother to a young daughter.” This seems like a clear reference to the second Captain Marvel, Monica Rambeau, who also used the superhero name “Photon.” Maria’s daughter could very well grow up to be Photon in the present day of the MCU.

Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau in Captain Marvel.
Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau in Captain Marvel.
Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

But it wouldn’t be much of a superhero movie without a villain, and Captain Marvel will introduce some very consequential ones: the Skrulls, lead by Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos. Like the Kree, the Xandarians and the Chitauri, Skrulls are extraterrestrials, and in Marvel Comics they have been battling the Kree for so long that both races’ cultures have been redefined by the multi-thousand year Kree-Skrull War.

Skrulls in Captain Marvel Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Skrulls might not have the best starships or the biggest military in the galaxy, but they have one huge advantage over their opponents. Every skrull can shapeshift, perfectly mimicking both animate and inanimate objects, up to and including people. In their true forms, however, they look like green skinned, elf-eared aliens with striated chins (kinda like Thanos’).

In 2008’s Secret Invasion event, it was revealed that skrulls had been secretly kidnapping and replacing major Marvel characters for years, including Elektra, Black Bolt, Hank Pym, Spider-Woman and Jarvis. Some of those skrull sleeper agents didn’t even know they were skrulls until they were activated, cylon-style. Marvel Studios has yet to reveal the villain who could possibly follow Thanos in the future of the MCU, but fans would be wise to look to the Skrulls, and the possibility of a Secret Invasion-type storyline, as a major possibility.

From the cover of Captain Marvel #17, Marvel Comics (2013).
From the cover of Captain Marvel #17.
Joe Quinones/Marvel Comics

Higher, further, faster

When Captain Marvel hits theaters on March 8, 2019, it’ll be the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the first to feature a woman as its lead character (Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp was a title character, true, but the greater focus of Ant-Man and The Wasp was still Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man). That’s a lot of weight for one character to carry.

Fans have been asking Marvel to greenlight a movie with a female lead for years. But the film rights to most of Marvel Comics’ most famous superheroines — Rogue, Storm, Jean Grey, Sue Storm and others — are held by 20th Century Fox. With a Black Widow movie backburnered until very recently, Carol Danvers’ Captain Marvel is not just the most powerful superheroine Marvel Studios could have chosen, but the most notable one, despite the fact that most folks outside of the comics world couldn’t be expected to know who she is.

But despite all the pressure, the people behind Carol Danvers are confident.

“I always felt that that character had a lot of potential,” Conway tells Polygon, “but it really took someone who had a clear vision for what she wanted to achieve, Kelly Sue, to make it happen. I’m just delighted that it’s happened. If I can ride on her coattails, I’m happy to,” he says, laughing.

“I understand that Carol’s not real and her honor is not at stake,” DeConnick tells Polygon, “but there is this part of me that’s proud of her. Like, ‘You step on to that big stage, girl! You’ve got this!’ [...] It’s nice to see them trusting her; believing in the power of that character. It’s pretty great.

“I hope it makes a bazillion dollars.”


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