In the process of bringing Carol Danvers to the big screen, Captain Marvel changed her origin story.
This is not unexpected in the realm of film adaptation, nor did it come as a surprise for fans of the hero; in the comics, Carol is not the second, or third, but the sixth person to be Captain Marvel. She got her powers from being gene-scrambled with the alien superhero Mar-Vell, in a machine called the “Psyche-Magnitron.” Then she lost them from touching the X-Man Rogue. Then she got new ones from aliens experimenting on her. Then she got her old ones back.
The movie Captain Marvel forges a new and cohesive origin for Carol Danvers, but there’s one change that is a head and shoulders above all the others.
And it’s also a big spoiler.
[Ed. note: This post will contain spoilers for Captain Marvel.]
During the press tour for Captain Marvel, Annette Bening revealed that her extremely-under-wraps character was the Supreme Intelligence, but if you’ve seen the movie, you know that the Supreme Intelligence appears differently to everyone. The AI reaches into your mind and finds the one person who you find most trusted and comforting and parental — because that’s what the Supreme Intelligence is to the Kree: a parental, comforting, trust-it-or-else way of enforcing cultural hegemony.
And the reason why Carol sees the Supreme Intelligence as Annette Bening is because Bening’s real role is as the undercover, pacifist, Kree scientist, Mar-Vell. Before Yon-Rogg wiped her memories, Carol knew Mar-Vell as Dr. Wendy Lawson, a to-all-appearances-human engineer. That Carol still sees Lawson when she speaks to the Supreme Intelligence implies that Lawson had an enormous emotional impact on Carol, a lot bigger than realizing your boss is an alien and taking their word that an engine needs to be destroyed.
Carol and Lawson don’t get a lot of shared screen time in Captain Marvel, but it’s not hard to guess at some probable reasons why Lawson’s presence would be the key to Carol’s emotional trust. Carol and Maria talk about how their jobs as test pilots for Lawson’s research were ones that allowed them to live out skybound dreams that were denied to them by the US military simply because of their gender and sex. They also hold Lawson’s pacifism dear; they found solace and inspiration in her goal of ending wars, not fighting them.
Before the movie was released, many speculated that Jude Law’s unnamed role, announced to be Carol’s Kree mentor, was Mar-Vell. It turns out we were all barking up the wrong tree. Captain Marvel genderbends Mar-Vell, giving the heroine an origin story where her heroic strength — universal that it is — comes from female source.
And this gives it a leg up on Wonder Woman.
Now hold up a second
The only two female-lead superhero films of our modern era should not be pitted against each other lightly. I enjoyed both of them. If anything I enjoyed Wonder Woman more — but again, that’s not a comparison of much significance. I liked Wonder Woman more than Captain America: Civil War and Aquaman, which are also movies I enjoy.
I want to be clear about that, because there is often pressure to savagely winnow an already small body of films down to the One True Good Superheroine Movie in a way that there isn’t for a One True Good Superhero Movie. And also because the playground argument with pretensions that is the “Marvel vs. DC” debate still rages. Still, while pitting Captain Marvel against Wonder Woman isn’t productive — they are two different movies with two different approaches to the female superhero — there is one specific comparison that is apt.
Wonder Woman had the opportunity to root itself in an existing comic origin story that was deliberately crafted to be entirely feminine, and chose instead to use an origin that had a masculine presence inserted into it. Captain Marvel had a gender-neutral, comic origin story and chose to invent a female presence for it.
The film version of Diana’s origin story begins in the classic way: The queen of the immortal and isolated Amazons longed for a child so strongly that the gods took pity on her and breathed life into a clay doll. In its final act, the movie reveals that to be a lie: Diana is the daughter of Zeus. Her powers beyond those of her Amazon sisters don’t come as a reward for her demonstrated excellence in embodying their ideals, or as a blessing of their patron goddesses, but rather from her blood relation to a male god.
This is a very recent Wonder Woman origin story that comes from the comics. And in picking it, Wonder Woman follows a pattern in the DC Films library of pulling from the New 52 version of characters (in Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman and others) rather than Marvel’s more holistic approach (which, admittedly, is something of a necessity for Marvel with how the company maintains its continuity).
But it also means that, given the opportunity to pull from any part of Wonder Woman continuity — including a strong, mythic origin story that has survived countless writers and at least one full reboot — someone in the production on Wonder Woman still chose her most recent origin. The one that makes a man a large part of creating the Champion of the Amazons, a character whose power, both within the fiction and in our own culture, has always been about the nature of feminine strength, and the sometimes radical idea that feminine strength exists in the first place.
You can’t make a good Wonder Woman story that doesn’t, at some level, interrogate the nature of feminine power or our current understanding of it. But we make a mistake when we assume that the same maxim applies to all female superheroes. As I said in my review, it is possible, and permissible, for a story about a woman to not be a story about Being A Woman.
In contrast to Wonder Woman, while Carol’s gender informs and magnifies her struggles there is nothing inherently gendered about her origin story, either in the comics or the movies. Captain America was also told that he would always be weak, was denied the ability to serve in the army for reasons he could not change, and found a way to achieve his dreams anyway with the help of an extraordinary mentor.
Which is why I was so pleasantly surprised by Captain Marvel’s new origin story. And why it immediately reminded me of one aspect of Wonder Woman for which I still harbor a pet peeve. Captain Marvel didn’t have to make Mar-Vell a woman — but it was the right decision for the story.