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Oh Captain, My Captain: A Countdown to Captain Marvel

At 9:30PM Pacific Time on February 19, Disney officially lifted the social media embargo for Captain Marvel.

The rest of the world finally got a pre-release date glimpse into Marvel Studios’ penultimate Phase 3 movie—and an introduction to the next era of MCU superheroes. The 280-word reviews are officially in: there’s a new sheriff in town, and she’s bringing the party to us (as if there was any doubt).

Captain Marvel joins an 11-year-old cinematic franchise filled with beloved and overwhelmingly male characters—so it’s unsurprising that the stakes are astronomical.

As the first female-led superhero movie from Marvel Studios, expectations—from the quality of the film, to the symbolism that it carries for gender equality—are high. It’s not unlike the hype that surrounded Black Panther prior to its release last year.

Black Panther went on to make more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office. It’s also won various awards this season, including three Academy Awards—the first superhero film to ever do so. Captain Marvel could easily be as, if not more, financially and critically successful.

But where Black Panther, as character, figured prominently in a highly anticipated movie prior to the release of his own blockbuster hit, Captain Marvel has to stand on her own two feet; without the help of the juggernaut studio’s more established characters.

She’s not doing this from scratch, of course. With over half a century of comic lore at her disposal, Captain Marvel has all the opportunity in the world to soar higher, further, and faster.

 

Mantle: A History

Captain Marvel’s mantle has been assumed by a total of six characters in Marvel comics. The eponymous Mar-Vell being the first.

A military officer of the Kree Imperial Militia, Mar-Vell is sent to Earth. His orders: determine how much of a threat the human race is to the Kree empire. Taking on a human identity and growing fond of humans as his mission drags on, Mar-Vell earns the ire and envy of his commanding officer, Yon-Rogg.

It doesn’t help that Mar-Vell’s rogue actions to aid humanity alarm his superiors. This puts his standing within the Kree Empire on uncertain ground. He’s eventually found guilty of treason and is sentenced to death by firing squad. He then escapes with a stolen rocket just in the nick of time (this is comics, after all).

Mar-Vell continues to remain Captain Marvel for the majority of the next twenty or so publication years. Cancer ultimately kills him in the early 1980s, and his mantle is succeeded by a superpowered police lieutenant from New Orleans.

Monica Rambeau is notably the first female African-American superhero to be inducted into the Avengers. She replaces the Wasp as the leader of the Avengers in the late 1980s. That is, until she loses her powers and subsequently retires to recuperate and eventually return to active duty.

Upon the appearance of Mar-Vell’s son, Monica gives up the title to the third to carry the Captain Marvel name, Genis-Vell. Most of his adventures take place in the Marvel cosmos for about a dozen publication years. When he eventually returns to Earth, he joins the New Thunderbolts team and sheds the Captain Marvel title to adopt the alias, Photon.

Three more characters—Phyla-Vell, Khn’nr, and Noh-Varr—carry the Captain Marvel name after that. But none of them turned out as prolific, significant, and loved as the sixth and current holder of the title.

An officer of the United States Air Force, Carol Danvers often interacted with Dr. Walter Lawson; the human alias of Mar-Vell. Her origin story ties her intimately to the Kree warrior turned Earth defender. After Mar-Vell saves Carol from the explosion of a Kree device, the process fuses her genetic structure with his. The resulting outcome turns Carol into a human-Kree hybrid, allowing her to develop superhuman abilities.

captain marvel
Captain Marvel cover art by Terry and Rachel Dodson, Captain Marvel Vol 6 Issue #6

For over forty publication years, Carol Danvers assumes the title of Ms. Marvel. She fights alongside the Avengers—outside of a few bumps, hiccups, and questionable storylines. In 2012, she assumed the Captain Marvel mantle, taking on a more prominent leadership role both within and outside the Avengers.

 

Holding on for a Hero

Just so we’re clear—the Captain Marvel we’re seeing on the big screen in just a few days is indeed Carol Danvers. And it’s looking more and more unlikely that she inherits the Captain Marvel identity from anyone.

Although officially rumored to be Mar-Vell during initial casting, Jude Law will play Yon-Rogg, one of the first villains Mar-Vell encountered in comic lore. This change reframes Carol’s origin story as the MCU’s Captain Marvel—and it is an origin story with agency.

Image courtesy of Disney and Marvel Studios.

The change is significant, because Carol Danvers didn’t always have agency based on her comic history.

Despite Marvel’s early attempts to associate Ms. Marvel with the 70’s feminist movement (tackling equal pay for equal work in her civilian life), there was a long-standing issue with Carol continuing to fly around in a one-piece bathing suit. If we take historical context into consideration, this can be read as an expression of sexual liberation. However, at a time when the comic book industry was explicitly and unrepentantly a boys’ club, what little real estate female characters had in comics were always, always directed by the male gaze.

For much of comic book history, costuming for female superheroes wasn’t a product of function, but rather of sexual objectification. Costumes highlighted conventional standards of beauty; drawing attention to frequently sexualized body parts: the legs, midriff, and breasts.

Enter: Kelly Sue DeConnick, who took the helm and turned Ms. Marvel into Captain Marvel. Addressing the costume issue, DeConnick equipped Carol with a swanky new outfit that paid homage to Carol’s military origins while highlighting her superpowers. The new costume moved to eliminate the male gaze, allowing Carol as a character to be complex. This move drew (unsurprising) backlash from some male fans, but DeConnick’s fresh take drew in a more female fanbase. These fans are aptly named the Carol Corps.

Bigger than the need for a costume change, appalling wrongs were committed against Carol Danvers. She was subjected to a horrifying storyline where she is essentially raped and impregnated in the early 80’s run of the Avengers comic.

The story is fairly formulaic. As far as using rape as a plot tool goes: Carol Danvers is captured by a man called Marcus, who is stuck in Limbo. He then uses some form of mind control to entice her to sleep with him. Adding insult to injury, Marcus then erases the memory of this event from ever happening. Carol becomes pregnant—and because this is comics—she gives birth after three days. To a child who quickly grows and turns out to be Marcus. Adding to this dumpster fire, the Avengers never question any of this. They allow Marcus to whisk Carol away to a twisted happily ever after.

It’s maddening to see that this whole narrative wasn’t even some plot to make Carol Danvers a stronger woman; the historical function of rape in stories that feature women prominently. It was to write her out of the Avengers comic. This is fetisization at its worst, and sadly typical of its era.

The issue was met with strong criticism and Marvel moved to address it. The following year, they not only retconned that disaster, but also attempted to address the loss of Carol’s autonomy and her friends’ absolutely unacceptable response. It doesn’t change the fact that the Marcus storyline remains to be a part of comic canon.

 

A Legend 

Thankfully, it doesn’t look like that narrative is what will take to the big screen.

After DeConnick breathed new life into Carol Danvers, there was no turning back. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige and his merry band knew that in order to do this right, they would have keep, if not improve upon, DeConnick’s Carol.

“This film is very much about this character learning to not hold back and to not accept the boundaries put in front of her.” —Kevin Feige

Casting Brie Larson (known for her Academy Award-winning performance in the 2015 film Roomwhere she portrayed a survivor of sexual abuse) as the titular character sent out a signal to the rest of the galaxy: Marvel Studios wasn’t taking the significance and potential impact of this movie for granted.

Image courtesy of Brie Larson.

Larson is a tireless advocate for sexual assault survivors and an unapologetic activist for gender equality. She’s also not gun-shy about her lobby for diversity in all aspects of the film industry.

At the Captain Marvel press tour, Larson campaigned that the studio ensure female journalists of color be given a seat at the table. The move enraged misogynists so much, it led to an anti-Captain Marvel campaign via social media. That kind of manbaby temper tantrum might have been notable during the time of the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot movie. The overtly juvenile reactions may have dogged Star Wars‘ characters like Rey and Rose Tico, hit at the Wonder Woman film, and even Black Panther. But that crap don’t fly no more in the age of Carol Danvers.

And while some may argue that this kind of backlash isn’t particularly damaging on a financial note, it is toxic and exhausting; and the emotional toll leaves its mark.

To have films that push for diversity and to see these films dominate box offices worldwide, opens doors for women (and people of color) at the forefront. These movies dare to change the status quo. They are a step in pushing the industry in hopes for a more welcoming space.

On the heels of negative reviews bombarding Captain Marvel‘s Rotten Tomatoes page, the site responded by disabling users’ ability to post comments before a movie is released. The move hopes to combat efforts driving down the Want To See percentage score before films have a chance to prove their mettle. Whether Rotten Tomatoes did it as a result of Captain Marvel is besides the point. It can be viewed as an attempt to prevent the elevation of toxicity.

But even without this change, Captain Marvel is still on track to earn upwards of $100 million (maybe even reach $150 million) at the US box office next weekend. Black Panther opening weekend estimates last year were around the same ballpark figure. As evidenced by the accolades, that went on to become a cultural phenomenon and earned a cool $1.3 billion worldwide.

Avengers: Endless Wartime (2013). Image courtesy of Marvel.

The full review embargo lifts right after the Captain Marvel world premiere on March 4.

Now that Marvel Studios has officially turned the social media embargo into dust, we are absolutely sure of one thing:

 

Carol Danvers is taking all of us on a wild ride from 1995 to Avengers: Endgame. And all the way to the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe where she brings us to greater and brighter heights. The galaxy is in good hands.


Are you hyped? WE ARE. Captain Marvel hits theatres next week! You can check here for the official release dates for your respective areas.

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Mima Mendoza
Environmental justice advocate by day, Marvel geek by night, and dog mom 24/7. Likes themed parties and prefers train over air travel. Absolutely refuses to throw away the past 15 years by quitting on Grey's Anatomy. Your resident go-to for the Marvel, Disney, and San Diego Comic-Con beats.

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