Captain Marvel Isn’t Marvel’s Answer to Wonder Woman… Yet
The studio’s first solo female superhero has a lot more riding on her shoulders than ticket sales
Last week I saw the debut of the trailer for Captain Marvel, Marvel Studio’s long-awaited film that will (for the first time!) plant a female superhero firmly in the spotlight. Although the movie was developed in 2013, it was the resounding success of 2016’s Wonder Woman — released by DC, Marvel’s chief competitor — that finally spurred the studio to give a superhero franchise to a nondude.
But let’s be clear: Captain Marvel is no Wonder Woman… for now, at least.
The trailer was probably the first time most people had even heard of the character Marvel Studios is trying to make its premier female superhero. But Marvel Comics has also been trying to make Carol Danvers its equivalent to Wonder Woman on and off since 1977. Marvel has always been missing a distinctive female superhero on par with its best-known (and most marketable) characters, like Spider-Man, Captain America, and the Hulk. For most of Marvel’s existence, the majority of its most famous female superheroes were parts of a team (think Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman or X-Men’s Storm).
Or, to put it succinctly: Marvel has had a hell of a time making a female character with the cultural cachet needed to, theoretically, star in her own blockbuster superhero movie.
To fully understand why Marvel has given Captain Marvel that blockbuster superhero movie, we need to examine the comics’ history with Carol Danvers. (I promise, this the most streamlined bio of the character written by a nerd you will read between now and the movie’s premiere.) When Carol first appeared in 1966, she played a supporting role — basically the love interest — for Marvel’s original Captain Marvel, an alien named Mar-Vell who came to scout Earth but decided to protect it instead. Even then, Carol was unique among Marvel’s other female characters, including its heroes. When she made her first appearance, she was already a decorated U.S. Air Force officer and a former CIA agent and was currently the (youngest-ever) head of NASA security. Unfortunately, Carol was injured by an alien weapon and disappeared from Mar-Vell’s life and comic books in 1969.
Carol reappeared in 1977 to make her heroic debut as Ms. Marvel, after it turned out that the alien device had given her all of Mar-Vell’s alien powers, including super strength, flight, and energy bolts that shot from her hands. Although her superhero name was clearly a feminine derivative of the male Captain Marvel, à la Supergirl or She-Hulk, it was also a feminist statement of sorts. Ms. Marvel #1 was published not long after women’s rights supporters championed the honorific, particularly after Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes premiered the first regular issue of Ms. magazine in 1972. Two other things are worth pointing out: 1) In Ms. Marvel, Carol had a new day job as editor of the feminist Woman magazine; 2) the first issue of Ms. featured Wonder Woman on the cover, proclaiming the superhero as a feminist icon.
Marvel was hoping its new hero would attract young women and girls as comic readers, as Ms. Marvel #1 writer Gerry Conway said in an interview with Polygon. It was a concerted attempt to tap into the audience DC Comics had with Wonder Woman, but Ms. Marvel never caught on, and her comic lasted only a couple of years. Marvel gave her a second push in the mid-2000s, but it wasn’t until writer Kelly Sue DeConnick got hold of Carol in 2012 that the character claimed the name Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell was long dead) and was presented as one of Marvel Comics’ most important characters. She’s been dubbed “Earth’s Mightiest Hero” in the comics ever since, putting her above Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and many, many more.
Captain Marvel #1 was published in 2012, and Marvel Studios began development on the movie in 2013. Clearly, the new Captain Marvel was someone the studio wanted to bring to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as its first major female superhero—although the script certainly wasn’t completed until after Wonder Woman premiered in 2016 and kicked serious box-office ass, but make of that what you will.
As I’ve said, Captain Marvel is no Wonder Woman, but it would be injudicious to say that Captain Marvel won’t be as successful as the Wonder Woman movie just because the latter character is a longtime pop-culture icon. After all, the terrifyingly efficient film factory that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe cares not for “experience.” No one beyond very few comics fans had heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy before their movie premiered, and now they headline one of Marvel’s top franchises. Marvel Studios makes superheroes into stars, and let me assure you, Captain Marvel has a lot more going for her than Ant-Man or Doctor Strange. Plus, it’s been well proven that audiences are hungry to see heroes who aren’t white dudes. Carol Danvers and her movie will almost certainly do just fine.
But even having her own a massive movie success won’t make her Marvel’s Wonder Woman. After all, Wonder Woman is the premier female superhero and has been since 1941. She’s starred in three-quarters of a century’s worth of comics. She had a three-season, primetime TV series in the 1970s. She was a symbol of the women’s rights movement. Captain Marvel’s got none of that. When her movie premieres next spring, the character will have existed in her current form for only seven years.
Marvel, however, has always specialized in making its heroes human, even when they were bitten by a radioactive spider or hit by a gamma bomb, or, impressively, even if they were a Norse god. Marvel’s best superheroes have feelings and flaws and hopes and fears, and Carol is no exception. She’s brave but sometimes headstrong, she’s caring but sometimes loses sight of the greater good, and she’s always pushing herself to be better—although occasionally she pushes herself too far. Captain Marvel is no icon, but she’s someone people can understand and be inspired by.
After that, the only thing Captain Marvel needs is time. Her movie is the perfect start, and it’ll help even more when she shows up in Avengers 4. It’s what happens next that I’m concerned about. The way Marvel Studios has dragged its heels on Carol’s film and only recently, begrudgingly announced the Black Widow movie, makes me worry that she might not get the same solo franchise options as her male counterparts and will fade into the background for occasional guest appearances.
Captain Marvel can’t inspire anybody if she disappears after a movie or two. She needs to stick around long enough that people know Carol Danvers is the most badass woman in the Marvel Universe by her own right. She needs to be outstanding enough, long enough, that she’s as utterly inseparable from the pantheon of Marvel superheroes as Iron Man, Spider-Man, Black Panther, Captain America, and the rest — not just for right now, but for years to come.