Who Is Captain Marvel? A Brief History of Marvel Studios' First Leading Lady

Explaining the comic book empire's latest high-flying star
 David Lopez/Marvel Entertainment

For a sizable portion of comic book fans, the news that Marvel Studios will be releasing a Captain Marvel movie in July 2018 is long overdue. But for others (especially non-comic fans of the Marvel characters), there might be a sense of “Wait, Captain who?”

Marvel has had a Captain Marvel in its lineup since 1967, when Stan Lee and Gene Colan introduced an alien soldier called Mar-Vell (no, really) in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes No. 12. That isn’t the same Captain Marvel who’ll be showing up onscreen four years from now, however; that Captain Marvel is Carol Danvers, who has the honor of being Marvel Studios’ first female solo lead in its at-that-point 10-year history.

Confused? You don’t know the half of it: Marvel has actually had no fewer than eight Captain Marvels over the decades, and it wasn’t even the first company to feature a character of that name. That would be Fawcett Comics, with C.C. Beck’s character, who nowadays is owned by DC Entertainment and going by “Shazam.” An independent publisher called M.F. Enterprises also beat Marvel to the name with a short-lived 1966 creation.

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Carol Danvers, the current Captain, started life as a supporting character for Marvel’s first Captain Marvel. Introduced in Marvel Super-Heroes No. 13, she was a U.S. Air Force pilot and potential love interest for the hero who eventually got sidelined following an accident during one of Mar-Vell’s adventures. Years later, it was revealed that that accident had actually altered Danvers’ DNA and given her superpowers, prompting her to take up the superheroic identity Ms. Marvel. (If that sounds dated, it was 1977.)

Danvers continued as Ms. Marvel on and off for the next three decades (she also briefly went by the names “Warbird” and “Binary” during that era, and also spent some time disempowered and without memory, but such things are common in comics) before taking on the Captain Marvel mantle to much fanfare with 2012’s Captain Marvel No. 1. (The series was relaunched again earlier this year.)

A curious thing happened when Carol Danvers became Captain Marvel: The character became viral for the first time in her existence. Following the promotion of the 2012 series — complete with a stylish new costume designed by artist Jamie McKelvie — the character found herself at the center of something calling itself the Carol Corps, a loosely organized, predominantly female fan base that vocally supports the series and its writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick, pushing to create a safer space for women inside comic fandom.

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the Carol Corps is at least partly responsible for the Captain Marvel movie announcement. Through the online efforts of that fandom in particular, the character has become a figurehead for Marvel publishing’s attempts to diversify its audience and expand its reach, even as other female leads outsell the Captain Marvel series on a regular basis.

With today’s announcement, Captain Marvel crosses over to take on the same role for Marvel Studios. Combined with the news of Marvel’s first solo movie featuring a nonwhite lead, Marvel is finally stepping outside of its comfort zone, and into the (relative) unknown.

After a decade of movies about white men and space raccoons, it’s about time.

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