Why 'Captain Marvel' Is So Hard to Define

Carol Danvers is difficult to pin down because there’s no one comparable to her in the Marvel Universe.
Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Higher. Further. Faster. Those words have become a mantra for Carol Danvers, courtesy of Kelly Sue DeConnick who brought a fresh and female perspective to Captain Marvel in 2012. That mantra suggests a character who is not only trying to outrace her past, but operating with an awareness of it that allows her to push past any perceived limitations. While Captain Marvel, the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, draws a significant amount of inspiration from DeConnick’s celebrated run, especially in terms of Brie Larson’s characterization of Carol, the film also manages to synthesize Carol’s 50-year history into something both functional and freeing for a character who has seen her share of ups and downs over the years. Arguably more than any hero Marvel Studios has brought to the screen before, Carol Danvers was in the most difficult position in terms of finding a way to make sense of her history and the numerous changes she’d undergone, in order to entice audiences consisting of both comic and non-comic readers. Rather than being intimidated by the question of Carol Danvers, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, alongside screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve, embraced it and made that question the central thesis of the movie. So who is Carol Danvers? As the film conveys, there’s no simple answer.

With the MCU’s previous leads, there has been a clear hook that has let audiences in on who these characters are from the get-go. Tony Stark is a genius who built his own suit of robotic armor. Steve Rogers is a World War II super-soldier. Thor is god of thunder. While there are certainly layers to their characterizations, and aspects of their histories that had to be retrofitted into cinematic versions, audiences can be given a one-sentence summation of who they are and easily move on from there. But Carol Danvers is different. There’s no brief, single sentence that feels like it can accurately capture who she is, and the notion of defining her as simply a female superhero is regressive to the point of sexism. There’s quite a lot to Carol Danvers, and none of it makes for the easiest means of answering the questions audiences desire:  Who is she? What’s she about? What makes her different? The film has some fun with this identity factor with Carol telling Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that she’s a Kree, part of a race of “noble, warrior heroes.” But even that description, as Carol and Nick both come to find out, isn’t entirely fitting. The film uses the mystery of Carol’s past to cover the ground laid by the comic books, and tie them together in a way that gives us a clear sense of her character.

The mission to define Carol isn’t new. When she first appeared in the pages of Marvel Super Heroes No. 13 (1968) she was a United States Air Force security chief. Almost a decade later, and following an accident that saw her caught in the explosion of a Kree device called the Psyche-Magnetron, and her DNA is intermingled with that of Captain Marvel’s, she debuted as Ms. Marvel in 1977 in a story that appropriately suggested her multi-part identity, titled “This Woman, This Warrior!” Ms. Marvel, written by Gerry Conway, with significant contributions from his wife, Carla Conway, was considered to be one of Marvel’s most progressive books, making use of the word Ms., and Gloria Steinem's voice in the feminist movement. These early appearances centered largely on the public perception of a female hero, whose powers at the time were strength, flight and a seventh-sense that allowed her to see moments of trouble in the near future. Instead of retaining her role as security chief, Danvers became the editor-in-chief of the Daily’s Bugle’s women's magazine, and one of her first orders of business was fighting J. Jonah Jameson for equal pay (she won). Over the years, and following the cancellation of Ms. Marvel after 23 issues, Carol Danvers took on the role of Avenger, novelist, honorary X-Man, Starjammer, spy, pilot, soldier and diplomat. In a number of ways she became Marvel’s very own Barbie, complete with over 20 different jobs, outfits and hairstyles.

In terms of Carol’s career, the film chooses to focus primarily on Carol’s experience as a pilot, and grounds her past in the world of the Air Force in way similar to DeConnick’s work. While her partnership with Fury and her SHIELD disguise provides a nice bit of fan-service highlighting Danvers espionage work in the comics, there’s never a point in the film where who she becomes more about a job description than characterization. This isn’t to say that there isn’t some room in the future for Carol to become a novelist, but providing her with a focus and building a life around that allows Captain Marvel to ground the character in a way that feels real and personal. The film also utilizes Carol’s distant relationship with her parents, another element from the comic, to give her reason to commit to one area and build up a family through her work. Returning to DeConnick’s run, the writer managed to blend in Carol’s myriad jobs in a way that fittingly painted a picture of a young woman in search of herself, who sought out experiences, but whose true passion was always flying. The Air Force is an element we rarely see in superhero movies, and even though we’ve seen soldiers like Captain America and pilots like Hal Jordan, there’s something unique and modern about how much being a pilot influences Carol’s drive. And modernity hasn’t always worked out for Carol Danvers.

The issue with trying to give one woman every role and make her stand for all things in each decade, is that there comes a point when who that character becomes is muddled and inconsistent. The '70s saw Carol as the successful young woman struggling to find time for work, her personal life and superheroing, and while these stories are dated, they cast a compelling look at feminism of the era. The '80s were unkind to Carol and also came to define her by casting her as a victim starting with the controversial Avengers No. 200 (1980) on which writer Carol A. Strickland notably wrote about in the essay, “The Rape of Ms. Marvel.” This rape was followed by Avengers Annual No. 10 (1981) in which Carol loses her powers and identity to the mutant Rogue, recovers with the help of the X-Men and is then experimented on by the alien Brood in Uncanny X-Men No. 164 (1982), forcing her to cut off ties to her human side and become the cosmic hero, Binary.

The '90s brought Carol back to Earth and gave her the new guise of Warbird, photon powers and a struggle with alcoholism that gave her a bond with Tony Stark. 2006 saw Carol return as Ms. Marvel in her first solo series since the '70s, and writer Brian Reed enabled Carol to come to grips with her past by encountering old adversaries, and former personas, so that she could emerge a better hero. While Reed’s work with Carol Danvers certainly did a lot to push the character away from the notion that she was forever destined to be Marvel’s suffering woman, the emphasis on her military background occasionally cast her in a callous light, that while making readers aware of the complexity of her duties, often saw her murdering enemies and approaching every battle as a war. Kelly Sue DeConnick became the first woman to write the character’s solo series in 2012, and Carol Danvers was rebranded Captain Marvel and surrounded with a supporting cast and character-driven stories that emphasized her role as Earth’s protector and the Avengers’ cosmic emissary.

That history is more than any single film could or would even want to handle. Carol Danvers, Ms. Marvel, Binary, Warbird, Ms. Marvel (again) and Captain Marvel are all distinct enough and carry enough baggage to each be separate characters. But throughout each of those decades and personas, a core element has stuck around and allowed Carol Danvers to move beyond her original conceptualization as a legacy character. Carol has carved out a role in the Marvel Universe that has taken on more significance than Mar-Vell’s, the one-time and since deceased male Captain Marvel. The film further curtails the notion that Carol Danvers is a legacy character by making her the first and only Captain Marvel. And while her Kree heritage isn’t her birthright, it’s one she comes to possess through another woman, Wendy Lawson/Mar-Vell (Annette Bening), a female take on the comics Wendell Lawson/Mar-Vell. And as for Carol’s photon powers, Captain Marvel, allows the character to acquire them as a result of her own actions, rather that as an unwilling participant in an alien experiment. So while Captain Marvel’s brand of feminism doesn’t operate in the same way as it did in the 70s comics, there’s just as powerful, perhaps more so, of a recontextualization of what femininity means in terms of Carol Danver’s identity. Despite substantial changes made to the character's backstory, the film often circles back around to defining moments of her comic book history, while settling for a narrative not as overwrought with comic book logic as so many of Carol’s early adventures were.

There’s a scene midway through Captain Marvel in which Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) tries to reconcile her newfound memories of who she was with who she has become. I don’t know who I am, she admits. “You’re Carol Danvers,” her friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) tells her. It’s a moment of identity confirmation, set against the backdrop of a dimming Louisiana evening sky and trees thick with Spanish moss, that provides a quiet sense of closure, a small triumph rather than the revelatory instant that comes with suiting up and a display of powers, as we’ve come to expect from these movies. The scene is suggestive of Boden and Fleck’s earlier work, a quiet, dramatic beat of American identity constructed through impossible odds. Carol Danvers is difficult to pin down because there’s no one truly comparable to her. She stands apart from so many of our most well-known superheroes and that’s what makes her entry into the MCU so exciting. She’s beaten the odds again and again, and managed to find relevance, and then dominance, within an industry where female legacy characters can so often become lost and misused. And now she emerges on the screen, going higher, further, faster, and ultimately ending up as exactly who she’s meant to be.