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26 July 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 11:35am

Meet Captain Marvel – the feminist Air Force officer-turned-superhero set to rival Wonder Woman

AKA Carol Danvers: the “overtly feminist heroine” modelled on Gloria Steinem.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

At San Diego’s Comic Con this weekend, a slew of superhero movie trailers were released: Doctor Strange, Justice League, and The Lego Batman Movie to name a few. But while it can feel like the same handful of DC and Marvel characters are being endlessly recycled for big-budget blockbusters, some more unusual heroes are also starting to get more recognition. As the New York Times summarised, Comic Con fans are finally being given greater diversity of heroes, with Marvel characters Black Panther and Luke Cage leading their own franchises, and DC’s Wonder Woman film due for 2017 release.

None of these characters are new, but major studios like Disney-owned Marvel and Warner Bros-owned DC are only now understanding that superhero audiences cannot be defined as white, straight and male, and seeing fresh potential in these figures. It is perhaps not too surprising, then, that after a new Wonder Woman trailer was shown in San Diego, Marvel announced the star of its own anticipated female-led superhero blockbuster, Captain Marvel: Oscar-winner Brie Larson will hold the title role.

Captain Marvel is a particularly interesting figure in this latest wave of fresh faces. The superhero code name has been attached to various Marvel characters since the late Sixties, but has most recently been assumed by longstanding superhero Carol Danvers, who was the first Marvel character known under the pseudonym “Ms. Marvel”. Danvers first appeared in 1968 as a former US Air Force officer and basically a love interest for the original, male Captain Marvel. It wasn’t until 1977 that she was given superpowers of her own, and debuted as Ms. Marvel (a kind of female counterpart to Captain Marvel).

The name was supposedly influenced by the feminist publication Ms. Magazine – in one plotline, Danvers even quits a job at NASA to work as an editor at Woman magazine. Kelly Sue DeConnick, who would write Danvers as Captain Marvel in 2012, said the 1977 Danvers was “an overtly feminist heroine”.

“She wore oversized glasses and blond, middle-parted hair and neck scarves”, she told TIME. “It was Gloria Steinem fan fiction in the most literal sense.”

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Carol Danvers: from damsel in distress to feminist superheroine. Images via Vox and Comic Book Religion

But many readers didn’t find Danvers’ debut as Ms. Marvel a feminist breakthrough for the comic world. One regular reader, Jana C Hollingsworth, wrote that the decision to create a female Captain Marvel double or “male-based heroine” had a distinctive whiff of the patriarchy, adding, “It’s been proudly proclaimed that Ms. Marvel is not Marvel Girl; well, maybe the early Marvel Girl did have weak powers and an insipid personality, but at least her powers were her powers and her personality was her personality . . . I hope you can change her costume if it’s all possible, and keep her on her own instead of associating her with Captain Marvel.”

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Another reader, Debbie Lipp, wrote, “Question: where is a woman who wears long sleeves, gloves, high boots and a scarf (winter wear), and at the same time has a bare back, belly, and legs? The Arctic equator?”

A controversial 1980 issue of Avengers saw Danvers kidnapped, raped and fall pregnant. Reader Carol A Strickland complained in a very compelling essay that the comic “presented [Danvers] as a victim of rape who enjoyed the process, and even wound up swooning over her rapist and joining him of her ‘free’ will,” asking, “shouldn’t everyone be concerned when a comic displays a struttingly macho, misogynist storyline that shreds the female image apart with a smirk — and rewards the one who did the shredding?”

Chris Claremont, who had written the 1977 vision of Danvers, agreed with Strickland that women in comics “are either portrayed as wallflowers or as supermacho insensitive men with different body forms, who almost invariably feel guilty about their lack of femininity”:

Can you not have a woman who is ruthless and capable and courageous and articulate and intelligent and all the other buzz-words—heroic when the need arises, and yet feminine and gentle and compassionate, at others? That was what I tried to do with Ms. Marvel. I tried to create a character who had all the attributes that made her a top-secret agent yet at the same time was a compassionate, warm, humorous, witty, intelligent, attractive woman.

Strickland agreed, writing that Claremont and his collaborator Dave Cockrum created a Danvers that was the peak of her characterisation:

Once Mr. Claremont settled into his job […] Ms. Marvel began to do things. Things few, if any, women characters (or men, for that matter!) had done before. While her first adventures had been composed of the obligatory fight scenes upon more fight scenes, now her stories began to have plots, now her life as a hero was being tied into her life as a civilian. By the time Carol covered her navel in a Cockrumized costume, the comic had hit new heights of interest in plotline and artwork. Notice I didn’t add “for a heroine there. That’s because Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum were both looking at Ms. Marvel as a person – a beautiful, female person, yes, but a superhero above all!

It wouldn’t be until the 21st century that comic fans would see that Danvers truly re-emerge in the Marvel universe. By the end of the Eighties, the Ms. Marvel persona had been axed, and Danvers was making only occasional appearances in Marvel comics throughout the Nineties. Her prominence and popularity rose again throughout the Noughties, until Marvel commissioned writer Kelly Sue DeCormick to give Danvers her own series as Captain Marvel (the original had died about 20 years before, and while Marvel had seen various reincarnations of the persona via different characters, none were a great success).

“My pitch was called ‘Pilot’ and the take can pretty much be summed up with ‘Carol Danvers as Chuck Yeager,’” DeConnick said at the 2012 WonderCon. Following Danvers as a fiercely competitive pilot, the series shows her grappling with the decision to become Captain Marvel, and included a controversially revamped costume. Designed by Jamie McKelvie with the encouragement of DeConnick and her editor Steven Wacker (who tweeted that the decision came about because he wanted his young daughter to be able to dress up as Captain Marvel), the look saw Danvers step into a practical full-length jumpsuit. There was, as DeConnick mildly puts it, “a bit of a backlash”. As she told Slate, a vocal minority were saying, “she’s taken our character and inserted her feminist agenda” and were “super, super pissed off that we covered her ass”.

The response surprised her. “It was unexpected. I have always sort of felt that feminism and the ideals of comic book heroes are very much in line with one another.” She added, “I wasn’t like, writing feminist pamphlets, you know. I was writing stories about this lady who shoots beams out of her hands. But I had the gall to have inter-generational female friendships and a largely female cast and, you know, every once in a while, a joke.”

But DeConnick’s vision of Captain Marvel has only grown in popularity since 2012. She has headlined tie-in series, a further volume of her own series, had significant roles in various spin-offs, and now her own movie is on the horizon. As Marvel’s rival to the feminist legacy of Wonder Woman, she has potential to bring in big audiences – especially with Brie Larson at the helm, a vocal feminist who has spoken out about diversity on screen and supported sexual violence survivors at the Oscars, and has simultaneously been very popular at the box office.

The Hollywood Reporter writes that Marvel has been on the hunt for a female filmmaker to direct Nicole Perlman’s script. If it finds one, this could be a truly ground-breaking feature for women in comics fandom. Let’s hope it continues as well as it has started.