Captain Marvel: The Surprising History of How Female Superheroes Came to Be

Photo: Marvel

By Matthew Jent

Marvel Studios recently announced their "phase three" line of feature films. Phases are a thing the Marvel Studios folks like to break their movies down into, roughly broken up by new Avengers movies. Phase two introduced Guardians of the Galaxy this summer, which proceeded to make all of the money in the world. Along with a few more Avengers movies, a GotG sequel, and a sorcerous franchise-starter called Doctor Strange, Marvel also announced a 2018 movie called Captain Marvel.

Good name! But who is Captain Marvel?

She (!!!) will be Marvel’s first female headliner of her own movie. After several franchise-spanning appearances by Scarlett Johnasson’s Black Widow, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige said, “It comes down to timing,” with regard to a female-led superhero movie. Apparently that time is 2018, just a year after Warner Bros. releases a Wonder Woman film.

Captain Marvel's secret identity is Carol Danvers and, in the comics, she was an Air Force officer who was friendly with “Mar-Vell,” an alien who was Marvel’s first Captain Marvel. In 1977, she became Ms. Marvel (“This Female Fights Back!”), then she became a half-alien called Binary, then her consciousness was absorbed by Rogue (Anna Paquin in the X-Men movies), then she was an alcoholic member of the Avengers called Warbird, and finally in 2012 she became, by name, Captain Marvel. Phew!

Photo: Marvel
Photo: Marvel

There’s a more thorough history of Marvel’s Captain Marvel over on Comics Alliance. Of note? For a few years in the 1980s, Captain Marvel was an African-American woman and leader of the Avengers. There was also another Captain Marvel, currently published by DC Comics, who most folks know as Shazam. That character is getting his own movie in 2019. Marvel has the trademark for “Captain Marvel” through some legal juggling explained in the links above, but the short version is -- they snapped up the trademark for the character without actually having a character called Captain Marvel and, since the late 1960s, occasionally published a Captain Marvel series in order to keep the trademark active.

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Captain Marvel started out as a male, silver-blonde, albeit alien superhero. But Marvel has a storied history of creating female versions of their characters for trademark purposes. Aside from Wonder Woman (whose own story is covered in an excellent new book called The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore), a lot of female superheroes are gender-swapped versions of existing male heroes.

In the late 1970s, The Incredible Hulk was a hit TV show for Marvel and CBS. It was an action-adventure series for boys, not dissimilar to The Six Million Dollar Man, which was about a cyborg solving people’s problems. The Six Million Dollar Man was spun off into The Bionic Woman, which had its parent program’s same premise except with, you know, a lady. Marvel’s contract with the Hulk’s production company said that any new characters created for the TV show would be owned by the production company, and not Marvel. So before they could scoop Marvel with a Hulk Woman, Marvel created the She-Hulk.

As Bob Chipman breaks down more fully in this Big Picture video called “She-Hulk Shaming,” She-Hulk became one of Marvel’s “quietly subversive creations … sort of progressive, and after a fashion even feminist.” Though, at first, she was called the “Savage She-Hulk,” the character evolved into something much more interesting over the decades. While the, um, He-Hulk turns into a green monster who doesn’t know his own strength, She-Hulk retains her intelligence and memories when she turns green. In most of her appearances, she even retains her profession (when she’s not engaged in superheroics with the Avengers, she’s a practicing attorney).

03 She-Hulk 2014 excerpt

 While the name “She-Hulk” remains unfortunate, and while the character’s powers are a cut-and-paste job of her cousin the Hulk’s, the fact that she retains her agency and intelligence is progressive. As Chipman says, “A woman in comics who gets powers and doesn’t really suffer for them? That is new, that is interesting.”

Marvel’s Spider-Woman was introduced in 1978 for similar reasons. The Amazing Spider-Man was a short-lived, live-action series that aired around the same time as The Incredible Hulk, and then-publisher (and current cameo king) Stan Lee explained, “I suddenly realized that some other company may quickly put out a book like that and claim they have the right to use the name, and I thought we’d better do it real fast to copyright the name. So we just batted one (out) quickly.”

04 SW01
Photo: Marvel

Unlike She-Hulk, Marvel didn’t try to connect Spider-Woman to her male counterpart. But the downside to that was a character who didn’t have a very solid foundation. In her first appearance, Spider-Woman is literally a spider who has turned into a woman. This was retconned to be a memory implant and she was recast as a spy (later a double-agent {later still, a triple-agent}). Her series didn’t last long, but, like most superheroes, she appears and reappears with new powers, new secret identities, and a new number-one-issue every few years. Most recently, she was briefly controversial for being something of a contortionist.

Copyrights and trademarks are hella complicated, but even though Marvel recently cancelled She-Hulk’s latest monthly series, it won’t be too long before it returns. They have to use the trademark to retain it, and using trademarks is not something they have trouble doing.

So after all of this, with so many female superheroes to choose from, why is Captain Marvel the first from Marvel Studios to headline her own feature? Enter the Carol Corps.

Both Carol Danvers and Captain Marvel have been around since the late 1960s, but Carol as Captain Marvel is a relatively new creation. The upside to having to regularly use a trademark like Captain Marvel, even though the character has never found much success, means Marvel is willing to try something new every few years. Carol graduated from Ms. Marvel to Captain Marvel in 2012 with a cool new costume and design. She left her one-piece swimsuit and thigh-boots behind and got a really cool haircut. Cosplayers, a growing and sizable audience at comics conventions, started showing off some equally impressive Captain Marvel outfits pretty much right away.

Earlier this year -- before the movie was announced -- Wired talked to former Captain Marvel writer Kelly Sue DeConnick about the Carol Corps and the new Captain Marvel.

“It is not a formal organization,” she said. “There are no rules. People write and ask me all the time, ‘How do I join the Carol Corps?’ You join Carol Corps by saying you are Carol Corps.”

Photo: Marvel
Photo: Marvel

And that’s the key to the new Captain Marvel’s popularity: inclusivity. If the stereotype of a superhero fan is pointlessly academic arguments about who is stronger, the Hulk or the Thing, the Carol Corps is about being part of a group, and -- finally -- seeing a character who looks like you in the comic books you like to read.

A Captain Marvel reader and Carol Corps member named Jennifer DePrey told Wired she, “always kind of avoided superhero comics. If I was looking for a superhero that I felt was like me, her costume was a bikini and thigh-high boots or had a boob window.”

But that changed with the Carol Danvers Captain Marvel.

“One issue in, I was like, ‘This is my superhero. This is the character I wish I’d had when I was 12.”

Photo: Marvel
Photo: Marvel

With Carol as Captain, and since no trademark must lay fallow in the field, there’s a new Ms. Marvel, too. Her secret identity is Kamala Khan, and she’s a sixteen-year-old Pakistani-American Muslim. Marvel, which does not release hard digital sales numbers, says Ms. Marvel is their #1 digital seller. Maybe this version of Ms. Marvel only exists to retain the trademark, but no matter the reasoning, there is a teenage Muslim superhero being published by Marvel Comics. That’s not just “quietly subversive” -- that’s crazy cool.

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It can feel a little weird wading into the business side of art, but Marvel is owned by Disney, and superheroes are big business. And if maintaining trademarks, growing brand awareness, and corporate synergy can lead to the representation -- on the comics page or the silver screen -- of folks who aren’t used to seeing themselves portrayed as fully realized characters with emotional depth and really rad superpowers? Well, that’s kind of hard to argue with, isn’t it?

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