Since the first of the Avengers movies (in the present Marvel Cinematic Universe at least) came out in 2012, and to be fair a long time before that, people have been wondering when there would be a superhero movie that centered around a female superhero. With the appearance of Black Widow in 2010’s Iron Man 2 and her expanded role in the Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier most people bet their money that Marvel would give us that female superhero movie with her as the center. Natasha Romanov would be a natural choice since the movies have foregone other female characters to make her the primary lady. It makes movie sense at least to have the token hot chick from the movies be the center of her own film. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier the writers even went so far as to lay down the framework for a larger story, pulling Natasha out of the boobs and butt role to give her a real story and something to do.
Then Marvel did something unexpected. Last month they announced the next wave of movies for the MCU, including the first female-centric film. The heroic lady getting to be the first female Marvel hero to get her own movie since Elektra in 2005? Well, it’s not Black Widow. No, coming to screens in 2018 is Carol Danvers, better known to most as Captain Marvel, the former Avenger Ms. Marvel who is now in space with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Her team alliance with said Guardians is a great entry point for Marvel to connect the earthbound Avengers to the space misfit heroes who brought so much fun and joy to movie theaters this summer with their movie of the same name. To be fair, that makes a lot of movie sense, too. Marvel will be able to connect two franchises in one universe with some ease and expand the universe to boot, but it is more than that. Choosing Carol Danvers sends a message about the evolution of women in our society as much as it does about strong fictional female characters. Carol is one of us and we have struggled and grown and fallen down and got up again. The universe is ours.
Carol Danvers first appeared in 1968 in Marvel’s Super-heroes #13 not as a hero but as the pretty eye candy for Kree alien pretending to be a dude, Captain Mar-Vell. Her character is supposed to be smart and capable (she’s a NASA security chief and a former Air Force officer,) but she’s really positioned just to be pretty and blonde and let the men do all the heavy lifting. She ends up crushing hard on Mar-Vell’s alter ego, Dr. Walter Lawson and when his book is cancelled a few years after her debut, Carol disappears. She’s just a girl, after all, and she suffers the same position as most of the Marvel women of her time, like Jean Grey, Sue Storm, and, yes, Natasha Romanov: either be the pretty girlfriend damsel in distress or be the sexy temptress. There is no value otherwise. Her brains, her brawn, none of that mattered then but times started changing and, corresponding with the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements of the late sixties and early seventies comics began changing what they presented. Readers got more minorities and women began taking on different roles
In 1977 Carol was back in her own book, Ms. Marvel. Now our whip-smart girl had her own powers and great hair. Unfortunately, even as a hero in her own right Carol still had no agency. She spent the first issue not even knowing that she was Ms. Marvel. It did get better eventually and ideas about women being equal and being smart did weave their way into her book. Things got better for a lot of female Marvel characters who benefitted from changing attitudes in society by being able to have their own backstories and be more involved in the world, but there was still a lot of sexist garbage in comics. Carol was not immune to this and as the forward-thinking 70s came to an end Marvel did something horrific to Carol Danvers. Ms. Marvel is, fundamentally, raped by the villain Marcus Immortus. He kidnaps her, uses technology to drug her and impregnate her with what is freakily a version of himself, fixes her memory, and then dumps her back on earth suddenly pregnant with him.
The story is awful. The art is worse. Carol is depicted as enjoying her assault, that old trope of women secretly asking for it. She gets angry, at first, but then when her rapist owns up to what he did the writers actually have her feeling sorry for him. She then goes off into the sunset with him. Yep, the super smart, super-powered, capable woman is taken down a peg or two by the writers and sent off to be happy with the man who raped and manipulated her. This could be the end of Carol’s story if it hadn’t been for the work of Chris Claremont. Claremont is a hero in his own right in the real world when it comes to sorting things out with minority and poorly-treated Marvel characters. He worked hard to give many characters depth and humanity as well as to give them back their dignity. He does this for Carol and she eventually shows up again, condemning her so-called friends for letting her go off with her rapist. In that one scene Carol takes back her agency, takes back control of her life and begins to grow. It’s a turning point. She gets new powers, she takes on a new heroic identity, her adventure and heroics increase and, yes she, has her humanity as well. At some point (following Kurt Busiek taking the helm of her book) she burns out, just like we all do, and has a struggle with alcoholism. One could critically argue that this is a long-delayed way of her dealing with the trauma of her rape: she threw herself into her cause, thus distracting herself from what had been done to her, and then when she ran out of emotional fuel turned to alcohol to self-medicate. She falls down and falls down hard.
But Carol Danvers gets back up. Carol hits rock bottom and realizes that she wants the sky above her back in her hands and in 2012 she gets it, all of it, the entire universe. Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick pulls back to Carol’s Air Force past and gives her the choice to follow her original dream to explore space. Ms. Marvel no more: Carol upgrades to a title previously held only by men, Captain Marvel, and makes the choice to follow not her romantic heart but her passionate heart and head of to space with just her dreams, her ambition, and her cat. She’s wild, driven, controlling, powerful, funny, and passionate. She’s flawed and she’s rude and she’s awesome. She’s human. She’s not a lady, or a woman or a case of boobs and butt anymore. She’s not there to taunt a man with her curves or serve as the sexy lure (which, unfortunately, is pretty much most of what we’ve seen of Black Widow.) Carol is a hero. Her sex, her gender doesn’t matter. And as a beautiful coda to her Ms. Marvel past, that woman who went from eye candy to victim to survivor to badass? Carol inspired another young woman struggling with her place in the world, an immigrant, Muslim teenager named Kamala Khan who not unlike Carol herself had great power thrust upon her unexpectedly. When the dust settled and the reality of her new gifts set in it wasn’t a sexy hero that young Kamala Khan took kinship with. It wasn’t a temptress that the young woman modeled herself to be. It was Ms. Marvel who gave a young woman the courage to be a hero and broke open the doors wide for a new generation.
That inspiration is who we will get to see in 2018. Carol Danvers the hero we have needed. July 6, 2018 can’t come soon enough.