More than a decade after the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched, we finally get to see its first solo film led by a female character. “Captain Marvel,” starring Brie Larson, officially premieres Friday and will tell the story of how Carol Danvers became the titular hero for the first time on-screen.
But Captain Marvel’s legacy extends far beyond the movie world. Carol Danvers, the most recent character to take up the name, has a rich and varied history that often reflects the highs and lows many female superheroes have gone through in their comic book portrayals. From the feminist to the not-so-feminist, here’s how Carol Danvers went from a supporting character to the most powerful hero in the MCU.
Starting off as the hero’s girlfriend
Carol Danvers initially appeared as a love interest, not the titular hero, in 1968’s “Captain Marvel” series. The original superhero was a male alien named Mar-Vell who posed undercover on Earth as a human scientist.
Mar-Vell was a member of the Kree, which had been locked in a multi-thousand-year war with another alien race: the Skrulls. (Both will be prominently featured in the movie.) Carol Danvers, a former Air Force officer turned NASA security chief, remained a secondary character in the series for almost a decade.
But as the ’70s feminist movement grew, so too did Danvers’s role as a character. Her history was retconned (a.k.a. retroactively changed) so that after an accidental encounter with a Kree machine, her DNA was somehow altered, turning her into a human-Kree hybrid. Danvers emerged with powers including superhuman strength, durability and flight. Cue the superhero theme song.
Taking flight as Ms. Marvel, but with some not-so-feminist lows
Carol Danvers debuted in her own series as the superhero Ms. Marvel in 1977. The hero was meant to be explicitly feminist. Her name — Ms. instead of Miss — was a tribute to Gloria Steinem and “Ms.” magazine.
Gerry Conway, Ms. Marvel’s creator and first writer, also said they wanted to reach out to female readers with the superheroine. “There were definite attempts to create this kind of feminist role model,” Conway said in an interview with Polygon.
But despite her origins, Ms. Marvel wasn’t always a great example of female empowerment. When Danvers first gained her powers, she never consciously chose to become Ms. Marvel. Instead, she would black out and a second, split personality would emerge. Danvers would awaken with no memories. In other words, she was a bystander in her own heroic story.
The nadir of Ms. Marvel’s story, however, came in the ’80s. “Avengers No. 200” included a storyline where Danvers was kidnapped by a man named Marcus, taken to an alternate dimension, and then brainwashed and impregnated. Yet the story had the brainwashed Danvers later declare her sympathy for Marcus and decide to stay with him in his dimension. The Avengers, the team Danvers was part of at the time, simply let her go without addressing the sexual assault.
Ms. Marvel’s rise in prominence to become a leader
After the troubling 1980 assault, former Ms. Marvel writer Chris Claremont returned to the series. Claremont had harshly rebuked the storyline before.
“How callous! How cruel! How unfeeling!” he said in a quoted interview in “The X-Men Companion II.”
Claremont quickly had Danvers return and condemn the Avengers for letting her remain with her rapist. It wasn’t until the 2000s, however, that she began playing significant roles in major storylines.
In the 2006-2007 “Civil War” between Captain America and Iron Man, she was a principal player on Iron Man’s side, advocating for the Superhuman Registration Act. The storyline led to her becoming the leader of the Mighty Avengers for a time in 2007.
2008 also saw Ms. Marvel play a primary role in “Secret Invasion,” a storyline that focused on the Skrull invasion of Earth. The Skrulls were alien shapeshifters who had secretly replaced many Marvel superheroes prior to their invasion, causing a crisis of trust between heroes. The aliens will probably be the primary antagonists of the movie.
Becoming Captain Marvel, the most powerful Avenger
After years as Ms. Marvel and rising in popularity, Carol Danvers took on the mantle of Captain Marvel in the 2012 “Captain Marvel” series, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick.
As Captain Marvel, Danvers ditched the skimpy leotard and suited up in a new, more practical uniform, designed by comics artist Jamie McKelvie, that better reflected her military background.
DeConnick focused on ironing out Danvers’s messy, retconned history, bringing more depth to her time in the Air Force and her childhood dreams of space exploration.
“When we talk about [Captain Marvel], we say: Everything about her wants to go up. Head up. Heart up. Chest up. Chin up. Everything faces towards the sky,” DeConnick told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs.
And in a pivotal issue involving time travel, Danvers was given a choice. She could prevent her past self from gaining powers and continue life as a civilian or allow history to unfold as it once did. The story finally gave Danvers something her origin story had been missing: agency.
Both the series and the costume redesign exploded in popularity. By late 2014, just two years after DeConnick’s series debuted, “Captain Marvel” was announced as Marvel’s first, female-led superhero film. Then, in 2018, Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, said that Captain Marvel would be the most powerful hero the MCU has ever seen.
Fifty years after her debut as a love interest, Carol Danvers now sits at the top of the MCU superhero food chain.