The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters for “The Life of Captain Marvel #5.” Enjoy!
I hope everyone has had a chance to catch their breath after the release of the “Captain Marvel” trailer. I certainly needed a day or two. It was one of those experiences in which it takes time to process every wondrous detail. I don’t know how many times I watched it. I just know that March 8, 2019 cannot get here fast enough.
The response to the trailer has been overwhelmingly positive, which has become the norm for all things affiliated with Marvel Studios. The bar for this movie is high, but matching and exceeding high bars is exactly what Carol Danvers does. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is already on an unprecedented win streak, both in terms of acclaim and box office. By all accounts, “Captain Marvel” is poised to continue that streak.
If I had to bet on it, I would place a hefty wager on “Captain Marvel” succeeding. Marvel Studios is riding such a huge wave of hype after “Avengers: Infinity War” that the idea of one of their movies failing seems unthinkable. However, it wasn’t that long ago that people felt the same way about “Star Wars.” Then, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” came along and shattered that notion with the force of a thousand Death Stars.
Like it or not, the law of averages dictates that Marvel Studios will fail at some point. Whether or not that happens with “Captain Marvel” remains to be seen. For the moment, that doesn’t seem likely, but the possibility is definitely there. I would go so far as to say that “Captain Marvel” is more vulnerable than previous Marvel movies and not just because the bar for success is so ridiculously high.
Kevin Feige, the President of Marvel Studios, has gone on record as saying that Captain Marvel will be one of the most powerful characters in the MCU. Her presence will be a game-changer for the immediate and distant future. That means the margin for error is ridiculously small. Marvel Studios literally cannot afford for “Captain Marvel” to fail. That may end up being what makes this movie so vulnerable.
As a lifelong fan of superhero comics and a Captain Marvel fan, I feel like it’s worth contemplating this most distressing possibility. Never mind the implications for Marvel, Disney, and the entire superhero genre that may unfold in the event that “Captain Marvel” fails. How could a movie with so much going for it and an Oscar-winning actress in Brie Larson end up failing in the first place?
After watching the new trailer multiple times, reading multiple articles, and contemplating my previous comments on this movie, I’ve surmised a handful of concerns that I believe could derail this movie. Some of these concerns assume certain details that may very well be dead wrong by the time the movie comes out. I have no insight beyond the trailers I’ve seen and the details that have been made public.
I don’t expect everyone to share these concerns. Some may even have entirely difference concerns and I’d be happy to discuss them in the comics. For now, this is just me, as a fan of both Carol Danvers and superhero comics, contemplating what could go wrong for a movie that aspires to do so much.
Reason #1: Limiting The Extent Of Carol’s Agency (Inadvertently)
One of the biggest revelations from the second trailer had to do with an important plot point that was ripped directly from the comics. In the first minute, we find out that Carol’s memory has been erased and she’s caught up in the agenda of the Kree. Given how the only notable Kree character in the MCU to date has been Ronan the Accuser, this does not bode well for her.
This is a critical detail because in the comics, Carol lost both her memories and her powers at one point and had to effectively rebuild herself. That struggle helped establish how resilient she was, as a character. It also helped build her appeal. More importantly, though, it emphasized her struggle to regain her sense of agency.
Being mind-wiped is always a tricky plot point, as was nicely demonstrated in “Captain America: Civil War.” The biggest problem is being mind-wiped really hinders a character’s ability to make weighty choices. For Bucky Barnes, that isn’t too controversial. For Carol Danvers, a female hero in an era where female heroes have become fodder for identity politics, it could be an issue.
If, from the get-go, Carol is just a puppet of the Kree and her entire story revolves around her escaping their control, then that doesn’t just narrow the plot. It limits her agency because it makes her choices predictable. If, at any point in the story, she’s faced with a choice to follow the agenda of the Kree or go against them, it’s not going to surprise anyone when she chooses to go against the aliens trying to use her.
By making too much of the story about Carol re-asserting her agency, it makes the movie less about her fighting shape-shifting aliens and more about her regaining her independence. While that too can be a compelling story, and one in line with her history in the comics, it hinders the plot by making every choice obvious. When none of the choices in a story seem difficult, it can get boring fast.
Reason #2: Not Allowing Carol To Be Wrong
This is another factor that could make “Captain Marvel” too predictable and boring. Marvel Studios has made it clear that they want Carol Danvers to be the future of the MCU. Like Captain America, she’s poised to become the face of Marvel and their Disney overlords. For that very reason, it’s important that they allow her to be wrong.
To understand why, think back to “Wonder Woman,” the movie that set the gold standard for female superhero movies. In this movie, Wonder Woman doesn’t just make a fateful choice when she leaves Paradise Island. She also ends up being dead wrong about the identity of Ares. It made for a powerful moment that genuinely surprised me.
That moment didn’t just establish that Wonder Woman was fallible, despite being this overpowered badass warrior princess. It humanized her in a critical way. You could argue that this trait is more integral to Marvel’s heroes because they end up being wrong in a wide variety of ways. Tony Stark’s journey to becoming Iron Man started with him being wrong about something.
My concern for Carol is that making her this overpowered female hero who can defeat Thanos will take priority over everything else. The story won’t even give her a chance to be wrong or make a bad decision. That won’t just make the plot predictable and boring. It could earn Carol Danvers the dreaded “Mary Sue” label that has plagued characters like Rey.
That, more than anything, could derail Carol’s ascension to the upper echelons of the MCU. If she becomes a joke more than an icon, then she won’t be able to do carry out the bold plans that Marvel Studios has laid out for her. Part of what makes characters like Iron Man and Wonder Woman so popular is that they’re so easy to cheer for. Cheering for an annoyingly flawless character who is never wrong is much harder.
Reason #3: Not Effectively Explaining Carol’s Absence From The MCU
This is more a logistical concern than anything else. Before the first trailer ever dropped, it was established that “Captain Marvel” was going to take place in the 1990s. As a result, it would unfold within a world before the Avengers ever assembled and before superheroes ever became mainstream. It would also explore the origin of pre-eye patch Nick Fury, something that “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” only hinted at.
That’s an intriguing idea that digs into an unexplored aspect of the MCU. At the same time, it does raise a major question. If Carol has been Captain Marvel since the 1990s, where has she been? Why wasn’t she available when Loki or Ultron attacked? While it makes sense outside the movies in that a “Captain Marvel” movie wasn’t even scheduled before 2012, those questions are still relevant in the story.
The end of “Avengers: Infinity War” somewhat compounds this issue because Nick Fury reveals that he has had a way of contacting Carol all this time. A tie-in comic also hints at his past dealings with Carol, but is vague on why he chose not to summon her. Chances are “Captain Marvel” will try to answer that question more in depth, but that answer might not be adequate.
It’s not a trivial detail that can be glossed over. If Carol doesn’t have a good reason for not being on Earth during invasions from aliens and genocidal robots, then that makes it harder to get behind her as the most powerful hero in the MCU. It can’t come off as an excuse because Marvel Studios hadn’t planned that far ahead. Without a good reason, Carol just wouldn’t come off as heroic.
Reason #4: Making Her A Female Superhero BEFORE Making Her A Great Female Characters
This is where the stakes for “Captain Marvel” get frustratingly political. I’ve mentioned before how creating quality female characters has become mired in identity politics. This movie has already been affected somewhat by those corruptive forces. “Wonder Woman” managed to avoid it from a plot perspective and that’s the most “Captain Marvel” can do.
This means that before Carol Danvers becomes the super-powerful, high-flying badass we saw in the trailer, she needs to establish herself as a character, first. This is something I’ve seen movies, comics, and TV shows get completely backwards in recent years. There’s such an emphasis on making someone a “strong female character” that they forget the part where they’re a compelling character.
Carol Danvers has decades of character development in the comics. She’s someone who has deal with upheavals in her personal life, her superhero life, and everything in between. It’s hard to fit all of that into a two-and-a-half hour movie, but both “Wonder Woman” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” showed that it’s possible.
I can easily imagine Marvel Studios feeling tempted to make “Captain Marvel” the kind of cosmic spectacle we saw in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” I wouldn’t blame them for taking that approach, but having that without establishing the depths behind Carol Danvers would only be half a movie. Visual spectacles are great, but without quality characters, it’s just flashy images and nothing else.
Reason #5: Trying Too Hard To Make Carol Too Powerful
This issue is part logistics and part agenda. The events of “Avengers: Infinity War” were astonishing in terms of scope and scale. In the end, the collective might of dozens of Avengers could not stop Thanos. He was stronger than Thor, the Hulk, and the entire army of Wakanda. By default, taking him down requires a new level of power.
Carol Danvers promises to wield such power. Before the movie finished shooting, Kevin Feige dubbed her the most powerful Avengers in the MCU. That power may be necessary to defeat Thanos, but getting Carol that power could be tricky. Her power levels are already pretty extreme in the comics, but the MCU deals with different circumstances and scales.
The second trailer offers some clues as to how Carol gets her powers. Like the comics, they’re tied to her biology getting mixed up with that of the Kree. Beyond that, the scope and extent of her powers are vague. It’s not clear whether there’s something unique about her or the process that gives her so much power. At some point, she’ll have to level up and expanding powers in superhero media is always tricky.
When powers don’t have defined limits or are left vague, they tend to resolve every story in the spirit of a Deus Ex Machina trope. In short, there’s a supremely powerful threat. Then, by some contrived happenstance, the good guys gain access to power at or greater than the threat. It’s simple, but contrived. A DC movie may get a pass, but the bar for Marvel Studios is higher.
Again, I believe that “Captain Marvel” will be a great movie. Most of these concerns are just a byproduct of only knowing the movie through a couple of trailers. None of these reasons are inescapable. Given the impressive track record of Marvel Studios, there’s no reason to believe they won’t find a way to make it work and raise the bar even more.
One way or another, “Captain Marvel” is set to be a major turning point for the MCU. Whether it succeeds or fails, it will have a significant impact on the overall genre. However, it’s in the best interest for the MCU, Marvel, and superhero media, in general, that this movie succeeds.
The second “Captain Marvel” trailer has dropped. There’s a lot I’d love to talk about. For now, though, let’s just take a moment to marvel at what awaits us in March 2019.
Some characters are iconic from the get-go. Spider-Man, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman all managed to establish themselves as special early on in their history. They’re the lucky ones, though. Most characters have to go through a long, arduous process to reach the top tier of superhero icons. A lot of them never make it, but those that do are special in their own right.
These days, the character who best embodies that spirit is Carol Danvers. You don’t have to go back too far to remember a time when she was relegated to the superhero B-list. As Ms. Marvel, she had her share of fans. I was one of them. She also had her place in the annuls of Marvel lore. However, she was never able to break through and join that elite club occupied almost exclusively of Stan Lee creations.
That all changed when Kelly Sue DeConnick came along and reinvented Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel in 2012. That process, which has since become one of my favorite runs on a comic book series of the past 10 years, helped Carol finally break into the upper echelon of superheroes. With a movie coming out in 2019 staring Brie Larson, it’s safe to say she’s entrenched.
I could write a dozen articles about why Carol Danvers’ character resonates more now than it did when she first showed up in 1968. I’ve already mentioned some of the unique challenges she faces as she enters rarefied air among Marvel heroes and female superheroes, in general. However, I want to focus on one particular aspect of her character that helps her stand out.
As it just so happens, it’s also part of her character that recently underwent a major upheaval in the comics. Among other comic book fans, it has been controversial. I’ve certainly seen more than a little whining on message boards and Reddit. I have my share of criticisms too, but I intend to justify why I believe this is a promising new era for Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers.
The upheaval in question occurred in a recently-launched mini-series called “The Life of Captain Marvel.” Written by Margaret Stohl, who has been guiding Carol’s journey for several years now, I cannot recommend this series enough. It is, by far, one of the best Carol Danvers stories ever written. Years from now, it will likely mark a major turning point for her story.
That’s because Stohl does something that’s both critical and controversial to Carol’s history. She makes a major alteration to an aspect of Carol’s life that doesn’t change her past, but puts it in a very different perspective. That change, in my opinion, makes Carol a much more intriguing character.
If you want to avoid spoilers, you should probably stop reading here and check out the series. Again, I highly recommend it. The big change, however, takes place in the fourth issue. Here, her mother, Marie, drops a bombshell revelation on Carol that rocks her world. She reveals that she’s half-human and half-alien. Specifically, she’s half-Kree.
Anyone who saw “Guardians of the Galaxy” knows why that’s a big deal.
Anyone who has a passing knowledge of Marvel history knows why that’s a huge deal.
The fact that she’s half-alien isn’t that unique. Peter “Starlord” Quill has a similar heritage. The reason it’s such a big deal for Carol is because it changes the context of how she got her powers and the role she plays in the greater Marvel universe.
Before this change, Carol’s powers were somewhat of an afterthought. Like Spider-Man, they were the result of an accident. Her’s just involved alien device called the Psyche Magnetron. She got caught in an explosion and that explosion allegedly fused her DNA with Kree DNA to give her superpowers. It’s not the most contrived origins story, but it’s not exactly epic.
To some extent, getting her powers by accident undercut all the work she did before that. Even without powers, she managed to carve out a successful career in the air force and NASA. That work became somewhat superfluous once she got superpowers. Unlike Peter Parker, she was already on a heroic path. Getting powers just seemed like skipping a bunch of steps.
With the revelation by her mother, there’s more connective tissue between her journey as Carol Danvers and her journey as Captain Marvel. Her mother, who comes out as a full-blooded Kree warrior, tells Carol that the accident wasn’t the sole cause of her abilities. It was just the catalyst. These are her exact words.
“What humans see as Kree powers are just our biological adaptations to a life of combat. They’re triggered in battle, usually around adolescence. Sadly, most of us have known war by then.”
This implies that even if she hadn’t been caught in the crossfire of the Psyche Magnetron, her Kree abilities would’ve come out at some point. For some fans, including die-hard Captain Marvel fans, it feels like this is denigrating her origins. I respectfully disagree with that notion. I believe this gives Carol’s story a new kind of appeal.
In terms of how superheroes become iconic, how they get their powers and how they choose to use them plays a huge part in their appeal. I would argue that just making Carol an ordinary human who got caught in an accident has limited appeal. Like I said before, she’s not Peter Parker. She’s not an average person. She’s more like Batman in that she’s an overachiever who strives to do more.
Her being half-Kree adds a new dynamic to the mix because it makes Carol a product of two different worlds. She is born on Earth and lives her whole life as a human. However, she now has this alien heritage that has already influenced her life in ways she didn’t understand. You need only look at the mass appeal of Superman to see why that story is compelling.
Being half-Kree means Carol suddenly has a connection to a race that has waged war on Earth before. She also has a connection to a world that has blatantly experimented on humans before. At the same time, her human life wasn’t exactly ideal. Unlike Superman, she was not raised by picture perfect parents like the Kents.
Her mother, despite being a Kree warrior, was in an unstable relationship with Carol’s very human father. Their family suffered a devastating loss when Carol’s brother, Steve, died in combat. They never really recovered from that and, for most of Carol’s history, that loss kept her parents as a side-note at best in her journey.
With Carol’s mother being a Kree warrior, it changes her into something more than a woman who stayed in a bad marriage. It adds more layers to why she and her husband clashed. Even in the first few issues of “The Life of Captain Marvel,” her father comes off as a generic asshole. Finding out he was dealing with an alien wife makes his struggles a lot less generic.
In many ways, Carol’s parents represent her divided heritage. Her father didn’t want her embracing her Kree side and fighting alien wars. Having already lost a son, who can blame him? Her mother didn’t want to stop Carol from embracing both sides of her heritage, even though that was sure to leave her conflicted.
It effectively connects Carol’s superhero journey with that of her family. Those journeys involve some heavy losses, painful secrets, and destructive alcoholism. It’s something you’re not going to find with Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, or any of the X-men. It leaves Carol Danvers in an uncertain, but promising state.
It’s not yet clear how much of Stohl’s revisions will find their way into the “Captain Marvel” movie. To some extent, it helps that Carol’s origin isn’t as iconic as that of other heroes. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has already done some considerable tweaks to certain characters to make them fit the narrative. I have a feeling we’ll see plenty of that in the movie.
However things plays out on the big screen for Carol, I think her story in the comics just became a lot more interesting. I know there are some fans upset by this. I’ll even concede there are some parts of this revision I don’t care for. There was some appeal to Carol just being an ordinary human who worked her ass off to achieve what she did.
Every major revelation or retcon in a comic or movie comes at a price. You’re bound to upset some people. That’s unavoidable in a world full of such diverse tastes. However, I believe that Carol gained much more than she lost in “The Life of Captain Marvel.” I believe she’s bound to gain a whole lot more, both through her movie and through the new host of stories that can be told.
Whatever the case, I hope Brie Larson takes plenty of notes.