Captain Marvel breaking new ground

Captain Marvel is only the second of 49 Marvel-related movies to feature a woman in the leading role - a move that underlines how disenfranchisement of women remains a significant cultural stumbling block, writes Auckland University's Dr Neal Curtis.

Captain Marvel has been a long time coming.

Why do I say that? Well, given the popularity and current box office dominance of superhero movies, as well as widespread assumption of gender equality, it is sobering to think that prior to this only one of the 48 Marvel-related films since Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000 has had a woman in the lead role.

It is also only the second time a woman, Anna Boden, has been director. So, contrary to the ravings of one of our radio shock-jocks, this suggests “toxic feminism” is certainly not the problem. Rather, it underlines how disenfranchisement of women remains a significant cultural stumbling block.

On this topic, anticipation of Captain Marvel has been high because the character epitomises the long struggle of women to gain greater representation in comics and the industry, and there has recently been a radical (although still not adequate) shift in that area.

Linked to the issue of “diversity”, this shift has been part of a broader challenge to the worldview of straight white men and Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, has acted as a lightning rod for these concerns.

Unfortunately, these changes have been met by regressive counter moves under the banner of #comicsgate, a manufactured scandal in which readers who identify as “Alt-right”—the new epithet for a collection of very old far-right chauvinisms—attack creators, editors, publishers and fans who they claim are ruining “their” comics.

When the trailer for the film was first released the view of this small but vociferous constituency was “Does this b**ch ever smile?”, an attitude towards women that the film directly and knowingly engages.

So who exactly is Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel?

The first Captain Marvel superhero was published by Fawcett, not Marvel. Originally male, he first appeared in 1940, but National Periodicals, later to become DC, claimed he was a rip off of Superman, and after several years of litigation Fawcett stopped publishing in 1953.

In 1972 DC took out a licence on the name but could only publish under the title “Shazam” (the magical incantation that gave Captain Marvel his powers) because Marvel Comics had taken out copyright on their own Captain Marvel in 1967. The Shazam movie that premieres next month is therefore DC’s Captain Marvel movie!

It was in Marvel’s version that Carol Danvers first appeared in 1968. She was an officer and pilot in the US Air Force where she met a Kree warrior called Mar-Vell assigned to monitor Earth but, in contravention of his own government’s wishes, became Captain Marvel, Earth’s protector.

Carol is severely injured in an accident with Kree technology and her DNA is fused with Mar-Vell’s. In the film, this moment of Carol’s transformation is beautifully realised, and through a clever twist, her “rebirth” is key to the film’s gender politics.

In the comics, it is not until she returns in 1977 as new hero, Ms Marvel, that we find out the accident gave her superpowers. She is a character shaped by second wave feminism – as suggested by the ’Ms’ – and demonstrates incredible feats of strength and courage.

The film manages excellently to mirror the struggle Carol faced in 1977 as she wrestles with her dual identity and embraces her newfound empowerment.

Like many Marvel women characters, she suffers a patchy publication history. Despite taking on a major role in The Avengers, the character is marred by alcoholism and writers not knowing what to do with her.

The low point was undoubtedly when she was raped in The Avengers #200 in 1980, an incident unacknowledged in the comic and only addressed after complaints from fans. Carol Strickland’s essay The Rape of Ms Marvel was seminal in the movement to address specific types of violence against women within the genre.

In light of all of this, it was only right that when, given the chance to become Captain Marvel in 2012, she seized the opportunity in a comic written brilliantly by Kelly Sue DeConnick (who gets a cameo in the film). Her old title of Ms Marvel passed on to a young Muslim girl called Kamala Khan, the first Pakistani-American superhero in a comic who captures the best of Marvel’s push for greater representation.

Carol, however, wasn’t the first woman to carry the Captain Marvel title. That honour went to an African-American woman called Monica Rambeau in 1982, who went on to lead The Avengers in 1987 but gave up the title in 1996.

The film does another superb job in acknowledging this part of the character’s history. Maria Rambeau, Monica’s mother, is written in as Carol’s best friend and Air Force buddy before the accident. Once Carol begins to rediscover her past we get to know the young Monica who is confident, intelligent and determined.

Given the time difference between this film, set in 1995, and the current timeframe of the MCU maybe we will see a grown up Monica in Avengers 4?

Anyway, the film is brilliant. The narrative ebbs and flows through past and present, with plenty of twists and a whole lot of action driven by a woman completely unapologetic about the power she has.

In the trailers, Carol was shown at various ages falling over and getting back up, and the scene in which this is pulled together is the emotional and political heart of the movie.

All her life she’s been told to not go so fast or climb so high. As a child and a young woman she always needed to prove she could, but in the end realises she never needed to prove herself to anyone.

Signature Marvel humour is there, as are countless little ‘Easter eggs’ for comic fans.

The film serves as Captain Marvel’s origin story, but it is also the origin story of Marvel character Nick Fury to some extent, and in a fantastic final scene it rewrites the origin of The Avengers, with Carol Danvers as the first Avenger.

A lot of men are going to have a hissy fit about that, but all I can say is “higher, further, faster”.

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