Captain Marvel and the Long, Strange History of Female Superhero Names
Before Captain Marvel was Captain Marvel, someone else was Captain Marvel. And that someone else was a dude. Someone else was Captain Marvel before him, too.
The nominatively deterministic history of Captain Marvel—Carol Danvers, Earth pilot with alien superpowers, hero of a Marvel movie coming out in March—in fact is also the history of women superheroes and how comic books have changed over their 80 years.
So armor up; let's get to it.
A Mar-vellous Origin
When Marvel Comics introduced Carol Danvers in 1968, she was a supporting character in the publisher’s book Captain Marvel, which was about an alien soldier named Mar-Vell (yeah, I know) who protects the Earth with what's essentially an augmented Superman powerset—flight, durability, strength, and so on.
Another wrinkle: this Captain Marvel isn’t DC Comics' Captain Marvel, who also had an augmented Superman powerset but was actually a plucky orphan named Billy Batson gifted with magic powers by a wizard. When Billy said the word “Shazam!”—an acronym for the abilities of Samson, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, Mercury, and yes, I know—he was transformed into a strapping, red-besuited monster fighter. Created just a year after Superman by CC Beck and Bill Parker for Fawcett Comics, that Captain Marvel couldn’t defeat the lawsuit that DC launched in the 1950s, claiming infringement on Superman. DC eventually absorbed Fawcett and the Marvel family into mainline Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman continuity, but eventual legal trouble with Marvel Comics resulted, decades later, in the character being known only as Shazam, which had been the name of the Wizard. (See: Frankenstein.) DC Entertainment's Shazam movie comes out in April, and as far as I know he’ll be the only superhero who can’t say his own name without losing his powers.
(Also, what happens to Billy's body when Shazam lightning-bolts into the picture is the subject of some dispute. Is it Billy’s 13-year-old brain in the new body, as the upcoming movie seems to suggest? Does the replaced body go dormant in some alternate universe? That’s what the writer Alan Moore eventually suggested in his grim 1980s take on the character, Miracleman, itself based on a more direct British ripoff of Captain Marvel called Marvelman, which was changed in the US for, again, legal reasons. And, and, at one point Marvel's Captain Marvel had the same problem, sharing space with a teenager; the two switched places between our universe and the alternate Negative Zone. Tired yet? Good.)
Back to Carol Danvers! She got killed in a Captain Marvel fight, but only comic-book killed, because she came back in the 1970s. It turned out her exposure to the energies of an alien machine called the Pysche-Magnetron gave her the same powers as Captain Marvel … so she put on a gratuitously revealing version of his costume (super-men get body suits and armor; super-women all too often get bikinis) and took the name Ms. Marvel. Which opens up a whole other conversation.
They'll Be Miss-ing You
The naming of women superheroes is, as TS Eliot kind of said, a serious matter. For years, decades even, women superheroes were often gender-swapped versions of existing male characters. And patriarchy didn’t stop there. Did Superman have a Superwoman? No! (Well, yes, but it’s complicated.) He had Supergirl. And so too we had Batgirl, Hawkgirl, Miss Arrowette, Miss Martian, Mary Marvel, Spider-Girl, She-Hulk, She-Thing … the naming was uncreative at best, infantilizing at worst. (A major exception: Catwoman, Batman’s forever foe and romantic partner. She started out as the Cat and then got needlessly specific.)
Now, before Batgirl there was a Batwoman, created as a foil and love interest for Batman (and to show that there was nothing untoward going on between Batman and Robin). But she was too equal, and eventually the publisher wrote her out, recapitulating the biblical myth of Lilith, Adam’s all-too-equal wife in the Garden of Eden before he complained to God and had her kicked out in favor of Eve, who was nominally more compliant until the whole apple thing. Like Lilith—who was cursed with infertility and forced to haunt the night collecting semen spilled during masturbation, becoming mother to the seductive sex demons the incubi and succubi (and grandmother, then, to all the vampires)—Batwoman, too, has a more interesting side story. Not that interesting, but interesting. Nowadays she’s a former soldier, a lesbian, kicking a lot of ass, and wearing arguably the best costume in comics today. She’s scheduled to show up in the Arrowverse of DC-based television shows on the CW this season, potentially in advance of her own show.
My point here is, you might be underwhelmed by a character being named Ms. Marvel—but maybe don't be. It wasn’t weird to see an honorific in a superhero or villain name: there were Misters (Terrific, Fantastic, Mind, E) and Doctors (Strange, Fate, Octopus, Midnight, Manhattan). And in the 1970s, “Ms.” was still in contention. It symbolized that decade’s spreading wave of feminism, so much so that it was the name of a whole magazine about feminism (the very first issue of which featured Wonder Woman on the cover). Like new cultural awareness over the possibilities of pronouns today, the idea of a honorific for women that didn’t point to their marital status or age was both revolutionary and necessary. It was perhaps no accident that Ms. Marvel had a precognitive “sixth sense;” acquiring superpowers had literally raised her consciousness. (Also, Marvel Comics already had a Marvel Girl—Jean Grey, the mutant telepath and telekinetic member of the X-Men who would eventually become the genocidal, cosmically powerful Phoenix.)
Coming Into Her Own
The thing is, empowering name be damned, Ms. Marvel didn't have the best run in the Marvel Universe in the 1970s and 1980s. She didn't have much of a clear mission. She was sexually assaulted; she got handed an unfortunate brainwashing-and-pregnancy storyline. She didn't save many universes. This can happen with female derivations of male characters; without a good writer or an editorial push, they’re just characters with the same powers as another character. It’s hard to build differentiable stories around that. Instead, Ms. Marvel got a kicky new black costume and lost her powers and memories while another character, Monica Rambeau—able to turn into any form of electromagnetic radiation—took on the Captain Marvel name for a while. (She eventually switched to Photon, and then Pulsar, and then Spectrum.)
Meanwhile, Carol went to space to fight aliens with the X-Men, where she somehow acquired the powers of a “white hole,” the opposite of a black hole. So she could shoot energy and gravity and fly in space. Carol took the name Binary—it didn’t have the same gender connotations then. Eventually, she lost those powers, reacquired the Ms. Marvel powerset, and reacquired Binary's energy projection powers as well. She became part of various Avengers teams, and starred in a few of her own titles, none very long-lived.
Then in the mid-2000s, Marvel (the publisher) returned to Marvel (the lady). She got a well-designed new costume, roughly the one you’ll see in the movie, and on the urging of the Avenger with the vibranium shield swapped the "Ms." for "Captain." Again, lots of heroes and villains use the trick of leveling up via military rank, but despite women’s longtime service in America’s armed forces, few female-identifying heroes have done so.
Marvel’s editors had noticed, I think, that while they had many women heroes and villains, they didn’t have one as powerful as Superman or Wonder Woman—and, in fact, didn’t have anyone in that power class who wasn’t also a tortured monster. Thor, maybe. The persistent appeal of Wonder Woman as a character over at DC (and the success of her movie) helped. So too did the drive in comics and comic-based movies to be more reflective of the diversity in the real world. All those forces spiraled toward building the Carol Danvers version of Captain Marvel into a Superman-level hero, both power-wise and symbolically. In the comics, she’d become a significant philosophical foil for the company’s other high-powered character, Iron Man, elevated to star status by movies. And the post-credits sequence of Avengers: Infinity War strongly implies that Captain Marvel will be the deus that the machina throws at Thanos.
She’s also an inspiration—not just to all kinds of fans, but inside the canon. There’s another Ms. Marvel now, a young shapeshifter named Kamala Khan who wears a variant of that kicky black costume I mentioned. Though some reprehensible elements of comics fandom continue to kvetch about it, comics creators and movie makers have increasingly come to understand that having many different kinds of people tell stories about many different kinds of people expands the audience pool and makes the stories, broadly, better. The arc of the Marvel Universe is long—but it bends toward justice.