Of all the characters that Marvel or DC consider their headliners (you know, the ones that show up to every event and get plastered over the promotional material), Carol Danvers AKA Captain Marvel has to be the most divisive.
There are people out there, myself tentatively included, who genuinely want to like her. She has a fanbase, the “Carol Corps”, who have had a profound effect on Marvel’s attitude to the character, for better or worse. For some, she is Marvel’s Wonder Women, a feminist icon, and responsible for pulling many new readers into the medium. Marvel studios must concur on at least some of these points, because they have committed to making her the subject of the first female-led MCU film.
Yet from others sections of the comics fandom, Carol is relentlessly unpopular, and deeply and sincerely disliked. Why?
I am fascinated by this duality. Much as some would like to dismissively attribute it to women-hating nerds, you won’t find such a disproportionate schism in public opinion for Jean Gray, Black Widow or She-Hulk. I am certainly not a woman-hating nerd, but as much as I want to like Carol… I definitely hate her, too.
There is certainly a political dimension to the wider backlash, Carol being in some ways the poster child for what a subset of readers see as some sort of radical left-wing influence in Marvel comics. Some also connect the character to the controversial 2015 All-New All-Different initiative, which replaced many famous heroes with female or minority versions (even though Carol had been Captain Marvel three years before any of that happened). For small minds, that is more than enough reason for outrage.
For my part, I rather like many of the ANAD replacement heroes, like Jane Foster as Thor and Laura Kinney as Wolverine, but still dislike Carol Danvers’ Captain Marvel, for reasons that have nothing to do with her being a legacy character.
No, the simple reason I don’t like this latest Captain Marvel is that I haven’t read a book for years in which she has a starring role that wasn’t horribly boring — since the Kelly Sue DeConnick years at least. I believe there are fundamental character and story reasons that have made it incredibly difficult for anyone to write a consistently great Carol Danvers book, despite Marvel’s strenuous efforts.
Let’s explain that. Without further ado:
The 5 Reasons Carol Danvers Fundamentally Sucks
This is an easy one. Good heroes have an origin with an emotional hook that informs the character and engages the reader with their struggles. A tragedy is a good start. Batman lost his parents, fights crime; Superman lost his planet, protects his new planet; Spiderman lost Uncle Ben; and so on.
It’s not just death and loss, though, and some of the more interesting origin stories have an unusual style of tragedy: Captain America was frozen out of his time; Hulk loses his ability to feel emotions without turning into a monster. Whatever the case, origins are stories that give us an excuse to care, and give a good justification for why that hero does the extraordinary things they do. Pretty much every headliner hero got to the top on the strength of their origin story.
This is Captain Marvel’s origin story: Carol Danvers was caught in a harmless explosion, and became one of the most powerful heroes in the world.
Carol did not lose/sacrifice anything. She doesn’t have a particular reason to fight for good. The event didn’t cause a revelation, or change her goals or perspective. She was just given unlimited power for nothing. That is not the gripping start of a new hero whose struggles you can get behind. Getting something for nothing and taking justice into your own hands sounds more like the origin story of a small-time villain.
I think a good rule of thumb for an effective origin story is whether or not you can explain it in two simple sentences and get somebody interested in the character. I don’t know how you could possibly do that for Carol. Believe me, I’ve tried.
2. History and Lore
Every story that is written about a character contributes to their personal history. When you’ve established the character in the origin story, it is time to build something on those foundations. If I give you the name of a hero and ask you to tell me the first 10 things you think about relating to that hero (other than their origin story and their powers) we get into their lore. For Superman, you might say Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Kyrpton, the fortress of solitude, etc.
Does Captain Marvel have arch-enemy? Does she have a famous event she was a part of, important artefacts that are connected with her, a rich supporting cast of characters, even a particular setting you would connect her with? When you think of Thor, you think of Mjolnir, the Warriors Three, Odin, Asgard, Jane Foster, Loki, Enchantress, and that’s just to start — think a little longer and you will have an almost endless supply of fascinating lore that has exploded out of Thor stories. It is the same with any popular hero.
One of the most gripping aspects of long running story is how they introduce, develop, deconstruct, subvert and generally play with these elements. For convenience, I’m going to group all these story elements, events and ideas under the banner of “lore”.
Marvel fans especially are very “into” lore. The magic of the Marvel universe is how elements crossover between franchises, so every idea introduced in one book is fair game for other writers to pick up and play with. When Silver Surfer picks up Mjolnir and uses it to fight the Punisher (who also happens to have been possessed by the spirit of vengeance and has become a space faring Ghost Rider), fans love it. When Multiple Man travels through time to pick up the powers of various other heroes, resulting in a Deadpool with Wolverine claws and a Hulk with the powers of Doctor Strange, or whatever, fans squeal.
Okay, that’s all a bit silly, but when used for story reasons this is essential stuff. Game of Thrones fans who were saddened by the symbolism of the Lannisters melting down Ned Stark’s Valyrian blade and turning into swords for Joffery and Jamie, or who shivered at the potential consequences of Cersei making an alliance with Euron Greyjoy, will appreciate the value of good lore. The Greyjoys are expert sea warriors — that’s part of the lore of Westeros. Their alliance gives us all something to dread.
In Marvel comics, all this lore comes from somewhere… but almost none of it comes from Carol Danvers. Her fictional history is as featureless as a wooden plank.
When you think of Captain Marvel, what do you think of? She... used to be a pilot? She has Kree DNA, somehow. Did she used to have a romance with Marr-Vell, before that character died? And… I’m struggling here. She reinvented herself a few times, as Binary and later Warbird, and that’s kind of interesting, but how often is that bought up these days?
What are the classic, quintessential Carol Danvers stories? What is her World War Hulk?
(Well, she has one major event she was integral to, I suppose: the rape of Ms Marvel. Understandably, Marvel has tried to brush that one under the rug…)
When they do try and write a story that is fundamentally hers, it’s usually incongruous or without much gravity. They sometimes give her a story based around the Kree. In Margaret Stohl’s The Mighty Captain Marvel, she acted like she had lost a piece of herself when the Kree homeworld was destroyed. She’s not even a Kree! The Kree are the race that created the machine that caused the explosion that gave her powers. That is a weak-ass connection, yet they try very unsuccessfully to make it relevant. That’s how desperate they are for quality lore for this character.
When I first starting reading Stohl’s The Mighty Captain Marvel, this is what I noted on my phone:
Because Carol doesn’t have any particular connection to anything, she is totally replaceable in pretty much every story she shows up in, whether as a supporting cast member or as the protagonist.
Let’s list Carol’s powers:
- Super strength
- Super durability
- Energy beams
Okay, I know they are Superman’s powers too, but he had them first. And that’s kind of the point, anyway — Superman didn’t just have them first, he was THE first. These were the first superpowers that anyone came up with. By now, they are generic, flavourless, and cliche.
(Besides, if you do find Superman and his powers boring, he has a great origin story and HEAPS of absurd lore to make up for it)
Look at this poster:
Hulk turns into a monster, but only when he’s angry. Doctor Strange can use the mysterious art of magic, but only with the right artefacts and often he has to pay a price. Jean Gray can read minds. Spider-Man shoots super-sticky string that he uses both to entangle foes and to get around by swinging on walls. Ghost Rider burns things but can also make people confess their sins and re-live their crimes. Ant-Man shrinks. Iron Man has the technological ingenuity to build any weapon, but of course he has to be wearing his armour to use them.
Think about all the crazy, imaginative solutions to challenges writers can come up with — and the cool visual effects that artists come up with, too — based on even ONE of those powers, let alone when they combine those powers with the powers of other characters, or with elements of the lore of their stories. Endless potential for creativity.
Flight, super-strength, energy beams? Nah.
What makes it worse, and this ties back into the point I was making regarding her origin story, is that all of these powers are just things Carol Danvers was good at anyway. She was an air-force soldier, so she could fly, fight, and shoot guns. Then, after the powers-granting explosion, she does the same things, but now without a plane and against aliens. Far from a dramatic paradigm shift. It’s not only redundant, but it makes one of her few interesting (non-superpower-related) character traits useless — what does it matter if you are an ace pilot if you are faster, more manoeuvrable, and have more firepower without the plane? It’s not a relevant hobby anymore. Tell me more about Drax The Destroyer’s saxophone playing, but I sure don’t need to hear anything more about Carol’s piloting history. That sucks, because, as I mentioned before, her being a pilot is one of the few strong mental connections we have for Carol, yet writers would be better off not using it.
This is a bit trickier to justify. Characters can have any personality, right? They don’t have to be “likable” to be likable. Louis Bloom from Nightcrawler was a sociopath; Jez and Mark from Peep Show were losers; Dexter from Dexter was a murderer. Doesn’t it all just come down to how well they are written?
Nonetheless, I think Marvel is fighting uphill trying to make Carol a star.
Reading Captain Marvel… is like reading a story about your bossy manager. She’s already in power, she’s not very nice, she’s not necessarily very good at her job, and there’s absolutely no satisfaction in seeing her, as usual, get her way.
You rarely see Carol training or working hard or suffering for anything. She is the definition of a privileged hero. She struts into rooms, makes demands even though she isn’t in change, then struts out again.
This is reinforced by her visual design. There is an incongruity between the military influences in her costume (plus her job as in a military organisation), and her stylish short hair and dark eye shadow. Like, is she even taking this job seriously? Some artists get it right, but when they don’t it really looks dumb. Plus, she scowls everywhere she goes — if you were really in charge, Carol, you wouldn’t have to scowl. And scowling is not a personality.
When Carol was just another Avenger, just Ms Marvel, no writer had any problem giving her a fun role, some good lines of dialogue, a few personal problems, and something to strive for. Now, she has to be the “strong female hero”, for feminism, and writers can’t handle it — they think she has to be a bad-ass, a hard-ass, and the most-powerful-est-ass all the time, and that doesn’t make for a good story.
Carol as Ms Marvel was great as the low-key asskicker of a group. That’s the version of the character that fans enjoyed as a second-tier Avenger for several decades (Captain Marvel, in her current form, has only been around since 2012, but Carol as Ms. Marvel goes back to 1968). But once she was put into the spotlight, and her role was elevated to one of leader, or moral guide, or cosmic defender, without giving her more depth and development, she started to look quite ridiculous. For instance, there was simply no way she could pull off being the hero of Civil War II without some major character work that the writer, Brian Bendis, wasn’t willing or able to give her. Just one of the many reasons Civil War II is one of the worst comic books I have ever read.
There is something about Carol where every picture I see her in I just think she is a total poser, like a pretentious rich girl who got to be the leader because her dad paid for her to be there, but who doesn’t actually do any of the hard work or know shit about what’s going on. I wouldn’t think that about any of the other heroes in the Marvel Universe. How on earth did that happen?
The problem is that despite all of her unlikable qualities, she is always written as if she is in the right. So there’s a total disconnect between how I feel about the character and how Marvel and the writers seem to want me to feel. It doesn’t seem to matter who is writing her, either. It’s like she has a protected status at Marvel, where we’re not allowed to tell her she is wrong.
Because of this, I can only see her as an undeserving brat, and I can only imagine that the best way to write her is as a villain, or as an ambiguous supporting character — perhaps literally the overbearing captain of some other protagonist. Or the writers have to recognise her personality as her flaw, and write a story that plays into that.
And my final point…
For a couple of years, ending probably around last year, Marvel Comics were desperate to make the Inhumans the new X-Men. Marvel Studios didn’t own the film rights to the X-Men franchise, but somewhere in Marvel some manager genius made the brilliant observation that the Inhumans were kind-of similar to the X-Men. Both groups are communities of diversely powered characters, who were born as powerless humans but developed abilities later on in life. Consequently, Marvel Studios put an Inhumans movie into production in 2014. Then fans noticed that the number of X-Men books in the Marvel catalogue was dwindling, while the vastly less popular Inhumans seemed to be getting new books left, right and centre.
(If this sounds like a conspiracy theory, consider that the Fantastic Four, the film rights of which were also owned by Fox along with those of the X-Men, vanished from the comics entirely around the same time.)
Marvel had managed to forget that people rather liked the X-Men. Characters the fans had grown to know and love over decades were being shafted by a group that few people had much of a connection with.
Before all this, the Inhumans were a cool lesser-known team that had a respectable history going all the way back to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four. These days… well, did you really expect Marvel consumers, a majority of which were raised on X-Men, to be thankful to a stepfather trying to kick their dad out of their house in front of their eyes?
Still, I think the Inhumans have come off far better being artificially pushed by Marvel than Carol has. Inhumans stories like Royals, Black Bolt and Judgement Day, all of which have just finished recently, have actually been stellar. Ironically though, based on the current comics, Inhumans might well be getting shafted (Death of the Inhumans) where Carol, who hasn’t had a good book in years, seems to just be getting started (Life of Captain Marvel).
…doesn’t really seem fair, TBH.
The point is, both are examples of Marvel pushing characters for the wrong reasons. In Carol’s case, sure, she got a bit of good press and a small following after her costume change and after some care and attention under writer Kelly Sue DeConnic, but I also think Marvel realised that most of their best female characters were related to Spider-Man, X-Men or Fantastic Four (eg. Jessica Drew, Jean Grey, or Sue Storm). That is to say, characters they couldn’t make movies about. So they really wanted to keep a female hero in the spotlight, even if she didn’t, and still doesn’t, necessarily deserve to be there on the strength of her character, supporting cast, stories, or even her popularity.
There are lots of mediocre characters in comics who don’t have the strongest stories or followings. But Carol Danvers is a mediocre character that for the past few years has seemed to show up in every Marvel comics story that involves more than three heroes. She did not get to that position organically, or based on her merits. She is currently Marvel’s only option for a feminist icon, and they’re not going to let us forget her, even though we would sometimes like to.
This has made it all too easy to get sick of her.
I am not saying that following the points above are the only way to write a good superhero story. There’s me going on about good and bad types of superpowers, as if the most of the great stories of human history didn’t involve superpowers at all (imagine that!).
In the end, good writing trumps all. I genuinely can’t wait for a writer with some imagination and passion for the character to pick up Captain Marvel and make something new and exciting out of her.
In fact, that might be happening right now. Margaret Stohl, who I mentioned above as the writer of the (not great) Mighty Captain Marvel series, is the writer on Carol’s latest series, The Life of Captain Marvel. Is it any good? There are only two issues to go on right now, but so far I am very pleasantly surprised. When it finishes with issue #5, I will be writing a review, and I sincerely hope I’ll be able to say that I loved it.
Meanwhile, the Captain Marvel movie is about six months away now [Update: Movie is out now: My Impressions]. Like I said at the start of this rant, I am fascinated by Carol, and I will be watching the movie on opening night. I really want to find out how a talented studio with good writers and directors can make this work, and, hopefully, make the character shine.
I can’t wait.