That’s right people, we’re doing this. If you want to just skip ahead to my thoughts on the movie you’re free to join us after the jump. Just know that you’re dead to me. Now, I would bet good money that there have been more characters named “Captain Marvel” than any other superhero mantle. There have been a few Batmen, a bushel of Flashes and a whole mess o’ Green Lanterns, but by my count there have been no fewer than TWELVE Captain Marvels and that’s not even counting Captain Marvel Juniors, alternate future versions and weird rip-offs like Marvelman, Marvel Boy and the Marvellous Ms Maisel. So what gives? Well, it comes down to a combination of legal shenanigans, bad luck and weird coincidences far too complicated to go into here. Nonetheless, I will go into it them here.
Okay. So. Our story begins in 1940, a mere two years after National Comics (later DC) birthed the modern superhero genre with the creation of Superman. Fawcett Comics introduced their new character, Captain Marvel, whose gimmick was that he was actually a little boy named Billy Batson who turned into a suspiciously Superman-like superhero when he shouted his magic word “SHAZAM!”.
It was, and remains, one of the most perfect concepts for a superhero ever. If you subscribe to the belief that superheroes are, at their core, innocent power fantasies for small children, that is about as perfect a distillation of the concept as you can get. Kids could imagine one day growing up to be Superman. But you could be Captain Marvel now. And it was easy. Just say a magic word and you could be bigger, tougher, faster and smarter than anyone else. Which, when you’re a kid growing up in a world where everything is tough and confusing and bigger than you…that’s the dream, right? The comic also introduced the obligatory kid sidekick, Captain Marvel Junior and the almost as obligatory distaff counterpart; Mary Marvel:
She’s Billy Batson’s long-lost sister Mary Batson with the same powers who also took the Captain Marvel mantle for a time so we’re counting her. She’s also one of the very earliest female superheroes and beat Supergirl to the punch by almost a full decade. Anyway, back to Captain Marvel.
So not surprisingly, with such a killer concept, Captain Marvel quickly became the most popular superhero in America, even outselling his inspiration, Superman. National Comics, obviously, weren’t going to let that slide and brought in a new top-tier creative team with fresh ideas to re-vamp Superman and nah just kidding they just went crying to Johnny Law. National took Fawcett to court over copyright infringement and the judge decided that two Caucasian superheroes with black hair was just too big a coincidence and ruled in National’s favour. By this point, the superhero boom was on the wane so Fawcett simply ceased publishing Captain Marvel. That was not the end of the story. In fact, that was barely the beginning of the beginning. So now, let’s talk about Marvel Comics, and how they came to acquire…
Yeah, okay, weird little digression here. By 1966 the rights to the character name “Captain Marvel” were up for grabs and a comics company called MF Enterprises published three issues featuring…this.
So…this is Captain Marvel. Allegedly. He’s an android who can split into his constituent parts by yelling “SPLIT!” which is a word. He reforms by yelling “XAM!”, which is not. His alter ego was Roger Winkle. He is, by near unanimous decree of the world’s foremost Marvelogists, the worst Captain Marvel. And it pains me to say this as he was created by Carl Burgos, creator of the greatest superhero of all time; the Original Human Torch.
Alright moving on.
So National’s old rival Timely Comics had, by the sixties, changed their name to Marvel. Realising that the formerly most popular superhero in America coincidentally had the same name as their company, they figured it was a no-brainer to buy the name for themselves and create their own Captain Marvel.
The first Marvel Marvel was Mar-Vell, an alien spy of the Kree Empire who comes to Earth to prepare the way for an invasion and ends up falling in love with this planet of psychotic apes and becomes a superhero. Mar-Vell never really caught on as he was strictly squares-ville, daddio. He was like Reed Richards without the Thing as a foil, or Captain America without the instant, irrevocable cool that comes from having punched Hitler in the face. To make Mar-Vell more Hip to the Trends, Marvel roped in Rick Jones, perennial sidekick and the Young Peoples’ favourite. Now the status quo was that Mar-Vell was trapped in the Negative Zone but could swap places with Rick Jones in the real world whenever he was needed, a premise that superficially resembled the Billy Batson/Captain Marvel set-up while simultaneously losing everything that made that concept appealing. Captain Marvel asks “what if you could turn into an all-powerful superhero” and Captain Mar-Vell asks “what if you could go to a lightless never-ending void while a strange grown man did things with your body?”
One of them is timeless wish-fulfillment, the other is the kind of thing that takes many years of costly therapy to process.
So it’s not surprising that, like Shakespeare’s Thane of Cawdor, nothing became Mar-Vell in this life like the leaving of it. The best remembered Mar-Vell story is Jim Starlin’s The Death of Captain Marvel, in which Captain Marvel applies for a mortgage just kidding he bites the big one. What made this story so unique at the time was that Mar-Vell doesn’t go down fighting some giant, world-ending threat. Instead, he succumbs to cancer and dies quietly in bed surrounded by his friends. The story was well received and is one of the reasons why Mar-Vell’s death is one of the few in comics to never have been permanently reversed (at the time of writing). And it’s at this point in our story that our Marvel-trickle becomes a full on Marvel-deluge.
So, this is the root of why there are so may DAMN Captain Marvels. Firstly, the name is versatile, gender-neutral and doesn’t nail you down. If your character is named “Batman”, for instance, you’re kind of limited in what kind of superhero he can be. Your options are basically; Weird Creature of the night, baseball-themed vigilante or British Officer’s Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman during the Great War. But for Captain Marvel, all you need is a character who is in some way marvellous and the superhero community’s famously lax attitude toward the chain of command. You can slap the name “Captain Marvel” on any random hero regardless of their power set and it makes about as much sense as any other. Secondly, it doesn’t really look good if the dude or dudette bearing the company’s name is a third string scrub (spoiler, a lot of these dudes and dudettes were third string scrubs), so when one Captain Marvel is a bust, editorial has plenty of incentive to reboot and try again. Case in point…
Monica Rambeau, an African American lady with energy powers, first debuted in 1982 before Mar-Vell’s sheets had even cooled. She didn’t have any connection to Mar-Vell and didn’t keep the name for too long, later being renamed Photon, Pulsar and Spectrum to the point where she’s one of those superheroes who’s better known by her civilian name. Monica is actually one of the most successful of the Marvel Marvels, rarely being off the shelves. As a diversity two-fer with a cool power set and pretty solid fanbase, she’s appeared in multiple team books such as the Ultimates, Nextwave and even lead the Avengers for a time.
Alright, how many is that? FIVE?!
Okay speed round. The Vells!
Okay, Genis-Vell. Mar-Vell’s son who took up the old man’s mantle before going crazy and then dying. Interesting titbit; Peter David and Bill Jemas had a bet to see who could get the most sales for their respective books. David at the time was writing the Genis-Vell version of Captain Marvel and Jemas was writing Marville which was…it was something. It was many things. Post modern deconstruction of superheroes. Satire of the Aol-Time Warner Merger. Philosophical-religious treatise. Strong contender for worst comic of all time. Captain Marvel won that one, which I’m mentioning because God knows these characters need something in the win column.
I am very tired and I have not even begun the review. Phyla Vell!
Genis-Vell’s sister. Took up the mantle after his death before becoming the new Quasar (another cosmic superhero mantle that gets around). Played a pretty big role in the Annihilation saga, aka one of the greatest comic events of all time, so she’s okay by Mouse.
Who’s next? Oh didn’t think I’d remember you did you, Amalgam Captain Marvel!?
So funny story, after killing the original Billy Batson Captain Marvel in court, DC comics actually bought the rights to Fawcett’s old characters. However, since Marvel had trademarked the name “Captain Marvel” this meant that DC could use Billy Batson’s Captain Marvel but couldn’t actually call any of the comics he was in “Captain Marvel”. And that’s why DC have desperately been trying to gaslight you into believing that the character is actually named “Shazam” for the last few decades. Incidentally, Eggman is actually named Robotnik and we have always been at war with Eurasia. Anyway, in the early nineties DC and Marvel did a crossover called DC versus Marvel where the two universes collided. This culminated in a glorious bit of silliness where the two companies created Amalgam Comics, an entire comics line of grotesque merged abominations like DarkClaw (Batman crossed with Wolverine) and Super Soldier (Superman smushed into Captain America). Billy Mar-Vell was the result of cross-breeding DC’s Captain Marvel with Marvel’s Captain Marvel and I’ve typed the word “Marvel” so often now the word has lost all meaning and has become a weird glyph.
Next up is…oh not this asshole…
Kh’nhr. Oy. Okay, so during the Civil War event Reed Richards was building a Gitmo for superheroes in the Negative Zone and discovered that Captain Marvel (Mar-vell, obviously, why would that be confusing?) was still floating around in there because time in the Negative Zone is loopy doopy. Reed is all “hey, so you’re gonna die of cancer in the future but while you’re here, wanna help me trample on your friends’ civil liberties?” and Mar-Vell says “sure”. He then spends a few issues moping and doing absolutely feck all until it’s revealed that this Captain Marvel is actually a Skrull sleeper agent impersonating Captain Marvel named Kh’nhr. That’s right. The Skrulls sent this guy to Earth disguised as someone who was already dead. From this, we can deduce that they thought he sucked and deserved to die. They were correct.
Who’s next? Mahr-Vell from the Ultimate universe.
He’s like Mar-Vell. But in the Ultimate Universe. Got an extra “H” in his name. Like Mar-Vell, he turned on his Kree Masters to save the Earth. Unlike Mar-Vell, he came to regret it as everyone in the Ultimate Universe was a massive asshole.
Okay, coming up to the home stretch now.
Noh-Varr! Birthed from the Victorian opium den that is the mind of Grant Morrison, Noh-Varr is yet another Kree but this time from an alternate reality who washes up on Earth like a drunken sailor. A bad experience with SHIELD has him declare war on Earth and all humanity but he was eventually convinced to become a hero by Kh’nhr, which is is basically like being inspired to pursue a career in music after a chance encounter with Kid Rock. Usually going by Marvel Boy or Protector, he is on this list solely for that one time Norman Osborn recruited him to be on his Dark Avengers team as Captain Marvel. He peaced out as soon as he realised that they were actually the bad guys. Which, considering they were called the “Dark Avengers” he really should have twigged earlier. Thank God he’s pretty.
Which brings us to drumroll please…
Carol Danvers. Actually one of the older characters on this list, but the newest and current Captain Marvel. Back in the seventies, Marvel was in the habit of cranking out distaff versions of their male characters just so nobody else could do it first (which is how you got She-Hulk, Spider-Woman and Womanverine)*. One of these characters was Carol Danvers, aka Ms Marvel who gains Mar-Vell’s powers after being caught in an explosion with him and getting some of his DNA (that’s their story, anyway). She had her own series written by Chris Claremont which didn’t sell but was well regarded by those who read it. After it was cancelled, she bounced around the Marvel universe for a while until the creative team decided to celebrate their #200th issue with a story where Carol is abducted, brainwashed and raped by her own child. And it’s presented as a love story.
Fortunately Chris Claremont was having none of it, and when he was handed the reigns to X-Men he had Carol deliver an epic “Fuck You” to the Avengers for basically abandoning her to her rapist and had her join the X-Men. Claremont ended up using a lot of the concepts that he had originally intended to use for Ms. Marvel, in case you were wondering why a series ostensibly about mutants fighting racism features so many aliens and giant flaming space birds. Anyway, her presence on the X-Men during Claremont’s run cemented Carol’s position as pretty much the most popular Captain Marvel-adjacent character at Marvel. So when the time came for Marvel to try for the UMPTEENTH GODDAMNED time to have a Captain Marvel that people actually gave a shit about she was pretty much the only choice. How’d that work out? Well…Marvel’s attempts at pushing her harder than Roman Frickin’ Reigns has definitely created some backlash, but there’s no denying that she’s the first Marvel Captain Marvel to have any real purchase in the popular consciousness. And of course, a big part of that is today’s movie.
Which I am finally starting to review after two and half thousand words what the hell was I thinking?
So our movie begins in 1995 on the planet Hala, which is in the Andromeda galaxy and sadly too far from Earth to benefit from one of the all time great years in music. Vers (Brie Larson) is a soldier and a member of the Kree’s Starforce with strange energy powers and absolutely no memory of how she got ’em. She’s being trained in her powers by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who takes her to commune with the Supreme Intelligence, who rules over the entire Kree Empire. Yon tells Vers that the Supreme Intelligence will appear as the person that matters most to her. When the time finally comes, however, the Supreme Intelligence appears to her as a gender swapped David Bowie.
Vers has never met a gender-swapped David Bowie (amnesia bedamned, you remember that shit) and the Supreme Intelligence tells her that maybe that’s for the best but that he/she/they/it has a mission for her to prove that she’s worthy of the powers she’s been given. See, the Kree are at war with a group of green shape-shifters called the Skrulls and Vers is to rescue a Kree who’s infiltrated the army of a Skrull commander named Talos.
So here’s my first big criticism of this movie. Ass, it looks like.
When Vers, Rogg and the rest of Starforce (including Korath from Guardians) arrive on Planet Torfa to extract the spy, the whole scene is shrouded in thick dry ice and lit so badly that I literally had to increase the brightness on my TV just to make out what the heck was going on. Fortunately, things are more visible once the action shifts to Earth but then it’s just drab. Ugly generic urban areas, drab military installations and deserts all shot in a way that makes them look as bleached and colourless as possible. I’d say it’s the ugliest Phase 3 movie but, if I’m honest, it could have been released ten years ago and it would have been the ugliest Phase 1 movie.
So the Torfa mission goes wonky donkey and the spy they were sent to rescue turns out to be Talos in disguise. Vers gets captured and taken to the Skrull ship where they go through her memories looking for a Doctor Lawson (who looks like Femme!Bowie). Vers is surprised to see memories of herself living on Earth what with her being an alien and all, and bursts out of her restraints, fights her way through the ship and hijacks an escape pod and crashlands on the strange alien world below.
The Mall security guard sees her crash through the roof of the local Blockbuster and does what any under-paid rent-a-cop would do. He calls SHIELD, the super secret government spy agency that nobody on Earth is supposed to know about. Enter fresh faced SHIELD agents Nick Fury and Phil Coulson. And credit where credit’s due, the effects work used to make Samuel L Jackson and Clark Gregg look 24 years younger is pretty damn impressive. Fury asks Vers what’s the deal and she tells him that she’s an alien fighting other shape-shifting aliens, you got a problem with that? Fury, not surprisingly, thinks she’s nuts but then one of the Skrulls opens fire on them and Vers takes off in hot pursuit. She manages to track the Skrull down and recovers a crystal which has a record of her memories that the Skrulls were interested in. Fury and Coulson try to follow her in the car, only for Fury to get a call from Coulson back at the Blockbuster, tipping him off to the fact that the Coulson with him is actually a Skrull. He defeats the Skrull through the cunning method of crashing the car and almost dying. Back at SHIELD, Fury and his boss Keller discuss the fact that aliens are real, can look like anyone and have infiltrated Earth. But they don’t instantly succumb to crippling existential terror and psychotic paranoia because they are professionals damn it. Keller tells Fury to find Vers and work with her to find the Skrulls.
Fury tracks Vers down to a bar and after they prove to each other that they’re not Skrulls, Fury agrees to take Vers to Project PEGASUS, where Doctor Lawson (FemmeBowie) was working in Vers’ memories. At Pegasus, they discover that Lawson was working on developing a light-speed drive for NASA.
Oy vey. The light-speed drive. We’re never actually told what exactly the light-speed drive does, just the name. Now, I don’t know about you, but “light-speed drive” simply suggests to me an engine that allows you to go faster than the speed of light. Which, if so, so the fuck what? If literally every other space-faring species that we see in these movies doesn’t have that, then the entire setting falls apart. Anyone with even the barest knowledge of space and how not-small it is knows that in order for interstellar travel to be practical you’d need ships that are not simply capable of travelling faster than light, but thousands of times faster than the speed of light. A ship capable of travelling one C would still take over 50,000 years just to cross our galaxy and space-travel in the MCU is intergalactic. And this thing is presented like some kind of Holy Grail. Having the Kree and Skrulls be so desperate to get a light speed drive is like watching the US and Chinese militaries descend on a tiny island in the Pacific because a local tribesman just discovered the wheel. You already have that guys. You have to have that. It doesn’t make sense for you to be here if you don’t. Sure, if you go looking in the expanded material you can find out that the light-speed drive actually allows travel separate from the jump network which would allow the Skrull to go beyond the reach of the Kree but then just call it something else. Or add a line of dialogue that explains that this type of light-speed travel is different from everyone else’s.
Anyway, they also discover that Vers was actually a human test pilot named Carol Danvers (callsign “Avenger”) and they get the name and address of one of her fellow pilots, Maria Rambeau. Suddenly SHIELD agents descend on the base looking for Carol and Fury realises that his boss has been replaced by Talos. Anyway, they fight their way off the base and steal a fighter plane which somehow doesn’t result in NORAD roasting their asses for breakfast and head off to find Maria Rambeau. Maria lives with her daughter Monica, who you know all about if you read my introduction and if you didn’t well… Now you look quite the fool. Maria fills Carol in on her life on Earth and she takes some time to reconnect with the Rambeaus. This is some of the best stuff in the movie and actually allows Brie Larson to find some layers to Carol, which she hasn’t really been able to do before now. That’s not a problem with the actor, more the script. It’s one of the reasons I really don’t like amnesia as a plot device, and not just because it’s hacky as hell. If you build a story around an amnesiac, it often leads to a main character who’s just kind of a blank slate with little real personality. We don’t know who they are because they don’t know who they are. Of course, one way around this is to have the character lose their memory a long time ago, giving them time to accumulate a bit of life story and personality like, say, Logan. But that would mean Carol would have to be older and not super young and hot and we obviously can’t have that so here we are. Anyway, Talos shows up at the Rambeau’s place and drops some truth bombs on Carol:
Lawson was building the light-speed drive for the Skrulls. Because, far from being a powerful empire threatening the Kree, the Skrulls are actually on the verge of being wiped out by them. Talos reveals that it was actually Yon-Rogg who killed Lawson (who was actually Kree warrior named Mar-Vell). Carol got her powers when she tried to destroy the power source of the light-speed drive to stop it getting into the hands of Rogg. And fair is fair, I will freely admit that this movie does a great job of taking all the NEBULOUS BULLSHIT that is Captain Marvel’s legacy at Marvel and streamlining it into a good, simple origin story that keeps the basic elements of Carol’s origin (Mar-Vell, Rogg, explosion) while making Carol an active participant rather than a cowering bystander. Kudos all round.
With her memories fully returned, Carol agrees to help Talos recover the light-speed drive and the power source at Mar-Vell’s secret orbital lab.
They fly up there with the plane they stole from PEGASUS without anyone really minding (man, pre-9/11 America really was a different world) and they find the power source which turns out to be our old friend the Tesseract. They also a load of Skrull refugees that Lawson had hidden up here, including Talos’ family. But the reunion is cut short with the arrival of Starforce, who capture the Skrulls and plug Carol into the Supreme Intelligence. The Supreme Intelligence tries to defeat Carol by showing her a lifetime of memories of dudes telling her she couldn’t do stuff, but fails to realise that all those memories end with her doing the stuff that the dudes told her she couldn’t do so maybe the Kree should have renamed this thing. Carol then accesses her full powers and proceeds to wreck Starforce like a prizefighter taking on an army of armless midgets.
So Captain Marvel is one of those films that I like less each time I watch it and I think I’ve figured out why. The superhero genre has been around long enough for its rules and tropes to become pretty firmly established. The basic character arc for this kind of solo origin film is;
- Hero has one glaring flaw.
- Hero overcomes this flaw.
- Overcoming this flaw allows the hero to defeat the villain and become the truest best version of themselves.
It’s not universal, but it’s pretty standard. Tony Stark has to overcome his selfishness. Thor has to overcome his pride. Even Wonder Woman, who starts off as a much better and more heroic person than either of them, still has to overcome the naïve Manichean worldview of her upbringing to deal with the moral complexities of the modern world. The point is, the movie is basically saying that all of these character have flaws that need to be overcome. They need to change to become better people. By contrast, Captain Marvel doesn’t think that Carol needs to change. Everything that she needs to overcome is external. She’s an unflappable badass who just needs to realise that she’s a virtually omnipotent badass by overcoming the tinkering the Kree did to her memory, and once that’s accomplished the conflict becomes trivially easy. And it’s not necessarily a problem that the movie presents its antagonist as someone who’s already more or less everything they need to be. That is, after all, pretty much Captain America. Steve Rogers at the start of that movie is already decent, selfless, heroic and kind. He needs to change physically, obviously, but the movie mines a lot of irony out of the fact that, despite his physical change he’s still exactly the same person. But just because a movie doesn’t have a particularly compelling character arc for its main character doesn’t make it a bad movie. Movies, after all, are all about the whole and not the parts. If Captain America was relying solely on Rogers’ character arc to make or break it, it’d be in big trouble, because there ain’t nuffin’ there. So instead, Captain America relies on other elements; the sumptous use of the period, the genuinely charming love story between two incredibly charismatic leads, Tommy Lee Jones at his most entertainingly dickish and an Alan Menken number I still can’t get out of my head almost a decade later. And honestly, this is what does Captain Marvel in for me. The rest of the movie is just a little too bland and uninspired to do the heavy lifting that the inert central character arc needs.
While Carol fights the Kree, Fury, Maria and the Skrulls escape with the help of Lawson’s cat, goose, who turns out to be a hideous, ferocious alien monster called a “Flerken”.
Goose eats a bunch of Kree, and then the Tesseract and then scratches Fury in the eye, which will cause him to lost his eye and never trust anyone ever again. Yon-Rogg tries to escape to Earth but Carol follows him into the desert and he tries to goad her into fighting him without her powers.
The lady declines.
Yeah. Yeah, okay. If ever a movie was saved by one scene.
Carol sends Yon-Rogg back to Hala with a warning for the Supreme Intelligence, and then says goodbye to Fury and the Rambeaus as she’s decided to leave with the Skrulls to help them find a new homeworld.
In Fury’s office Coulson arrives to show Nick the selection of glass eyes he’ll be choosing from to replace the one he lost when Goose scratched him. And look, I know this is a little thing but, as a great man once said…
So, Nick actually still has his left eye. It’s just been blinded. We saw that in Winter Soldier. He still has his eye so there’s no reason for him to be looking at glass eyes. Secondly, why the fuck is Coulson bringing him the glass eyes? Is Coulson his eye doctor now? Or is Coulson just really into glass making and wanted to show Fury his latest project?
Fine. Little things. Don’t measure up a to hill of beans. But what really bugs me is that after learning (at great personal cost) that Goose is a highly, highly dangerous alien life-form whose merest scratch can cost you a limb NICK FURY DECIDES TO KEEP IT IN HIS OFFICE.
Why would anyone want to keep such a vicious, hateful predator in close proximity to him regardless of the health and safety of everyone around…
And the movie ends with Fury drafting a new initiative for a superhero team, and naming it after his friend’s codename.
Look, I know this movie is important to a lot of people and I don’t take any pleasure in crapping over it. If you enjoy Captain Marvel, good on you. I’m glad it exists. I’m glad Marvel finally got off the damn pot and made a movie with a lead female protagonist after twenty damn films. I just wish they’d made a movie that the character and their audience deserved.
Does a good job of taking the complicated and fascinatingly flawed Captain Marvel legacy and streamlining it into a decent, solid origin for Carol.
Our Heroic Heroes: 12/25
Downside; it takes the complicated and fascinatingly flawed character of Carol Danvers and streamlines her into a flatter and less interesting version of herself.
Our Nefarious Villain: 10/25
By the end, it’s just kinda sad. Jude Law does a good job, but the script isn’t really interested in giving Carol any kind of real threat to overcome.
Our Plucky Sidekicks: 18/25
Young Nick Fury! Young Coulson! Really young Monica Rambeau! Wacky Aussie Skrulls! Lot to like here.
After the Snap, the surviving Avengers are studying the pager Fury dropped at the end of Infinity War. Suddenly, Carol appears and says “Where’s Fury?”
And the audience went…
Man I am looking forward to seeing Endgame again.
The second stinger
In Fury’s office, Goose pukes up the Tesseract.
And the audience went…
Am I the only one sick of the “cutesy CGI animal does some asinine bullshit” genre of Marvel stingers?
FINAL SCORE: 54%
NEXT UPDATE: 05 March 2020
NEXT TIME: What is this shudder that passes over me?
*Just kidding. There’s no such thing as Spider-woman.