By Jon Durmin
Earlier this week Kevin Feige announced that both Black Panther and Captain Marvel are being developed for feature films from Marvel Studios. This is exciting news overall and perhaps a long time coming. In terms of representation of Marvel superheroes who aren’t white males in film, the majority of characters who deviate from that appear in the X-Men films managed by Fox. The other principal examples are Blade and Elektra. Despite a strong start as a franchise in the late 1990’s, there hasn’t been a new Blade movie in ten years. Elektra is nearing its first decade since release as well, and is most well known for having earned 10% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the most poorly received theatrical release (thanks to the 1990 Captain America film being delayed until it premiered with a direct VHS release) ever associated with Marvel. Yes, the most poorly received ever.
In other words, I think we’re more than a little overdue to have some Marvel Entertainment films feature both people who aren’t white and/or aren’t male in a leading role and King T’Challa and Carol Danvers seem like great choices to me. Before anybody gets uppity and points it out, yes, Black Widow and Nick Fury have been featured in multiple films. I know that Captain America: The Winter Soldier brought The Falcon to the screen and Guardians of the Galaxy gave us Gamora. I want to be very clear that the key phrase above is leading role. Widow’s prominence has increased with each successive film she’s been in, but she (and Nick and Sam) has always been in a supporting player role to the title character. This is important and I’ll come back to it later. That is what we’re talking about here though; title characters, not featured players (no matter how cool they all are).
Okay, that’s enough dawdling in coming to my thoughts on all this. Why don’t I come to the thing I’m having trouble with? The response I’ve seen in the online fan community thus far (and look I’m only one man here, and can only observe so many forum posts on this big ol’ internet, so if you think my perception’s skewed let us know in the comments) is VERY favorable to the prospect of a Black Panther film, and I’m generally happy to see that. Certain very recent character developments notwithstanding, I’m a longtime fan of the character and have sunk a lot of dollars into Black Panther comics over the years. So people like the idea of a Black Panther film. That’s really good and saves me the trouble of deciding what I want to talk about concerning portrayals of race in superhero stories today (not that, there may not be cause for that on another occasion).
The news that Captain Marvel is in line for a major Marvel release and that, that Captain Marvel is Carol Danvers has, however, been met with a . . . let’s say . . . less positive response. I know this isn’t universally true, and I’m really glad for that, but it’s more of what I’m seeing rather than less. Admittedly I am not the world’s leading Carol Danvers fan, but I am familiar with a lot of the character’s fictional and publication history. In the context of both that history and the presence women have in Marvel’s movie-verse I think it is VERY important that Carol Danvers be Marvel’s first female lead for the present successful crop of films and that she do so under the name Captain Marvel.
Colonel Carol Danvers, USAF got her start back in 1968 as a supporting player to Marvel’s original Captain Marvel, Captain Mar-Vell, advance agent of the Kree Empire. Straightforward, right? In this capacity Carol was generally considered to be a strong and independent figure in her interactions with the Kree captain, quite unlike the damsel in distress or superficially motivated female characters that had predominated in comics up to that point. After fading into obscurity during much of the 1970’s, Carol returned in ’77 under the identity Ms. Marvel with powers derived from her encounters with Kree technology. In billing the new superhero as Ms. Marvel, the publisher’s intent was to reach out to and connect with an emerging market of potential readers; young women whose opinions had been shaped by the women’s lib/rights movements of the preceding years. Veteran Gerry Conway got the hero’s solo series off to a serviceable start, but when Chris Claremont came aboard with the third issue he invested heavily in developing Carol as a nuanced, independent woman defined more by her actions and personal history than her relatively brief association with Mar-Vell.
All of this changed within the span of about a year first with the sudden cancellation of the title followed by the release of the double-sized two-hundredth issue of Avengers. In a bizarre story written by then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, the character was impregnated by a man, Marcus Immortus, whom she then gave birth to and alleged to be in love with. The most unsettling story element for many readers was not the incestuous nature of the relationship, but the offhanded mention by Marcus that he had utilized, “a subtle boost from . . . machines,” to seduce her. In short, the reader was left to infer that Carol Danvers had been, at best, the victim of date rape. Insult was compounded with injury when the Avengers enthusiastically encouraged Carol to depart with Marcus and become his lover, wishing her the best of luck. Fans of the character were appalled, none more-so than Claremont who made rebuttal to the storyline months later in his script to Avengers Annual #10 where a newly returned and de-powered Danvers delivers an excoriating monologue directed at the Avengers’ roster for their complicit support of her rapist. (Author’s Note: A more thorough discussion of these events as well as page scans can be found here.) Claremont re-appropriated the character featuring her as an ally of the X-Men, even gaining new powers and adopting a new identity, Binary, before leaving to join the Starjammers, in response to Professor X’s acceptance of Rogue (the thief of her original powers) as a student. Claremont failed to find a successful project through which to bring Carol, now Binary, back into the spotlight during the remainder of his initial tenure at Marvel and she languished in obscurity for most of the succeeding decade.
When Kurt Busiek (assisted by Roger Stern) spearheaded a revival of the Avengers series in the late 1990’s, he brought Carol Danvers back in a prominent role. He swiftly returned the character to her more iconic Ms. Marvel uniform and gave her a new codename, Warbird, in an effort to distance her from both her years on the periphery as Binary and any perception of her as a female secondary to Mar-Vell. These stories featured Carol descending into alcoholism as she struggled with changes to her superpowers and recollections of her tumultuous history. Hitting an all too real (in the context of fictional super-heroics) rock bottom; Carol was put on probation as an Avenger and went back to the background for a few more years. In the mid-2000s she came back again, returning to the Ms. Marvel identity as Brian Michael Bendis was building up to the House of M event – and back she has remained. Two years ago, in the aftermath of Avengers vs. X-Men, Carol left behind the Ms. Marvel identity again, this time adopting the title (both as a character and a publication) Captain Marvel, and Captain Marvel she has remained.
So what’s the big deal? Why does she deserve a movie? Why should she get to be Captain Marvel and not one of the other characters who have used the name before? Well, I hope that it’s obvious from the character’s very rich and complex history why even part of her story would be a worthy subject for a feature film (heck, I’m very happy to come up with a plot for one or more films based on her comic book history if I can convince Kevin to let me co-author another If It Was A Movie . . .the gears are already turning . . .). That doesn’t even address the depth and potential of the character herself, though. If you want to see a genuinely strong, independent female character headline a superhero feature I can think of few better options.
Now inevitably I anticipate the counterargument from many reading the concluding sentence of that last paragraph will involve bringing up Black Widow. Why shouldn’t Black Widow be the star of the first Marvel movie with a female headliner? I know Scarlett Johansson has received a very positive response for her performance as Black Widow, and I agree that she’s done really excellent work in that role (well, sometimes more-so than others). However, I would contend that pursuing a Black Widow movie is highly problematic in that it doesn’t necessarily fulfill any kind of advance in developing the larger film franchise, and even less in pursuing the idea of a heroic female role model. For one, a Black Widow movie does nothing to increase the number of female characters in the cinematic Marvel Universe. Furthermore, in the context of said universe pursuing a feature film for this character is in essence pursuit of an Iron Man or Captain America spin-off film. The best case scenario for a project like that is The Wolverine (2013; second time’s the charm, right?), but the probability is equally high of getting another Elektra. Furthermore, given her part as a supporting player in previous film appearances the non-comic following, film-going audience for a Black Widow feature (read at least 90% of said potential audience) perceive her as just that; support for a male protagonist. Whether that’s Iron Man, or (to a lesser extent) Captain America, or Nick Fury or all of the other cinematic Avengers a precedent has already been set and doubly reinforced that this is a character who is there to assist somebody else in fulfillment of their goals. (Author’s note: This could all, also be said to apply even more-so to the less well developed Sif character from the Thor films and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as will Scarlet Witch in the not-yet-released Avengers 2: Age of Ultron)
There are some other factors inherent to Black Widow that I think also make her a less than ideal choice as a superheroic lead. Namely among these is the fact that she isn’t a superhero at all. She is not super powered at all and is, at best, a super spy along the lines of James Bond. At worst she’s an assassin. The character, at her core, functions by utilizing stealth, deception and sexual manipulation to fulfill her missions, effectively perpetuating one of the worst possible messages about the means available to women to have any sort of strength or power in the world. That may be desirable for a 16-45 year old, male demographic seeking a fantasy narrative, but, distilled down to its essence, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t do so much to empower or inspire a potential female audience; not in any kind of constructive or positive way at least. If anything it seems more likely to me to inspire and reinforce attitudes of exploitation, misogyny, and entitlement among that aforementioned male demo . . . and here again I feel like we’re looking at a character that really fulfills somebody else’s goals. (Author’s aside: Gamora from GotG has this same problem, and though at least she doesn’t share that film with a male title protagonist she’s a clear supporting character for, let’s be honest, that movie could just as easily, and perhaps a bit more accurately, have been called Star-lord and the Guardians of the Galaxy). Actually, the more I lay my thoughts out the more this looks like Elektra to me (albeit with a higher caliber of actor in the role).
Okay, I think I’ve gotten away from Carol enough in my somewhat tangential argument against a Black Widow movie, so what makes a movie about Captain Marvel any better? Well her character for one. As a hero I believe Carol to be a far more affirming role model. She’s strong physically and mentally. She’s confident. She’s a leader. She’s sexy (but on her own terms, without being sexualized through somebody else’s lens). Carol’s history is one of having earned her place and stature and rank by hard work and action and an ability to achieve success while playing by the rules. That does not mean she’s had an easy path and I think there is a lot of opportunity to explore the challenges and barriers Carol would face in achieving her success both in her private life and as a superhero. Speaking of what women are up against, that creepy story from Avengers #200 has potential to resonate with female viewers who face the daily practical reality of being potential targets for various types of assault. That Carol is a USAF officer makes the subject matter all the more timely given recent attention given to the institutionalization of sexual harassment in the US armed forces (and college campuses, too, while we’re at it, but Carol was introduced to us as a college grad). On top of this there’s also the fact that Carol has actual super powers. She can fly, throw a punch with power enough to knock Iron Man out of the sky, and more.
So that leads me to the title of Marvel Studios’ planned film: Captain Marvel. I cannot stress how important I think it is that Carol be called Captain Marvel in this film. Ms. Marvel may be the most frequently used of her superheroic names in the comics, but there is one very specific issue I have with that name: the “Ms.” Essentially my concern is that as a gender-signifying term ‘Ms.’ instantly dismisses the film as a “chick flick” by the aforementioned male film goer ages 16-45 that is the target buyer of most action and adventure movie ticket sales. Captain Marvel, on the other hand carries with it the signification of Carol’s accomplishments as a military officer and a person. As a fellow Captain she is not a supporting player to the likes of Steve Rogers; she is his equal. As much as I think it would be beneficial for female viewers to have the kind of role model Captain Marvel can provide, I see it as far more important that those previously mentioned male viewers have an opportunity to sit through and become engaged in a movie where the main character is a dynamic woman. Not yet another in a string of one-dimensional females acting in the interest of or caught between the agenda of a male hero or mentor, but an actual fully realized, self-empowered human character with her own ambitions. The mere potential to break through to even one man who has, perhaps unwittingly, treated women not as fellow people, but as objects (and whether somebody is being treated as an object of fulfillment or scorn or affection or admiration doesn’t really matter . . . it’s still treating them not as a fellow human being, but as a thing) is, to my mind, the greatest promise that a superhero movie with a female lead might fulfill. Perhaps that’s naïve of me, but it is for this reason, holding onto that hope that I look forward to the release of Captain Marvel in theaters during the next few years. I hope you’ll be there with me on opening night. Don’t disappoint me Marvel Studios.