Coming Soon: A new episode of AvengersAssemble Podcast discussing Carol Danvers and Mar-Vell!
In the meantime, here’s the article written by site owner Van Allen Plexico in 2009 for the never-published 3rd volume of the ASSEMBLED! books about the Avengers.
Captains Marvel: Mar-Vell and Carol Danvers
Van Allen Plexico
(written circa 2009 for the never-published ASSEMBLED! 3 book)
They’re the ultimate superhero couple, except that they never were much of a couple at all.
They’ve worn nearly identical costumes. They’ve spent twenty-five years or so out of the Marvel Universe spotlight, at least in their classic incarnations.
They are Mar-Vell of the Kree and Carol Danvers of Earth. They are many things to many people: heroes, Avengers (definitely in Danvers’ case, and sort of in Mar-Vell’s case), and tragic figures.
They were known by a variety of names; Danvers has gone by “Binary” and “Warbird” as well as “Ms. Marvel,” and was very nearly named “Nemesis” at one point.
Classically put, however, they are Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel. For the parts they have each played in various world-shaking (galaxy-shaking! Universe-shaking!) adventures, they belong in any discussion of the Avengers.
A Kree Soldier’s Story
The way Marvel Comics ended up with a “Captain Marvel” of their own is a fairly well known story.
Fawcett Comics published the earlier and better-known Shazam! Captain Marvel for years, and the character was bought by DC. In something of a no-brainer, Marvel jumped in and grabbed the elapsed copyright.
The only problem was Marvel didn’t have a character called Captain Marvel to put in a book of such a title. So Stan Lee rectified that situation by doing what he did best: creating interesting, colorful characters from scratch. In his final contribution of a major heroic character to the Marvel Universe, he created a captain in the alien Kree race’s military, conveniently named “Mar-Vell,” which humans would quickly misinterpret as “Captain Marvel.” Thus was born the Kree soldier who came to Earth to conquer it and ended up its protector.
From the beginning, the new “Marvel” Captain Marvel suffered from two deficiencies that left him only mildly appealing to many readers: His powers were bland (he could fly and hit you with his fists), and he had little backstory to provide an ongoing sense of urgency or imperative to his adventures, such as might be found with a Spider-Man or Batman. He had little supporting cast and no real arch-foes to speak of. Once his origin story was done, we were left with a white-haired alien with little personality, who could fly and punch you, and that was pretty much it.
Starlin Steps In
Various writers tried everything to pump some excitement and energy into the good Captain’s stories. He gained “nega-bands” and the ability to harness photons of light as energy blasts or for space flight.
Marvel’s most “cosmic” writer/artist of all, Jim Starlin, gave the character a near-complete overhaul. Starlin had the strange celestial entity Eon designate Mar-Vell the “Protector of the Universe” and grant him “cosmic awareness,” along with longer, blonder hair and a few modifications to his costume, which evolved into a striking red and blue affair, rather than the traditional Kree green and white military uniform and helmet.
Starlin brought over Rick Jones, former sidekick to both the Hulk and the Avengers, to serve as a “Billy Batson” analog. Jones was trapped in the Negative Zone for as long as Mar-Vell was free in our universe; when Marv banged his nega-bands together in a “Shazam!” moment, the two swapped places.
One interesting side-effect was Rick could mentally communicate with Marv, and vice versa, during this arrangement, presaging more recent characters and stories in which the hero can communicate with a sort of “conscience/ advisor” presence (most recently in Dan Abnett’s Nova, with the Xandarian Worldmind inside Rich Rider’s head).
At the time of Starlin’s run on the book, I was about eight. A friend at school showed me the ending of the issue where Mar-Vell battled Nitro, an insidious villain who could explode and re-form at will. During the battle, Marv was exposed to deadly nerve gas and fell to the ground, ending that issue on a cliffhanger with the hero apparently dead.
My friend was convinced Mar-Vell died, but I argued, “No, no, he’ll be fine next month. It’s a comic book!” Little did I imagine then what would come of that moment, a few years later, when Starlin was given the task of killing the character.
Starlin’s radical changes gave the book a limited spark of life, reinvigorating it for a time. Mar-Vell’s featured roles in the Kree-Skrull War and the first major conflict with Thanos (involving the Cosmic Cube) increased his visibility.
As the 1970s neared an end, however, sales of his comics lagged again. Despite a featured role in the second major Thanos war (the “soul gem” saga from Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2), fans tuned Mar-Vell out.
The Moench-Broderick Finale
The last great gasp of his original run came by way of Doug Moench and Pat Broderick. Sending Marv out on a grand, solar system-wide adventure alongside Drax the Destroyer and Eros, among others, Moench involved the hero in the affairs of the Eternals of Titan.
The storyline led to a massive showdown, on Titan, in space, and on Earth, with Titan’s sentient computer-gone-bad, Isaac, and his genetically-spawned lieutenants, such as Stellarax and Gaea.
Two momentous events occurred roughly simultaneously at this point in Mar-Vell’s career. Both dramatically altered his situation and his standing in the Marvel Universe: He met the woman of his dreams, and his book was canceled.
Fortunately for Mar-Vell (and for his fans), his story was carried over into Marvel Spotlight, with the same creative team in place and nothing really altered save the logo on the front of the comic. Moench and Broderick wrapped up the Isaac-Titan saga and left Mar-Vell in a relationship with Isaac’s former thrall, the beautiful Elysius.
All seemed well enough for Captain Marvel, enjoying semi-retirement with his ladylove on a moon of Saturn. With Moench and Broderick giving way to a new creative team (including the woefully out of place Steve Ditko on art), the good Captain might have faded into the obscurity that enveloped so many other marginally popular Marvel characters, such as Moon Knight and Spider-Woman.
But this was not to be. By 1982, Marvel concluded the character was hopelessly un-salvageable, and sent the company’s namesake out with something of a bang rather than a whimper. As Marvel launched their line of original stories collected in “graphic novels” (back when such a concept was new), they brought in Jim Starlin to give him a death worth remembering.
Starlin outdid himself in accomplishing that goal.
The Death of Captain Marvel
The first-ever “Marvel Graphic Novel” made a big splash in the comics world, imbuing Mar-Vell with a stature in death he never attained in life, within the Marvel Universe and among new generations of fans.
One might have expected Starlin to conjure up a cosmic battle saga of galactic proportions, with Mar-Vell fighting through hordes of foes to save the universe from destruction. Instead, the renowned writer/artist went in a different direction.
Starlin reached back to his earlier story where Mar-Vell was exposed to nerve gas while battling Nitro. The gas didn’t kill him at the time, but now we discovered it caused the hero to contract cancer, and his own nega-bands, by fighting the disease and keeping it at bay all this time, even as it grew within him, had rendered it untreatable.
At first reading, the story spins out with an overwhelming sense of dread and hopelessness. Being a Marvel story, one naturally clings to the hope that all will be made well again by the end. But then, one only has to read the title of the graphic novel to get a strong sense that things may well be coming out differently this time.
The combined greatest minds of Marvel Earth work and work, but cannot find a cure. In the end, Captain Marvel dies in his bed, while within his mind his last thoughts are of defeating the specters (and fears of) of death represented by his oldest foes, including Thanos, that great lover of Death herself.
With such a powerful and moving death-story, Mar-Vell would remain on the shelf for decades, joining such other seemingly “permanently dead” characters as Bucky and Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. Marvel in 2006 brought back the original article (sort of), and the long wait speaks volumes for the power and effectiveness of Jim Starlin’s “Death of” story. If a favorite character has to die, it’s good to know he got one heck of a send-off!
And the Return of Captain Marvel
From 1981 to 2006, a variety of characters went by “Captain Marvel” (along with a limited series here and there, flashing back to Mar-Vell’s past adventures).
From the unrelated hero Monica Rambeau to tank-grown offspring Genis-Vell and Phyla-Vell, these latter-day Captains seemed created merely to keep the copyright active, so Marvel could retain control of the name. Both Monica and Genis had positive traits, but suffered from sharing their names with a dead man whose legend seemed to grow each year. By the time both relinquished the name, an issue of Thunderbolts showed they were relieved to shed the burden of someone else’s name and to be allowed to stand (or fall) on their own merits.
And then, a quarter of a century after Mar-Vell’s classic death story, the original character came back in the mainstream Marvel Universe—or so we were supposed to believe.
In the course of the massive “Civil War” storyline, we were told, Mar-Vell was snatched from his own time, prior to his death. Still stricken with incurable cancer, he was brought into the 21st century Marvel Universe. His “Return” story, written by Paul Jenkins, placed Mar-Vell as warden of the Pro-Registration prison in the Negative Zone. Jenkins later admitted he knew next to nothing about the character beforehand, and his story failed to excite in a positive way.
The subsequent appearances of Mar-Vell in his new, Brian Reed-scripted miniseries, as an unregistered hero, far away from the prison and the Negative Zone, and now the object of interest by Tony Stark’s forces, offered a bit more promise.
Yet this was Captain Marvel, after all—in name if not in reality—and so a tragic ending was, in hindsight, inevitable. The “returned” Mar-Vell was really a Skrull sleeper agent who chose to shape-change into the Captain permanently and forget he was a Skrull, thus paralleling the original Kree Cap’s choice to champion Earth and turn against his people. Like the original, he gave his life in defense of an adopted world.
Ms. Marvel: The Feminist Superhero
During one of Mar-Vell’s adventures, his friend at NASA, Carol Danvers, was exposed to radiation from a Kree machine called a Psyche-Magnetron. That incident endowed Danvers with powers similar to those of the good Captain. Thus was born an all-new (yet strangely familiar) superhero in the Marvel Universe: Ms. Marvel, a human woman with Kree superpowers.
Carol Susan Jane Danvers was an Air Force officer turned NASA security chief turned magazine editor (Huh?) turned Avenger turned powerful cosmic entity turned SHIELD agent turned Avenger again, with a few more stops in between.
A human woman granted powers similar to Captain Mar-Vell at first; then later, powers much greater than him, before settling back to his level again). She was a statement by Marvel about the status of women in society. Or, not so much, depending on how you look at it.
Why did she go from generic supporting character in Mar-Vell’s book to outright star of her own series, membership in Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, a stay in the X-Men’s world for awhile, then general obscurity for many years, before returning to starring in her own title again?
In the early 1970s, the time of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) and the “Women’s Lib” movement in the U.S. Ever seeking to ride the wave of popular culture, but (also as ever) a couple of years behind the curve on the trend, Marvel in the mid-Seventies created a strong female superhero character, in an attempt to tap into this spirit of feminism.
But, Marvel being Marvel, not only were they late to the table (with her solo book debuting in January of 1977), they didn’t quite get it right.
They got the name right. “Ms. Marvel.” Not “Miss Marvel” or “Marvel Girl” or even “Marvel Woman,” but “Ms.” The defining title of the liberated woman, calculated (like the honorific “Mr.” for men) to reveal nothing of the woman’s married/single status; to let her stand on her own as a complete individual. Nothing could have said “modern, liberated, tough female character” more succinctly than “Ms.” in the title.
So far, so good.
But then there’s her first costume, which largely undid any gains made by the title. .
Rather than conveying the sense of a strong, liberated woman, the costume screamed, “cheesecake!” A one-piece swimsuit and scarf/cape thing, with the belly uncovered (later this was closed in, in a slight attempt to make the costume less exploitative), it screamed “pin-up!” rather than “beat you up.”
It was a copy of Captain Mar-Vell’s red and blue outfit. How in the world were readers supposed to think “liberated, standing-on-her-own-two-feet, independent woman” when the costume she wore was copied from a man’s?
When the point of a character is “women’s liberation,” it’s ridiculous (and defeating of the entire purpose) for her to be a Barbie-style blond pin-up girl in a cheesecake costume with its design borrowed from a male.
The third problem with this costume, was most readers simply found it to be an awful look. Before the first run of her series ended with #23, she got a costume makeover by master costume designer Dave Cockrum.
The one-piece dark swimsuit, thigh-high boots, long gloves, and Cockrum-trademark red sash, similar to his design for Phoenix, was most appreciated by fans, and Marvel returned to it when Ms. Marvel returned in the late 1990s. Whether it represents an improvement over her original look, in terms of feminism and independence, is another matter entirely, but it least it isn’t a copy of a guy’s.
Her powers: Flight like Mar-Vell: check. Toughness like Mar-Vell: check. Main attack: punch you in the jaw, like Mar-Vell: check. So far, she was a female version of a not terribly interesting male character. Clearly, the selling point would have to be the character of Carol Danvers, rather than the blazing originality of Ms. Marvel.
There was one power, forgotten now, that set her apart from her male counterpart, and played into the “feminism” angle, in a patronizing way. Rather than “cosmic awareness” granted by a celestial being, Danvers possessed a “seventh sense,” which amounted to an exaggerated form of “women’s intuition.”
In practice, it functioned like Spider-Man’s spider-sense. It also generally proved worthless, more confusing to Danvers than useful in any tactical sense.
Later as Binary, she was connected to a “white hole,” gaining cosmic powers greater than those possessed by Mar-Vell. Later still, her powers were scaled back to their original level.
The result of all this tinkering with her abilities was to get away from the point of why she had such limited powers to begin with: so she would not have to “hit you like a man would,” to quote Wonder Man. By giving her powers that didn’t involve punching, she was made more interesting as a general character, but lost any remaining connection to the world of women’s lib.
The Low Point
So early on, Ms. Marvel rose above the exploited, dumbed-down level of the other major Marvel women. But the bar she had to clear was so depressingly low.
Throughout the Sixties, rather than joining in the battles, most of Marvel’s leading lady superheroines specialized in screaming in terror at the menacing villain or in lustily ogling the musclebound heroes around them; like Jan in the Avengers or Sue Storm in the Fantastic Four.
Even the Scarlet Witch usually deferred meekly to her overprotective brother, Quicksilver, in that era.
So having Ms. Marvel “hit you like a man would” represented considerable progress, at least in the world of comic book superheroes. But so much more could have been done, and so much could have been done better.
Then came the greatest insult, a crime perpetrated on her so heinous, it has gone down in history among the worst things done to a comic book character, appearing in academic papers alongside the infamous “girlfriend in a refrigerator” scene from Ron Marz’s Green Lantern.
Essentially, she was raped, then gave birth to an infant version of the rapist (Marcus Immortus, of the realm of Limbo), then was mind-controlled into falling in love with him, and her teammates allowed her to be carried away to Limbo by him.
(Most of these events transpired in the extremely controversial Avengers #200; for an excellent analysis of that issue from her teammates’ perspective, see Scott Harris’s essay in Assembled!, volume 1.)
Escaping back to our world, Danvers was attacked by Rogue, who stole her memories and her powers, in that character’s first appearance.
Years in the Wilderness
Danvers stayed awhile with the X-Men, as Professor X attempted to restore her memories and personality. Later, she was captured by the Brood, who transformed her into Binary, with cosmic-level abilities.
After years in space with the Starjammers (with very few appearances therein), she lost the Binary powers and returned to the Avengers (courtesy of writer Kurt Busiek), now back in her classic Cockrum costume (red sash and all, but with the rest now definitively black rather than dark blue).
Taking the name “Warbird” (a name suggested to Busiek at the eleventh hour, just as he was preparing to rename her “Nemesis,” because he did not care for the dated appellation “Ms. Marvel”), she rejoined her old teammates for another tour.
Several aspects of her character were reworked by Busiek. He lowered her power level to absorbing energy and redirecting it similar to Mar-Vell’s photon blasts.
And she developed alcoholism.
What followed was a trajectory for Carol similar to Tony Stark's in the classic David Michelinie/Bob Layton “Demon in a Bottle” storyline in Iron Man, but with the long-acknowledged Stark in the role of the friend trying to intervene to save Carol. She was court-martialed by her teammates, admits her problem, and works to resolve it.
Best of the Best
With Busiek’s departure from both the Iron Man and Avengers comics, this aspect of Carol’s character was quickly papered over. The next bvig change would be the “House of M” miniseries. Of this convoluted saga, all we need say here is Carol found herself in an alternate universe in which Ms. Marvel (or “Captain Marvel,” as she was called there) was considered “the best of the best,” the preeminent superhero in the world.
On returning to standard Marvel Earth and forced back into her lowly situation there, Carol had an epiphany and decided she would earn a status in her own world similar to what she knew in the “House of M,” something that eluded her throughout her previous career, often by her own doing.
Reclaiming the name “Ms. Marvel” and hooking up with a post-Civil War SHIELD, in her solo title written by Brian Reed, she was named head of Operation Lightning Storm, a quick-response hero team, by new SHIELD boss Tony Stark, and then leader of Stark’s Fifty State Initiative superhero team, the “Mighty Avengers.” Her longtime friendships with Hank McCoy (the X-Men’s Beast) and especially with “will they/won’t they” buddy Simon Williams (Wonder Man) blossom. The future at last looks bright for Ms. Danvers.
Today and Beyond (as of 2009)
Carol Danvers achieved something of the status and success she always desired. She has her own book with supporting cast. The tenuous nature of the Marvel status quo lurks as a stumbling block for her. By tying her star to Tony Stark’s new world order, she risked losing everything when it all collapsed.
Both heroes, more or less, returned to their classic appearances and abilities during recent times. Mar-Vell is now remembered (both among readers and within the Marvel Universe) more fondly than in his original run. Ms. Marvel, after so many dead ends and false starts, might finally have latched onto a strong and compelling career; success at last for this feminist-in-a-sexy-swimsuit.
Will the twenty-first century see Carol continue to enjoy this success? Will we see Mar-Vell make yet another appearance, so long after his death—and do the fans truly desire that?
One would need to possess cosmic awareness to know for sure.