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Captain Marvel: From Damsel in Distress to Full-Fledged Icon

It can be difficult to write a spotlight on a comic book character with such a long and rich history as Captain Marvel. Politics, editors, and writers change with the times, and so some characters also develop with them. Carol Danvers has been around since the late 60s, but while her initial creation started with good intentions as a feminist icon, it took nearly half a decade — and a lot of suffering — for her to finally find her voice.

Captain Marvel's midriff was eventually covered up
Her first costume as a superhero (Ms. Marvel #1, 1977)

Danvers first appeared in Marvel Super-Heroes #13 (1968) as an officer in the Air Force — a supporting character to the original Captain Marvel, Mar-Vell. It took a decade, but after what can be best described as ‘comic book science,’ an event fused a portion of Captain Marvel’s DNA onto Carol Danvers. This resulted in a drastic change to her physiology, granting her super strength, endurance, and a ‘seventh sense.’  These new abilities gave her the opportunity to headline her own series in 1977, aptly labeled Ms. Marvel. By today’s standards the use of a feminine descriptor is no longer in fashion, but back then it helped codify her as a feminist superhero. She was still a powerhouse in her own name, fighting off threats single-handedly, but she could never muster the confidence hiding deep within her.

In the 80s, the character took a major step and got a new look by creating her iconic black costume, adorned with that legendary crimson sash. This was incredibly important because it didn’t make her look like an off-brand copy of Captain Marvel, but let her stand out on her own. It was a unique costume, it wasn’t based on other heroes, and it didn’t perfectly colour-coordinate with other members of the Avengers. She became her own person, and while there are obvious implications with the over-sexualisation of her new look, comic book culture didn’t consider it a big enough issue at the time.

Captain Marvel's second costume doesn't cover much
That iconic red sash (Ms. Marvel #20, 1978)

This Danvers was clearly designed to stand out on her own, had the qualities of a great character, but throughout the 80s she suffered a series of events that cemented her as the clichéd damsel in distress. In what was supposed to be a milestone issue, David Michelinie hemmed the now infamous Avengers #200.

In that arc, Carol Danvers is kidnapped and taken to an alternate dimension by Marcus, the son of an Avengers villain, where he brainwashes, seduces, and impregnates her. She then returns to Earth and gives birth to what turns out to be the same Marcus that impregnated her, and he starts to age at an alarming rate. When a device that’s keeping Marcus on Earth is damaged, his only option is to return to his home dimension. He doesn’t just go solo, however, and also takes the powerful feminist icon Avenger with him.  Ms. Marvel’s teammates strangely don’t argue, believing that she is in love with this being, and they let her leave.

So, Ms. Marvel is gone, and the Avengers continue being heroes. There are obvious, serious discussions to be had here, as this incredible feminist icon — who shares the same name as her company — is taken away without her consent or any backlash from the people she believed to be her allies. This infamous story is a low point in Marvel history, and many writers at that time looked on what happened with disdain.

Luckily, Chris Claremont, the famed writer of the 80s and 90s X-Men, saw the Marcus disaster for what it was, and a year later redeemed her. Still, Ms. Marvel’s suffering didn’t end there. In quick succession of story arcs written by Claremont, the mutant Rogue drains Danvers’ abilities and memories, putting her into a comatose state, before Professor Xavier, leader of the X-Men, eventually restores them. Obviously enraged by her treatment of the Marcus incident, she breaks rank with Avengers and joins the X-Men, helping them in their cause for equality. Ms. Marvel has all the capabilities of a strong leader and a fighter to face any threat that comes her way, yet was in a constant state of suffering, needing to have traumatic events to move on.

Captain Marvel's sash will return
Her new identity as Binary (Uncanny X-Men #164, 1982)

Claremont’s new direction sent Ms. Marvel out on a series of space adventures. On one of these quests, she gets another major update — and all it took was another kidnapping and forced experimentation by insectoid aliens called The Brood. The torture endured here result in another physiological change: she essentially gains the abilities of a star, which allows her to fire photon blasts and fly, and renames herself Binary. Though the methods to achieve this transformation were inhumane, the upgrade ultimately was for the better. Binary continued to save the day with the X-Men and other Mutant teams up to the 1990s. She was tough, and was more than a simple side character. The stories written in those years are regarded highly by the fans, even if they only happened by the character originally playing out the role of a damsel in distress.

Throughout the 90s, Danvers’ popularity waned, though she made sporadic appearances in other series. Her Binary powers diminished, and she reverted to her human-looking form. She changed her name again, this time to Warbird, and thankfully, no torture was required for this newest identity. Still, no hero can survive the horrors she endured, and Carol Danvers turned to alcohol. Her addiction and erratic behaviour resulted in the Avengers kicking her out of the team, though with the help of Tony Stark, she did get the better of her addiction, and was allowed to continue her heroics. The Warbird name didn’t stick, however, so she brought the name Ms. Marvel out of retirement.

In 2007 the character finally came back into the spotlight. Ms. Marvel proved herself a valuable team member during the Civil War crossover event, and Tony Stark made her team leader in Mighty Avengers. In the following years she proved herself countless times, commanding gods and renegades against numerous threats. She suffered as much as the other heroes, and her growth stemmed from her self-doubt — not merely from events. She had a need to prove to herself that she was good enough to lead a team, or at least to simply be better than the day before.

Captain Marvel's new and improved look
The issue that started it all (Captain Marvel #1, 2012)

It might have taken another half decade, but 2012 saw then-obscure writer Kelly Sue DeConnick revitalize Carol Danvers. She now no longer uses the codename Ms. Marvel, and rightfully has adopted Captain Marvel. She also no longer sports the black boot outfit and lavish locks, and instead wears a blue, yellow, and red uniform akin to a flightsuit (along with rocking a stellar mohawk). Luckily for the fans, the new look did keep the red sash, but removing the gender-specific moniker and giving her a less revealing costume took the character away from the gender stereotypes of many comic book superheroes. Captain Marvel was no longer identified simply by her gender, but by her actions. Her self-conscious attitude seemed to disappear, and she had no problem-fighting in the big leagues. She grew as a character, and it didn’t take excessive torture to push her on — just a good writing team. Because of this growth, Danvers became an idol and feminist icon to many young woman in-universe and fans alike.

One fan, in particular, was a teenage Muslim girl named Kamala Khan, a character created in 2013. She loves superheroes, and writes fan-fiction, but most importantly, she is an all-out Carol Danvers fangirl. When Khan discovers her own powers, she knows she can make a difference by following in her hero’s footsteps, and so she adopts the name Ms. Marvel, as well as the lightning bolt of the infamous costume, in honour of the all good Captain Marvel does for the world. They both have the determination to fight the good fight, and save the innocent, and when they finally meet face-to-face, Carol Danvers gives her the seal of approval, which can make any fans day.

Captain MArvel's protege
The newest Ms. Marvel (Ms. Marvel #1, 2013)

The 2010s were pivotal for Carol Danvers. Despite everything that she went through — all that weight on her soul due to the series of tortures she endured — the one thing that matters is what she was meant to be: a feminist icon for Marvel. Her military experience as fighter pilot was brought to the forefront, her accomplishments and strengths were acknowledged, and she showed far less fear. Even if there were some times that her character took a turn for the worse, she no longer was looking for that voice deep inside her to call out.

Captain Marvel is one of Marvel’s earliest and longest-lasting creations, and though it may have taken a while, she has finally found her place in the world. She’s a leader, a fighter, and an idol. She still has the same doubts as anyone, but always seems to get back up on her own. She evolves and grows like her companions, and her story arcs are treated the same way as anyone else. Most importantly, it didn’t take excessive suffering to make it happen. Volume 1 of her 2014 relaunch is called “Higher, Further, Faster,” and it could not be a better title.

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