Though it’s hard to imagine now, characters like Iron Man and Captain America had faded into relative obscurity in comics until Marvel Studios decided to make do with what it could still get the rights to. Since then, each member of The Avengers has become a star both in the comics and in the larger world of pop culture, to the point where the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become so large and powerful that it can even turn explicitly weird characters like Doctor Strange and Rocket Raccoon into icons. Now, though, following the success of Black Panther, Marvel Studios is ready for a character who is already an icon to make her cinematic debut.
We’re referring to Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, who is getting her own movie this weekend starring Brie Larson, Jude Law, and Samuel L. Jackson. But who is Captain Marvel? Well, like any comic book character who has been around since the ’60s, it’s a little complicated. She was created by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan, and made her first appearance in an issue of Marvel Super-Heroes in 1968. Since then, she’s been a military officer, a fighter pilot, a feminist activist, the victim of a weird machine that merged her DNA with an alien, and the proud wearer of more distinct superhero identities than any other major hero out of either Marvel or DC.
The story of the Captain Marvel we know today actually begins a year before Carol Danvers made her debut, with a character created by Colan and legendary writer Stan Lee named Mar-Vell. The impetus for the creation of Mar-Vell was a lapsed copyright from Fawcett Comics over its own (completely unrelated) Captain Marvel—who has since been bought by DC Comics and renamed Shazam—and if you want to be cynical about it, you could argue that Marvel has insisted on keeping some version of Captain Marvel around ever since just so it can hold onto the name. Either way, Mar-Vell was a member of an alien race called the Kree that live on a planet called Hala and had previously shown up in the pages of Fantastic Four, and he had been sent to spy on the people of Earth.
As is so often the case in alien spy missions, Mar-Vell ended up realizing that humanity was pretty cool and used his Kree powers—including flight, super strength, and the ability to absorb and shoot energy—to protect humanity from various villains and threats as the heroic Captain Marvel. This didn’t go over too well with Mar-Vell’s Kree bosses, including a military officer named Yon-Rogg (Jude Law in the movie) who was specifically upset over Mar-Vell’s relationship with Carol Danvers, a military officer he met while in his human disguise.
Danvers had been hanging around the periphery of Mar-Vell’s stories for a while, but Yon-Rogg inadvertently made her a much bigger deal when he kidnapped her and used a machine called a Psyche-Magnetron to create a Kree weapon called a Mandroid. Mar-Vell showed up and beat up Yon-Rogg’s Mandroid, but the machine was damaged in the fight and blasted Danvers with Kree energy, causing her own DNA to merge with Mar-Vell’s and granting her a set of powers similar to his. There have been weirder ways to get superpowers, surely, but it’s a tough one to beat. Spider-Man should be thankful he never has to explain what a Psyche-Magnetron is.
Of course, comic book mythology is a nebulous thing, and in the decades since Carol Danvers was first exposed to the rays of the Psyche-Magnetron, her origin has been cleaned up a bit. As part of a major, ongoing reboot that the character has gone through in the last few years (more on that later), writer Margaret Stohl and artists Carlos Pacheco and Eric D’Urso introduced the revelation that Carol was always part-Kree and that the Psyche-Magnetron merely reactivated her Kree abilities instead of giving her an off-shoot of a man’s superpowers. Either way, after gaining the ability to fly, lift heavy things, and shoot energy blasts, Carol returned as a new hero named Ms. Marvel and eventually joined the Avengers. The name was envisioned as a feminist take on Mar-Vell’s superhero identity, since she was explicitly Ms. Marvel and not Mrs. Marvel or Marvel Girl, and she advocated for feminist causes in her solo book when she wasn’t doing superhero stuff.
The ’80s were big for both Mar-Vell and Carol, though not for good reasons. Mar-Vell died of cancer, a weirdly quiet death for a superhero, and Carol was kidnapped, brainwashed, and impregnated by the future son of longtime Avengers villain Immortus (who is also, more or less, the same person as longtime Avengers villain Kang The Conqueror). The Avengers, being idiots, assumed that Carol had actually fallen in love with her captor and were content to abandon her in an alternate universe until writer Chris Claremont addressed this absurd storyline head-on in his X-Men books. Once her memories were restored and Carol had recognized what the Avengers had done to her, she broke off from the group and her Ms. Marvel identity, frequently working alongside the X-Men instead. That’s how she eventually developed a new set of alien powers, which made her even stronger.
She took on the name Binary for the remainder of the decade, but Carol eventually lost her upgraded powers and took on the name Warbird. Her stories in the ’90s were largely based around Carol struggling under the weight of all the weird/horrific things that had happened to her, with her civilian and superhero relationships beginning to suffer. She later briefly rejoined the Avengers, but she was left in the wind when writer Brian Michael Bendis broke up the core Avengers lineup in the early-2000s. Around this time, Carol became a supporting player in Alias, acting as Jessica Jones’ superhero best friend and being the one who saved her from the traumatic mind-controlling powers of the Purple Man. It wasn’t until Mark Millar’s Civil War storyline in 2006 that Carol—who had since taken back the Ms. Marvel name and began wearing a new black and gold costume—returned to prominence.
Like in the movie (though it’s the only similarity), the Civil War comic was about Iron Man and Captain America fighting over whether or not to force all superheroes to register with the federal government. Carol, having been a loyal soldier, joined up with Iron Man’s authoritarian pro-registration team, putting her at odds with Captain America’s clearly superior anti-registration rebels. This battle of ideals quickly became a regular battle, with Cap and Iron Man beating each other up in the middle of Manhattan and generating so much collateral damage that Cap surrendered and was arrested. (He was eventually assassinated, but that’s whole different thing.)
At this point, Ms. Marvel became a prominent member of Iron Man’s post-Civil War, government-sanctioned Avengers team. The aftermath of Civil War also saw the apparent return of Mar-Vell himself, who explained that he was actually a version of Captain Marvel from before he died of cancer. In reality, he was a shapeshifting imposter from an alien race called the Skrulls—the mortal enemies of the Kree and the villains of the Captain Marvel movie. The fake Mar-Vell was a sleeper agent sent by the Skrulls as part of their plan to infiltrate high-level positions on Earth in the Secret Invasion storyline.
Once the Skrulls were defeated, Norman Osborn—the Green Goblin himself!—was put in charge of the “official” Avengers team, which convinced Carol to leave and join a secret, unofficial Avengers team alongside Luke Cage, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Mockingbird (as seen on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Bucky Barnes (having adopted Cap’s name and shield in the wake of his apparent death). Thanks to her role in big-name teams and in big-name events, Carol had become one of the most notable female heroes in Marvel’s books—if not the most notable.
Finally, in 2012, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick embraced the fact that Carol Danvers had finally become a Big Deal by having her officially adopt the name Captain Marvel. Along with the new name, she got a brand new costume that more closely resembled Mar-Vell’s red and blue full-body jumpsuit, replacing her old bathing suit and leather boots combo (which hadn’t been aging particularly well). The soft reboot of the character provided a larger emphasis on her backstory and motivations, as well as Mar-Vell’s legacy and her status among the other major players in the Marvel universe—who, by then, once again featured the folks we now know from the MCU like Iron Man and a resurrected Captain America.
After working with the Avengers for a bit, Carol embraced the cosmic origin of her powers and became more dedicated to the intergalactic side of the Marvel universe. She even briefly joined the Guardians Of The Galaxy, bringing along her pet cat, Chewie (corporate synergy!), who turned out to be an alien that just looked like a cat. Carol’s time with Star-Lord and Groot coincided with a time when the Guardians Of The Galaxy comic wasn’t particularly great, but luckily she still had her own solo books and had become a member of a number of different superhero teams—including Canada’s Alpha Flight, the all-female A-Force (alongside She-Hulk, Dazzler, and Nico from Runaways), military agency S.W.O.R.D., and space-based defenders The Ultimates (the only super-team to include both Black Panther and Galactus).
Unfortunately, this resurgence also led to Carol starring in Bendis and David Marquez’s poorly received Civil War II event, which essentially involved Captain Marvel and Iron Man arguing about whether to exploit the powers of a man who could predict future-crimes like in Minority Report. Carol was on the bad side of this debate, arguing that the ends always justify the means when it comes to preventing crimes, and her status—both in the comics and in real life—took a bit of a hit. She popped up to defend the Earth from aliens while Captain America briefly became a Nazi, but save for a new miniseries in 2018 that established her new origin (the one about her being part-Kree), Carol has once again been relegated to being an extremely powerful and popular supporting player in the larger universe… at least until her movie hits.
For a character who emphasizes her legacy as much as Carol Danvers, it would be a shame to leave out the other two characters she shared a name with. She’s not the first woman to use the Captain Marvel name, though the other, Monica Rambeau, isn’t technically related to Mar-Vell at all. Rambeau has been hanging around the Marvel Universe for decades, most notably as a member of The Avengers for a time and as one of the stars of cult-hit series Nextwave. Her story hasn’t intersected with Carol’s particularly often, but she does appear in the Captain Marvel movie as a child—setting her up for an appearance in the future. There’s also the new Ms. Marvel, a Muslim teenager named Kamala Khan who has shapeshifting abilities and idolizes Carol Danvers. She’s had solo books for years and was also a member of The Avengers for a time.
As far as we know, though, Kamala isn’t set to make her own debut in the MCU just yet. They could be saving her for a sequel or her own spin-off movie, which is probably for the best since Captain Marvel will hopefully dedicate a lot of its runtime to explaining what a Psyche-Magnetron is.