Carol Danvers’ comics history as the female counterpart of Mar-Vell has been upended in the MCU, and that’s a good thing.
Full spoilers follow for Captain Marvel.
The MCU is certainly no stranger to major character revisions — some superhero history just doesn’t translate from page to screen all that well. It’s usually fairly innocuous stuff, changing strangers to friends, tweaking superpowers, overhauling villains. But with Captain Marvel, one of the changes made to Carol Danvers’ origin story is anything but minor. It may actually be one of the most important updates the MCU has made to a hero since the franchise debuted almost 11 years ago.
Annette Bening’s Wendy Lawson both is and isn’t someone from Carol’s comic book history. She was a Kree scientist named Mar-Vell stationed on Earth in secret who played a direct hand in Carol’s origin story. But in the comics, Wendy was Walter — still secretly Mar-Vell, but a male soldier and scientist rather than a woman, and the original Captain Marvel. On the surface, it seems like a fairly simple pivot. Both Walter and Wendy were major figures in Carol’s life before their real identities as Kree infiltrators were revealed, they both played a direct role in Carol’s origin story, and they both inspired her to be a hero — but for Walter, that meant casting Carol as Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel’s quintessential girl counterpart. For Wendy, it meant Carol evolving directly into Captain Marvel herself.
The trope of male heroes stumbling into “girl versions” of themselves is not something Captain Marvel invented. Far from it, the phenomenon can trace its roots all the way back to the Golden and Silver Ages when superhero comics would introduce characters like Supergirl and Batwoman to help bolster sales across multiple demographics. The formula was repeated again and again for the same results: A male hero would have some sort of empowering origin story, adventure for a while, eventually stumble onto a woman — a love interest, a distant relative, or a civilian coworker — who would inevitably trip into the superheroic lifestyle right alongside them. Sometimes this meant the woman having her own empowering accident that mirrored the original, other times it meant her uncovering a secret identity, falling into the hands of a villain, or learning some strange secret truth about herself. Regardless of how it happened, the end results were always the same: a string of female spin-offs following in the footsteps of their more established male counterparts.
Carol epitomized the formula in more ways than one. She was empowered directly by Walter himself thanks to a freak accident which spliced their DNA together, her original costume was an inexplicably more revealing version of Walter’s own body suit, and even her name — Ms. Marvel — was a lesser variation of Walter’s own Captain Marvel codename.
But the real problem, beyond all the clunky external markers of a character “based on” another, was what it meant for the stories these new female heroes were able to star in. It’s no secret that comics history has its fair share of narrative problems — beats that now come across as embarrassing or tone deaf for modern readers — but the lives of female spin-off characters were a particular brand of bizarre. With their identities almost completely beholden to whatever would service the story of their proverbial progenitors, the history of heroes like Ms. Marvel rapidly descended into complicated, contradictory webs that epitomized the push-pull between their own independent narratives, and the narratives of whoever it is they were based on. This meant retcons, origin story overhauls, power changes, costume changes, identity changes — really, you name it. These were women designed to be as elastic and liminal as possible so they could fit in where and when they were needed to motivate, bolster, fall in love with, or antagonize the men in their lives. Even at the best of times, this meant an inherent lack of accessibility; to really understand Ms. Marvel stories, you had to first understand Mar-Vell and all the baggage that came from him.
But the MCU has effectively broken the cycle for Carol and her complicated, troubling history. By surgically removing Walter and replacing him with Wendy, Carol’s history has been polished into something that actually serves her, rather than serving the hero who came before her. Wendy was never Captain Marvel, but she was Mar-Vell. She did inspire Carol to push herself higher, further, faster as the movie’s tagline says, but she never put Carol in a position where she was beholden to the Mar-Vell legacy. In the MCU, Carol may need to sort through her personal history, but it’s a history that belongs completely to her, not to Wendy or to any other hero in Carol’s life.
All told, it may seem like a small change, but sometimes the simplest medicine is the most effective. Carol Danvers has finally broken free of her maze-like published history, stripped of the complexities that used to come with her, and escaped the headache-inducing history that has been part and parcel with characters like her in comics for decades. And all it took was Annette Bening, a name change, and a little MCU magic.
For more on Captain Marvel, check out our review, watch the cast pick which Avenger Captain Marvel could beat in a fight, get the reason why Nick Fury hasn’t mentioned Captain Marvel before, find out how the film pays tribute to Stan Lee, and learn all you need to know about Captain Marvel’s cat Goose.