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THE LOVE, HATE, AND CONTROVERSY OF CAPTAIN MARVEL (PART ONE)

With the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (played by Brie Larson) poised to hit the big screen on March 8th, it has become quite apparent that no installment in the much lauded MCU has been surrounded with as much controversy, pre-release criticism, and general nay-saying than Captain Marvel. Some say that the character is not especially popular to begin with, citing low comic book sales and people’s lack of general knowledge of the character. Of course you could’ve said similar things about the Guardians of the Galaxy at one point. Some would cite a perceived agenda on the part of the lead actress and Disney/Marvel Studios, an agenda that is perceived by some as an extremist form of feminism that is in reality thinly veiled misandry, or at least a disdain for men. Recently, Rotten Tomatoes deactivated certain features of its movie review website just as an onslaught of negativity was being hurled at Captain Marvel. Some question the timing of this while others would go as far as speculating that its an attempt to silence dissenting voices about a movie that is about to become part of a franchise that has enjoyed nothing but win after win.

Is there any truth to it? I really couldn’t say. I haven’t seen the movie. But what about the source material? What about the comics? Some of these same criticisms of extremist “SJW-ism” (“Social Justice Warrior”) has been leveled at the comics as well. Is there anything to it? Are there seeds of the very things the movie is being preemptively accused of to be found in the comics? Again, I couldn’t say. Even though I’ve read stacks and stacks of comics, I haven’t read much of anything of the Carol Danvers Captain Marvel.

 

You see, for most of my comic book reading life, the Carol Danvers Captain Marvel, or Ms. Marvel, as she has been known throughout most of her 40+ year history, was a character that I was aware of who kind of existed on the periphery. I mostly just thought her as the character from whom Rogue of the X-Men stole her powers. I think that would make me a fairly neutral party when it comes to assessing the Captain Marvel comics, so I decided to take a deep dive into them to see what all the fuss (if any) was all about.

 

Rather than go back to Carol’s Ms. Marvel days, I started with the first volume of the 2012 Captain Marvel series entitled In Pursuit of Flight written by Kelly Sue DeConnick with art by Dexter Soy and Emma Rios. It is in this volume that Carol Danvers dons her modern costume and drops “Ms. Marvel” in favor of the “Captain Marvel.”

One of the criticisms of the Captain Marvel comics has been that the art is generally poor and that Carol Danvers loses her femininity to look more and more masculine. We will see if that becomes the case in future volumes because it’s not the case with this one. As I began this volume, I was immediately impressed by Soy’s artwork and Danvers’ look. She is strong, yet feminine. She is indeed the “blonde bombshell” that the opening mock-up of a Daily Bugle newspaper page makes her out to be.

Our story begins with Carol Danvers (still Ms. Marvel at this point) fighting the Absorbing Man alongside Captain America/Steve Rogers. Absorbing man is depicted as a stereotypical sexist as he lobs several insults at Carol, directly attacking the fact that she’s a woman. All of this is fine as he is after all a villain. Villains can and should say hateful and villainous things. The issue here is that it would have been better if he’d also been throwing insults at Captain America as well. The closest he comes is accusing Cap of being bossed around by a “broad,” which again is really an insult to Carol.

This same scene also contains some dialogue between Carol and Steve that some might say is disrespectful to Steve. “SJWs” are often accused of demeaning male characters to bolster female ones. Carol does make a jibe that she “outranks” Steve as he is a captain while when she left the Air Force she was a colonel (never mind that he’s Army and not Air Force), but I don’t see that as a case of demeaning Steve. It seems more like banter between comrades and equals.

Following the Absorbing Man battle, Captain America urges Carol to take up the mantle of Captain Marvel which Carol resists at first. I have to say that I was impressed with the respect given to the original Kree warrior Captain Marvel,  or Mar-Vell, who lost his life in the comics years ago. DeConnick handled the scene well and the passing of the mantle was done equally well.

Following that, Carol literally uses Spider-Man as a punching bag as the two spar with each other while she vents her frustrations. Perhaps DeConnick simply wasn’t well versed when it came to the character of Spider-Man, but I would say that this was an example of a male hero being denigrated to bolster a female one. Spider-Man has faced more struggles and hardships than just about any other superhero and could probably offer some sound advice, yet here, that is completely underplayed as he comes off as rather childish and buffoonish. Carol literally takes out her frustrations by beating on him. Keep in mind that Peter Parker is superpowered, but Carol Danvers is in a totally different league. She’s actually hurting him, and at no point is this behavior really shown as unfair or petty on her part. She’s just beating on someone physically weaker than herself because she’s upset with things in her own life and is questioning who she is supposed to be.

 

Next we find out about the death of one of Carol’s personal heroes, Helen Cobb. Helen was an early female pilot and part of the Mercury 13. The Mercury 13 was a very real privately funded program in the 1960s with the goal of determining if women could pass the same rigorous testing that the original Mercury 7 astronauts endured. Carol’s hero is most  likely loosely based on real life pilot Jerrie Cobb, one of the real Mercury 13. So, this is DeConnick’s fictionalized version of that historic event.

In the comic, Helen Cobb says, “Now those gals–those were some pilots. Outscored the seven boys on just about every test we took.”

Yes, this is fiction, but it’s fiction trying to borrow from and fudge reality, I think. Because that’s not exactly what happened. 13 women did pass the first phase of testing that the Mercury 7 endured. Of that 13, only Jerrie Cobb went on to pass all three phases of testing that the Mercury 7 were put through. I don’t mean to take anything away from those women’s achievements. Any one of them could run rings around me, but this does seem like an example of downplaying the achievements of those 7 men by purposefully misrepresenting what these women actually accomplished in a fictionalized version of a real historical event.

 

After scattering Helen Cobb’s ashes in space, Captain Marvel finds that she has inherited Cobb’s old plane which somehow transports Carol back to 1943 in Japanese occupied territory in South America where she runs into a group of marooned female pilots (yes, they existed). This whole scenario works on several levels. First, in our often Nazi obsessed romanticizing of World War II, the fact that there was another major theater of war involving the Japanese is often forgotten. That doesn’t happen here. Second, “SJWs” are often accused of never showing women having conflict with each other. They just instantly become best friends. Again, that doesn’t happen here. Instead, the pilots are suspicious of the arrival of this newcomer, especially when she displays alien powers. Carol eventually gains their trust by explaining her origins. Again, I must give DeConnick credit for referencing the original male Captain Marvel as “…a good man. A brave man” rather than pretending like he didn’t matter or didn’t exist.

 

We then take a brief interlude to the early 1960s where Helen Cobb and some of the fictionalized Mercury 13 are arguing for women astronauts. This is cool, as the women’s rights movement was definitely heating up. The issue is the tone and dialogue. It sounds like how someone from 2012 (when this was written) would like to imagine forward thinking women would have talked to male authority figures in the past, but it doesn’t come off as genuine. It’s a bit anachronistic.

 

 

Back in 1943, a time stranded Captain Marvel and her ragtag band of women pilots are dealing with an alien incursion. It’s at this point that the question of Captain Marvel as a “Mary Sue” is addressed. Up until this point (we’re now in the 4th issue) nothing has really challenged Carol. Her only weaknesses seem to be her own internal demons.

Then she gets blasted by a massive alien weapon that looks like a giant mechanical eyeball, and it puts her down. One of the pilots says, “…she’s hurt real bad.” Carol herself describes it in her internal dialogue:

“Can’t see straight. Feels like I got smacked with the broad side of a planet. The eyeball shunted my energy around like a centrifuge and spit it back at me with added force. Another shot like that and I won’t get back up.” A couple of pages later Carol would also mention that she’s not much of planner. Another flaw? Definitely, anti-Mary Sue.

At this point, I also noticed the women often calling each other “sir” in a military fashion. I don’t think this is an attempt to make them more masculine. This is just a writer falling for a common TV and movie trope where everyone in the military is addressed as “sir.” That isn’t actually accurate. It has been and still is military protocol for women of a superior rank to be addressed as “ma’am.”

Carol then gets zipped through time again to the 1960s where she ends up a pilot with her hero Helen Cobb. Again, a good job with characterization here. Carol and Helen are competitive with each other and often in conflict. Helen even manages to BEAT Carol at something.

It’s also with this issue that we get a new artist with Emma Rios. This is a problem with a lot of modern comics. It’s rarer and rarer to see the same artist complete an entire story line. Rios isn’t bad, but she’s not as strong as earlier artist Dexter Soy. Her sort of retro style kind of works in the final issue as we go back to Carol’s point of origin in the past, but it’s still jarring after 4 issues of Dexter Soy.

 

 

Next up, Carol and Helen have to get into a NASA facility to find a piece of alien technology when Helen punches a security guard. Here we have an often cited “SJW-ism.” A relatively petite, ordinary human woman knocks out a full sized man in one punch. This example was handled much better though. The man was completely caught off guard and Helen employed brass knuckles. Even then it didn’t render him unconscious. The next page shows the guard getting up and saying “I’m all right.” The penultimate issue ends with Carol and Helen both hurtling through time to the moment that Carol got her powers.

As issue 5 comes to a close, I did notice a tonal shift beginning not in the story but rather in the letters page as the associate editor addresses the readership directly. One letter praises the series while the associate editor thanks the reader for “GETTING it!” This implies that some readers weren’t “getting it.” I think there could have been a more tactful way of answering the letter that didn’t leave those who had criticized the series feeling like their opinions were being dismissed because they just didn’t “get it.” This sort of attitude toward readers isn’t healthy when you want to build and maintain an audience. There would be more of this in the next issue’s letter page with what amounted to an editorial about feminism in relation to this comic. A good story stands on its own. You shouldn’t have to explain that it’s important for some reason. It should be apparent if the creators did their job well. Most readers don’t like being told that they should support a story’s direction for X-reason. Either they like it or they don’t.

The final issue of this story puts Carol in the position of possibly being able to alter time so that she never received her powers. This is tempting as one of the things Carol has wrestled with is that she will never know the full potential of ordinary human pilot Carol Danvers because she now has the advantage of super abilities. That was interesting to me. Then it turns out that this whole thing of putting Carol in this time and place was planned by none other than her hero Helen Cobb who decided before her death to take a shot at getting those powers for herself. If Carol really wants those powers, she’ll have to prove it by beating her hero. The result is a bloody slug fest between the two women with Carol ultimately victorious and choosing to take her powers. Besides dashing aside a lot of “SJW-isms” about the simplicity of female friendships, it also provided an interesting twist to Helen Cobb and finally provided Captain Marvel with something of an actual villain, although briefly.

The issue ends with Captain Marvel fully embracing who she is and back in her own time as she proclaims, “I’m the best.” Some might not like that kind of arrogance in a hero. It’s certainly not the humble hero of say Captain America or Superman. It’s rather conceited. But so is Iron Man. So is Green Lantern Hal Jordan. The latter is even a pilot like Carol. Arrogance and maybe a bit of overconfidence are often personality traits applied to pilots. I think it rather fits Carol. A woman who is at times overconfident and even arrogant can be played as both a virtue and a flaw just as it is for Iron Man and Green Lantern. The problem is if they let it be ONLY a positive just because she’s a woman.

All in all, Carol’s debut story as Captain Marvel was pretty good. It wasn’t a Mary Sue ruled man-hating nightmare filled with bad art and hyper-masculine women by any means. What issues there were were minor as long as they don’t grow and multiply. Mostly, at this point, Carol simply needs to be challenged more; and she needs some good villains to do that. I give it 2.5 out of 4 stars for a solid beginning with minor issues and the potential for improvement. I might even have given it 3 stars if the art had been consistent for all 6 issues.

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