Looking forward to the Brie Larson Captain Marvel film? Yep, me too. But like pre-2008 when no one outside of The Android’s Dungeon & Baseball Card Shop knew who Tony Stark or Nick Fury were, and The Avengers meant a grainy Patrick Macnee or bob-cut Joanna Lumley*, you might be in need of a little character illumination. Well, I hope you’re paying attention, because it gets a little… complex.
Short, back and sidebar
The first Captain Marvel appeared in Whiz Comics in 1940. It featured a boy, Billy Batson, who could turn into a super-powered, clean-cut adult by saying “Shazam!” and being struck by celestial lightning. His powers were so similar to Superman’s (who’d just arrived in 1938) that DC Comics sued the shazam out of Whiz Comics, who then shelved the character in 1953.
Purdey young thing
In the late sixties, young upstart Marvel Comics, not one to overlook a dormant license, grabbed the ‘Captain Marvel’ trademark and created their own super-dude. This guy was a Caucasian strain of the Kree alien race (as opposed to the blue ‘purebloods’ like Ronan the Accuser from the first Guardians of the Galaxy film) who flew around Marvel space righting wrongs with the vanilla package of powers – strength, speed, flight and a Princess Di barnet. Mar-Vell (his Kal-El-icious birth name) will pop up in the 2019 movie played by Jude Law, sadly, without the Joanna Lumley hair.
The parting that would not die
But why should Stan Lee and Co. have all the fun? In 1972, DC Comics decided to license (and eventually purchase) the Billy Batson Captain Marvel, and officially absorb him into the DC Universe. Batson uncomfortably took his place alongside that doppelganger with the big “S” on his chest. It felt like one of them had a super stalker. Would make a great film; Single White Kree-male, perhaps?
As well as the thematic similarities to The Man of Steel, there was the issue of the name. Marvel and DC duked it out over the subsequent decades, with DC eventually settling on re-naming their Captain as ‘Shazam!’. This name change was only made ‘official’ as recently as 2011.
If you’re paying attention, then yes, that Zachary Levi Shazam! film that’s out in 2019, is indeed the Billy Batson Captain Marvel. It also hits the cinemas exactly a month after Marvel’s Marvel movie. Talk about super-feud.
Fro’s before bro’s
Now this is where my experience with Captain Marvel (Marvel’s one, anyway) kicks off. Monica Rambeau was a cosmic light-powered, New Orleanian with more than a passing resemblance to Blaxploitation icon Foxy Brown wearing an evening gown stolen from The Good Life’s Margot Leadbetter. What’s not to like?
Captain Monica had little connection to her Kree Captain predecessor, but was firmly embedded in The Avengers when I first started reading about the super-team in the eighties. Her flying and light-blasting antics really fitted with the action-heavy art style of the time, and she became a regular. She would go on to lead The Avengers taking over from The Wasp.
The character reinvented herself several times down the years changing to Photon, Pulsar and most recently Spectrum, although whether she was 16, 48 or 128K remains hotly debated (ah, 8-bit humour).
A certain Maria “Photon” Rambeau turns up the 2019 movie. Judging by the photo(n)graphs, she’s an Air Force buddy of Larson’s title character and a regular human. Sadly, no big afro either. Shame. ‘Froton would have been cool.
The white hair/fake hair years
The third, fourth, fifth and sixth Marvel Captain Marvels, were all relatives of Mar-Vell, fellow Kree warriors or impersonators of Mar-Vell. As such, they haven’t grabbed my interest, so I’m not going to write about them. It’s my article, so suck it up and move on.
Farah Fawcett’s bangs
The seventh and latest Captain Marvel (eighth, if you include Shazam!) is Carol Danvers. She starts out in the late sixties as a supporting character; an Air Force officer on the same base as Captain Mar-Vell. She’s caught in an explosion of Kree tech’ and doesn’t resurface until the 1970s… as Ms. Marvel.
The new superhero was purposefully named and given a feminist bent, at a time when most pop-culture resembled seaside postcards. Okay, she was barely dressed and drawn with a chest that launched a thousand bathroom visits (“Mum, I’m combing my hair!”), but it was a start.
Like Rambeau, Ms. Marvel fought alongside The Avengers, and like Rambeau she went through a period of reinvention in the late 20th Century. First, switching to a Rambeau-like light creature called Binary and fighting alongside The X-Men, then rejoining The Avengers wearing a leotard as Warbird.
Marvel eventually allowed her to put more garments on only as recently as 2012, when she finally assumed the mantle of Captain Marvel. Fully-clothed and fully-instated, this is the thoroughly modern Marvel we’re going to see in the 2019 movie. Excelsior!
A Dickie Davis white lick afterword
If you’ve read any X-Men comics, you might have been struck by how different the character of Rogue is compared to Anna Paquin’s portrayal in the first three X-movies.
That’s because in the comics, the power-absorbing mutant permanently absorbed the powers and (for a time) the memories and personality of Danvers’ Ms. Marvel. So the flight, super-strength and invulnerability are all Marvel’s, not Rogue’s. Suspiciously, the haircut was not absorbed.
Needless to say, Danvers and Rogue didn’t get on for a long time. Ooh, it’s such a tangled web of intrigue!
* Strictly speaking, Lumley was in The New Avengers, but let’s not split coiffured hairs.