Who Is Captain Marvel Anyway?

And how marvellous are they?

Likely you saw the promotional stills released by Entertainment Weekly for Captain Marvel, the next hero being added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But what you may be asking yourself is "who is Captain Marvel?" or "wasn't Captain Marvel a guy?", possibly "I thought they were a DC character anyway" and perhaps even "what if I never find true love?" because I don't know, there's probably more going on in your life than just questions about a comic book movie.

The answer to those questions is long and slightly complicated, enough to warrant this article, which isn't even going to get around to dealing with your love life. Anyway, put your crippling loneliness aside for a moment and read all about these Captains Marvels.

1. Billy Batson - Fawcett Comics

The name Captain Marvel starts in the 1940s, with the original superhero boom. Despite there already being a publication called Marvel Comics (from publisher Timely, who we'll get back to later). Fawcett Comics named their main foray into the genre Captain Marvel. He was essentially Superman, but magical and with a key twist: while other superheroes had kid sidekicks, Captain Marvel secretly really was a kid himself. Uttering the magic word SHAZAM, young reporter Billy Batson is transformed into the magical Captain Marvel, who possesses the powers of various mythological beings, the initials of which spell Zamash.

Also, handily, Shazam.

Captain Marvel was a huge hit and soon began to outsell even Superman. This led to inevitable spin-offs, with the addition of Billy's sister Mary as Mary Marvel, their friend Freddy as Captain Marvel Jr, and a whole host of other oddballs who became the Marvel Family. It was a crazy time and the Marvel name became like a license to print money.

Money which DC Comics (then National Comics) would have quite liked. Remember when I said Captain Marvel was like Superman but magic? Well, that's unfair to the character, but unfortunately for Fawcett, a US court of appeals disagreed when DC sued Fawcett for copyright infringement. In 1953, Fawcett settled the case, closing its comics department and promising to never publish Captain Marvel again. Captain Marvel went away so Superman could reign over the shrinking superhero market.

2. Mar-Vell - Marvel Comics

By the 1960s, superheroes were booming again, thanks to the resurgent Timely Comics, now renamed after their early hit title, Marvel Comics. As Stan Lee churned out hit after hit, it occurred to the company that the trademark on the title Captain Marvel had lapsed and possibly something worth using before anyone else grabbed it to cash in on Marvel's success. Cue the debut of Captain Marvel by Stan Lee and Gene Colan. A Captain in the Kree military, Mar-Vell was sent to Earth to prepare it for invasion. While masquerading as a human (because Krees conveniently look almost exactly like humans), he began to question the morality of conquering planets and enslaving sentient races, so turned on his brethren, defending the Earth under the name Captain Marvel, because a) he was an actual Captain and b) there's nothing more human than getting an immigrant's name wrong to the point that they change it to fit in.

Marv's original costume.


Now Marvel had the Captain Marvel trademark, they had to keep it, which meant using it regularly. Unfortunately, Mar-Vell never really took off as a character to the same degree as Lee's other 60s creations, struggling in sales. A redesign by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane gave CM a better costume and also molecularly bonded him to perennial sidekick Rick Jones, with whom he would switch places when either hit their negaband bracelets together. This was a knowing nod to the original Captain Marvel, as Thomas was a huge fan of older comics.

Meanwhile, DC Comics decided to pick over the corpse of Fawcett and licensed the original Captain Marvel for publication in new stories from 1972 and even for use on TV. This put added pressure on Marvel to keep publishing their Captain Marvel regularly enough, because if they ever let the trademark lapse, DC would be right in there and retitling their Shazam! book Captain Marvel, as they had initially tried to do.

Unfortunately, Mar-Vell still wasn't quite working. Jim Starlin was brought in to revamp the character, giving him a more cosmic scope in his adventures (which would see early appearances from Thanos) but by the end of the 70s, Mar-Vell's solo title would be cancelled.

But the clock was ticking on trademark renewal, so Marvel had Starlin revive Mar-Vell in an original graphic novel in the early 80s, titled The Death of Captain Marvel, in which he, well you can guess. It was a seminal work but not a great long term strategy for keeping the trademark. Enter...

3. Monica Rambeau - Marvel Comics

Monica was created in 1982 by Roger Stern and John Romita Jr, debuting in an issue of Amazing Spider-Man. After being exposed to extra-dimensional energy, Monica gained the ability to shift the make-up of her body into various elements of the electromagnetic spectrum, from light to x-rays and more. Despite Mar-Vell's corpse barely being cold and having no connection to him, Monica named herself Captain Marvel and became a superhero.

Pretty quickly, she joined the Avengers, mainly because Stern was writing that title as well and if you want your new hero to stick around long term, putting them in the Avengers or JLA is always a help. As well as starring in the odd trademark saving one-shot, Monica was a mainstay of the Avengers through most of the 80s, eventually even leading the team, but dropped away not long after Stern left the title and became more of a recurring "hey, remember this old Avengers character" until Warren Ellis loosened her up for Nextwave in the mid 00s. By this point she was no longer Captain Marvel, with the name having been stolen by...

4. Genis-Vell - Marvel Comics

During Mar-Vell's tenure as Captain Marvel, he got married to Elysius, a woman from Titan (home of Thanos, of course). After he died, Elysius got broody, so had a test-tube baby using Mar-Vell's DNA and accelerated the growth of the child. The result was Genis-Vell, initially a punk with a bad attitude (and even worse fashion sense) and operating under the name Legacy. In 1995, Genis got his own series under the name Captain Marvel, but it was abruptly cancelled after half a dozen issues.

It's hard to believe this look didn't stick.

It wasn't until Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco's time travelling epic Avengers Forever gave Genis a redesign that the character took off, starring in a cult (i.e., low-selling but respected) solo series by Peter David and Chris Cross. Genis found himself having to grow up after being molecularly bonded to Rick Jones, just as his father had been. Rick had spent plenty of time around super-heroes and so wasn't impressed with Genis' lack of accomplishment. The pair bickered their way through nearly 60 issues before the perennial Captain Marvel problem of low sales brought the series, and their bond, to an end.

But before that happened, there was just time for Genis to be usurped to the Captain Marvel title by...

5. Phyla-Vell - Marvel Comics

Appearing near the end of the David's series, Genis' younger sister Phyla comes out of nowhere and tells the increasingly unstable Genis that he's no longer worthy of their father's legacy and that she will be taking it from him. Genis is more concerned by the fact that he doesn't remember having a sister at all.

Phyla's existence turns out to be a side-effect of Genis rebooting the universe (it's a wild series) and while she doesn't take the Captain Marvel title permanently, it's not long before she finds herself taking up a different cosmic legacy as Quasar, becoming a founding member of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Phyla as Quasar


Meanwhile, after being thrust into cancellation, Genis pops up again in New Thunderbolts, but has started going by Photon, another name that he's accidentally stolen from Monica Rambeau. Here he's unceremoniously killed off, leaving Marvel with another vacancy in the rank.

6. Khn'nr - Marvel Comics

Khn'nr (no, I don't know how to pronounce that either) was a member of the shapeshifting alien race of Skrulls, and appeared on Earth during the superhero civil war, covered in the mini-series Civil War. Khn'nr posed as the original Captain Marvel, Mar-Vell, with conditioning so good that even he believed he was the original Mar-Vell, back from the dead somehow.

He wasn't and he died, to a collective shrug from pretty much everyone.

7. Noh-Varr - Marvel Comics

As part of the Dark Reign period at Marvel, Norman Osborn (director of SHIELD replacement HAMMER, at the time) set up many supervillains as impostor superheroes to form his own Avengers, because by the late-00s Avengers teams were like rubber charity bracelets and if you didn't have your own to promote, you were nothing.

Posing as Captain Marvel was Noh-Varr, a genetically augmented Kree from another dimension who had been imprisoned for years after attempting to conquer New York (and failing, obvs.). Interestingly, Noh-Varr was created by Grant Morrison in the mini-series Marvel Boy, which was originally intended to be out of regular continuity. He was claimed for the main Marvel universe by Brian Michael Bendis, who proceeded to do not a huge amount with him. Noh-Varr made various appearances with the Dark Avengers, where he again did not a huge amount, before the team's ruse was rumbled and he went on the run, abandoning the Captain Marvel persona.

Over at DC, there was also a change of hands for the name.

8. Freddy Freeman - DC Comics

Originally Captain Marvel Jr—the kid superhero's kid sidekick—Freddy got a title bump after the Infinite Crisis event series saw Shazam, the wizard that guided Captain Marvel, die and Billy Batson forced to take his place. In the late 00s title Trials of Shazam, Freddy goes through a series of trials to prove himself worthy of the power of Shazam becoming Captain Marvel.

Sort of.

It's by this time that DC has pretty much given up on the Captain Marvel name. After being forced to use Shazam in titles for four decades, the decision is made to just rename the character Shazam as well, to limit confusion. This brings its own complications with it, not least that it means the character isn't able to say his own name without transforming, making introductions tricky. But then Freddy has always had that problem, given his previous transformation into Captain Marvel Jr required him to say "Captain Marvel", which... come on, guys, I don't think you deserved the early lunch you took that day.

There's still confusion, even in story, after this as to whether the character is called Captain Marvel or Shazam, but with the linewide New 52 reboot, the Captain Marvel names are dropped entirely, leaving the extended Marvel Family to become the "Shazam Family" in the few appearances they've made. And it is Shazam that the character, back to being Billy Batson, will be known as in the upcoming movie, (Shazam!) due out within a month of Marvel's Captain Marvel.

Over at Marvel, the trademark had been protected with the odd one-shot and mini, but in 2012, it was time for a powerplay and another Captain Marvel.

9. Carol Danvers - Marvel Comics

Carol was originally a supporting character in the early days of Mar-Vell's stories, the security chief of a military base Mar-Vell had infiltrated in his human identity. She was soon written out after an explosion and wasn't seen again until the late 70s. Here the explosion was revealed to have merged her human biology with that of the Kree Mar-Vell, giving her superpowers, somehow. Radioactive spider it was not. She used these under the identity Ms. Marvel, which came with a skimpy version of Mar-Vell's costume, because it was the 70s, of course it did.

They're empowering panties, clearly.


As hokey as it sounds now, Ms. Marvel was one of a number of female-empowerment titles Marvel was creating at the time. Unfortunately, they were mostly all female knock-offs of existing characters, pulling double duty as trademark protection and only She-Hulk really took off long term.

Ms. Marvel ran for a few years, most notably written by Chris Claremont, and she even made it into the Avengers. Unfortunately, this is where things went wrong for the character, as she was subject to a horrendously misjudged story that saw her get written out to go live happily ever after with a time-traveller who, essentially, raped and impregnated her with himself. Claremont would later repair the character in the pages of Uncanny X-Men, putting Carol in the head of Rogue for a while as well as in space with the Starjammers, under the name Binary.

Carol as Warbird


Being stuck in space with perennial X-Men guest stars doesn't do much for a character though and it wasn't until Kurt Busiek brought her back to Earth in the late 90s to rejoin the Avengers as Warbird that Carol started to gain traction again. By the mid-00s, she was back to being called Ms. Marvel and the company decided to push her strongly as their premier female superhero. She carried her own title for 50 issues, which is nothing to be sniffed at in the increasingly volatile modern comics market.

In 2012 though it was decided to give Carol another identity, the one she'd been passed over for so many times before. Captain Marvel. It was a move that made a lot of sense. She has a strong connection to the original, including a lot of the same powers. She's a character that Marvel really wants to make work, so giving her a name they've had to constantly protect, let alone that contains the company's own name, makes a lot of sense.

And yet you'll notice I've not really said much about Carol's personality and that's because she's often a character that's hard to get a clear take on. Where Marvel's other blockbuster characters have succeeded is in having a fundamental character issue that defined their origin—Tony Stark being mortally wounded by his own weapons, the manifestation of his arrogance and amorality; Thor being stripped of his powers until he learned the necessary humility from humanity to wield them responsibility; Peter Parker constantly striving to atone for a single act of selfishness that cost him his own uncle. These struggles are internalised into the characters and continually propel them through their best stories.

Carol doesn't really have that. Her origin is simply that she's collateral damage to another hero's story. It wasn't even intended to be an origin story. In her time she's been a USAF pilot, a magazine editor, an alcoholic, a space buccaneer, and survivor of one of the most messed up extra-temporal rape stories and yet it's often hard to see any of that inform her character. With the Ms. Marvel relaunch, the position was that she was "best of the best" driven to reach her potential and be the greatest hero she could be, which is almost something, I guess, but it's not like every other superhero is trying to work out how to only put in 75%.

How the MCU reinterprets Carol will be interesting to see, and I have confidence that the result will turn out well. Marvel Studios aren't strangers to massaging or even rewriting a character's personality as they make their way to the screen, as we saw with the Guardians of the Galaxy, none of whom really resemble their comic book inspirations, not even Groot.

While we know which Captain Marvel the film will star, it's harder to say who that Captain Marvel really is.

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