Of Marvel’s many gloriously convoluted characters, Carol has perhaps the most truly bonkers backstory of them all. This is a lady who has gone from human woman to amnesiac Kree warrior to magazine editor to space pirate to the leader of the Avengers, and folks, that is not even the half of it. It’s been a long and winding road for our girl Carol, to say the least.
Granted, a lot of Captain Marvel’s backstory won’t make it into the long-awaited film version of her story, but it looks like a pretty surprising amount of it does. As such, there is no time like the present to revisit Carol Danvers’ supremely complicated (and occasionally quite problematic) comic book history.
To begin with, Carol Danvers had a rough start in life as the child of an abusive, misogynistic father. In the years since leaving home, she has seldom brought him up to people in her life, but has had some bonding with Tony Stark around the subject of absent dads, and it’s easy to assume that a lot of her repressive way of dealing with her emotions was learned from living in a stifling environment as a child. Regardless of how much time has passed, Carol’s troubled feelings towards her family have remained a constant. She went to college against her father’s wishes, but it was made clear to her that this meant being disowned.
As with so many characters in Marvel comics, everything was going fine in her life until a superhero showed up. The original Captain Marvel (or Mar-Vell) was born of the alien species known as the Kree and had grown surprisingly fond of Earth after being assigned to surveillance of the planet. This caused all kinds of problems in his life, but that’s another story. Carol Danvers was intrigued by Marvel, and she followed him into a dangerous situation hoping to get the chance to state her interest to him. This led to her nearly being killed in an explosion. Marvel saved her life, but barely, and their “genes were merged” which scientifically leads to some pretty complicated questions but in comics meant that she reemerged later with the powers of Mar-Vell.
Recently, in The Life of Captain Marvel, it was revealed that Carol’s mother was actually Kree and had fallen in love with Carol’s (human) father, meaning Carol had not in fact gotten her powers from Mar-Vell and had already been Kree from birth. Because falling in love with a human meant that she was considered a traitor to the Kree, she hid the truth from everyone with the exception of Carol’s father. It turned out that Carol’s birth name was Car-Ell, but unfortunately, that was about all she learned from her mother before she was brutally killed by a very random villain sent by the Kree.
When the original Ms. Marvel series began in 1977, we were introduced to a Carol who had left the Air Force to take over the role of editor-in-chief of J. Jonah Jameson’s WOMAN Magazine. JJJ was an active misogynist during this series, and the mostly male-staffed WOMAN Magazine and casual sexism of the work environment certainly haven't aged well for most modern fans of Carol Danvers. It was a rocky time for female superheroes, and the aggressive love interests and poor characterization that plagued books like She-Hulk and Spider-Woman were very present in Ms. Marvel, (although the most prominent writer of the series, Chris Claremont, would see better results with female characters like Storm and Jean Grey in the X-Men in the following years). To make matters worse, Carol was suffering from amnesia for most of it, so she didn’t even know she was Ms. Marvel for a good portion of the storyline. The constant insistence of many writers of this time of writing female heroism as being mostly accidental is a major theme here.
The original Ms. Marvel series reads back as fairly complicated in and of itself, not just due to the bizarre story turns but because the series was actually canceled before the last two issues were released. They were released much later, but in most collections those final issues are omitted, thus ending Ms. Marvel on a strange, anticlimactic note. Even with those last issues, the series was still ending earlier than the creative team appeared to be aware of, and it is still clipped. This is a common problem for female-led books of the time — similar surprise wrap-ups occurred in the final issues of She-Hulk and Spider-Woman’s books.
Still, there were some upsides to Carol’s arc in Ms. Marvel, and one of those upsides was our introduction to some of Carol’s longstanding personality traits. Her open style of flirtation and her tendency towards polyamory were trademarks of the character during this series, as was her strong independence and her sharp unwillingness to allow herself to be pushed around. Besides that, these final issues introduced us to the shockingly malicious Mystique, who outright murders one of Carol’s boyfriends. In Carol’s long history, Mystique might be the closest thing to an arch-nemesis. They’ve barely interacted with one another over the last few decades, but the sheer spite and ferocity with which Mystique came at Carol in their early appearances with one another is truly the stuff of legend.
For the sake of mercy, we’ll be brief in our evaluation of the Marcus story, but essentially after her series ended, Carol joined the Avengers for a time and was eventually targeted by a very random cosmic being that referred to himself as Marcus. He gaslit and even brainwashed her into being in a relationship with him, and Carol finally gave in after literally giving birth to him and watching him rapidly grow to adult human form, another aspect of the mind control. The Avengers, however, were not under mind control, and they blithely allowed Carol to leave with Marcus. She only eventually saw freedom because Marcus continued to rapidly age and died an old man within a pretty short time period. Otherwise, she might still be trapped, which is mortifying to contemplate.
When Carol returned to Earth, she was attacked by Rogue and Mystique in an instance that saw Rogue absorb Carol’s powers and much of her persona. When the Avengers came to check in on her, she was infuriated with them for letting Marcus leave with her. This story is important not just for what happened, but for being the subject of an infamous piece of feminist critique by Carol Strickland, and also inspiring feminist comic criticism going forward. Other than that, it’s the pits. A lot of people call it the worst comic story ever, and, well, they aren’t wrong.
After all of this, Carol started hanging out more with the X-Men, who helped her regain her memory. She entered the Pentagon with Wolverine’s assistance and definitively erased all files on her or Ms. Marvel. This all led to her ending up stuck in space with the X-Men during The Brood Saga, one of the great X-Men stories of the time, in which all of the X-Men save Wolverine become “impregnated” by the Brood (more or less, xenomorphs) and said their farewells as Wolverine fully planned to murder each of them at the moment of their inevitable transformations. In all this mess, Carol Danvers was used as a test subject by the Brood, who inadvertently gave her the awesome, possibly cosmic powers of Binary. She proceeded to murder the Brood en masse over several years.
Carol Danvers is a woman who needed to let her anger really sing, and she does that by going sick house on the Brood in deep space then teaming up with the Starjammers, an early indication of her love for teamwork and adventure-seeking. Carol eventually realized that the X-Men had allowed Rogue to join their team, and after the trauma she had suffered, it seemed like only another betrayal to her. She stayed in space for years, and when she came back, it was under the name Warbird.
During the late ‘90s, much of Carol’s time in the Marvel universe saw her struggle with alcoholism, but she did battle it successfully with some guidance from Tony Stark after she was temporarily suspended from the Avengers. She eventually served as both co-leader and leader of the team, forging strong friendships with Spider-Woman and Jessica Jones among others. She played a major role in Secret Invasion, during which time she developed a strange friendship with a Skrull impersonating Mar-Vell while simultaneously dealing with the emotional fallout from realizing that her best friend Spider-Woman had been a Skrull for some time.
After Secret Invasion, Spider-Man villain Norman Osborne gained control of the Avengers and their resources, enlisting many known criminals to active Avengers duty. One such character was Moonstone, who had long been causing problems in the Marvel Universe. She took on the uniform and name of Ms. Marvel, prompting Carol to eventually come after her. This story arc, War of the Marvels, featured a lot of excellent extended fight scenes between them and saw Carol return to the Ms. Marvel title for a few issues and another battle with Mystique before the series was canceled.
It was in the 2012 Captain Marvel series that Carol finally took on the mantle that she’ll be using in the upcoming film. Evading the suggestion of changing her name with the insistence that she had no right to stomp on the Marvel legacy, Captain America countered that she has already taken the title and the responsibility and that she might as well make it official.
Carol became very active in the Marvel Universe, joining active Avengers duty once more, taking on the leadership of Alpha Flight, and serving alongside the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Ultimates, and A-Force. She was present for Spider-Woman during her friend’s pregnancy and the birth of her child. She even patched up her relationship with Tony Stark for a time. We saw her relationships with her cat Chewie and James Rhodes explored. In short, she became more connected to her life as a superhero than ever before.
Recently, Carol was a major player in Civil War II, although she is not portrayed in a flattering light and there has been a lot of criticism of her role and the crossover as a whole. Still, even in Civil War II, her actions were misguided by a deep, gnawing concern over those she cared about, and she eventually saw the light. This doesn’t excuse her actions, which revolved around her and the Avengers’ attempts to preemptively act against crime, thereby criminalizing innocent people.
You can’t talk about Carol Danvers without at least some acknowledgment of the incredibly long and difficult path she underwent in becoming Captain Marvel. Although comic book time is notoriously nebulous, in real time, this took over 40 years. Carol cycled through writers that put little focus or effort into understanding her for a long time before she got Kelly Sue DeConnick. Yet even in her rough patches, Carol has always been a woman guided by her passion for doing the right thing.
Carol suffers from PTSD, anxiety, and alcoholism. She makes terrible mistakes sometimes. She has incredible difficulty trusting the men in her life. She lashes out at people that try to get close to her. On the other hand, she’s an extremely loyal and accepting friend, she never stops confronting her problems head-on and trying to grow from them, she’s tough as nails, and she works great on a team. Over time, she has developed one of the strongest and most passionate fan followings of any Marvel character, and that is perhaps because of her flaws rather than in spite of them. Seldom do female characters get to fail without being utterly villainized for their growing process, and the ability to put ego aside and learn from her mistakes is what makes Carol one of the most important characters in Marvel’s canon.