After 21 films, 11 years and countless world-saving adventures, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is finally getting its first stand-alone female superhero movie this weekend, with the eagerly anticipated release of Captain Marvel.
Marvel may seem a little slow to the party – DC beat the brand to the female superhero prize back in 2017 with the box office smash Wonder Woman, which remained the highest-grossing film of the current crop of Worlds of DC films until Aquaman was released at the end of last year. What that film proved, and what Black Panther went on to emphasise with its record-smashing theatrical run, is that comic book movie audiences don't only want to see white guys in capes in a superhero story.
Why did it take so long?
Marvel perhaps shouldn’t be judged too harshly for getting on the female lead train two years late. There’s a fair argument that the comic book publisher simply didn’t have an obvious character to spearhead a female-fronted solo movie.
Most of Marvel's female characters are part of a team, such as X-Men's Storm or Guardians of the Galaxy's Gamora. It's one of those anomalies of the comics world that although Marvel has, to date, been far more successful than DC in the cinematic universe stakes, DC actually owns most of the best-known superhero properties. Superman and Batman are probably the two superheroes with the greatest cultural clout among the non-geek fraternity, having both been subject to film and TV adaptations for decades.
Batman is a particularly adored character, from the hugely successful series of the 1960s starring Adam West, to Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan's takes on the Caped Crusader of the 1990s and 2000s. Superman is also something of a cultural behemoth. He'd been appearing on screen in movies since the 1940s before the treasured Christopher Reeve Superman films of the 1970s and 1980s came along, and he was the star of the massive Nick O'Teen anti-smoking campaign of the 1980s. The character was firmly etched in the minds of children from that era.
Wonder Woman may not pack quite such a cultural punch, but she has been the world's leading female superhero since she first appeared in 1941. She spawned a successful three-season TV series starring Lynda Carter in the 1970s and 1980s, and she has been held up as a symbol of the feminist movement since it first began more than four decades ago.
The Captain Marvel backstory
Captain Marvel doesn’t have any of that. In fact, the character has only actually existed in her current form since 2012, when Kelly Sue DeConnick was charged with repurposing the existing minor character Ms Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, with a view to creating a character who could carry her own movie.
This year's Captain Marvel is set in 1995. Danvers is an ex-US Air Force fighter pilot and member of an elite alien military unit, whose DNA was fused with alien DNA in an accident, giving her superhuman strength, energy protection, and allowing her to fly (so, like Spider-Man but with aliens instead of arachnids). Danvers is aggressive, quick-tempered and invasive, and encumbered with an "unemotional" alien side, which she must balance with her "flawed" human half. The film explores the themes of balancing humanity with power, while also featuring plenty of the fast-paced, violent fight scenes you'd expect from any male protagonist.
But the Danvers character has been around in print a little longer. She first appeared in Marvel's comics in 1967 as the girlfriend of the original male Captain Marvel, Mar-Vell, an alien who had taken up the role of protector of the Earth. In 1969, she was killed off with an alien weapon, but reappeared in 1977 as the publisher tried to tap into the audience for female superheroes created by the success of the Wonder Woman TV show. The alien weapon, it transpired, had not killed her, but instead transferred all of the now-deceased first Captain's powers to her. The publisher also hoped to catch the feminist zeitgeist by using the Ms prefix, but the comics didn't catch on – Wonder Woman had seemingly already cornered the market, and Ms Marvel was quietly retired a couple of years later.
There was a second revival attempt for Ms Marvel in the mid-2000s, with similar results, before the 2012 renaming framed Danvers’s Captain as Marvel’s most powerful superhero. Another iteration of Ms Marvel – the publisher’s first Muslim superhero Pakistani-American teen Kamala Khan – was also introduced to the comics the following year. Confused? Stay with us … MCU chief Kevin Feige has previously stated that he expects Khan to make it to the big screen in future, too.
So, why the online trolling?
So Marvel finally had its female lead superhero, though it's still fair to say that at just seven years old, and having not really entered the public consciousness outside of the comics world, Captain Marvel is hardly legendary. So can she equal, or better, Wonder Woman's success? Not if online trolls are to be believed. The film has, inexplicably, become something of a bete-noire for right-wing activists. Apparently infuriated by the prospect of a female superhero, played by noted feminist Brie Larson, who has even gone so far as to call for more non-white and female faces at her press events, the activists have launched an online troll storm. Rotten Tomatoes has been bombarded with bad audience reviews from people who clearly haven't seen the film yet. RT has now turned off audience reviews for the film, wisely, though of the ones we read before they did, most were not talking about the movie, but Larson's politics or gender, accusing her of being "racist" and "sexist" towards white men.
A second tactic has been inundating discussion boards with false claims that the film is predicted to be headed for a slow opening weekend and is likely to bomb. It's a tactic, but it doesn't take much to check the latest tracking figures and see that Captain Marvel is projected for a solid $100 million (Dh367.2m) opening. That's more than Marvel's last lesser-known character outing – Ant Man and The Wasp, with $75m – and on a par with Wonder Woman's $103m in 2017, so things don't look too bad.
Many of these amateur reviewers and audience monitors have, of course, said they won't go and see the film, but if they're this angry about a strong female lead played by a strong female actress, they probably didn't go and see Wonder Woman, either, so their absence should make little difference when the pennies roll in.
Why you should give it a chance
There are some more constructive criticisms to be found online, not least with half of The Avengers wiped out in Infinity War, and an impossibly powerful foe to face in the upcoming Endgame. Her introduction to the franchise came at the end of Infinity War when defeated Avengers mentor Nick Fury summoned her to come to the team's aid.
It’s awfully convenient to suddenly find the MCU jumping back in time to introduce a new hero more powerful than any we’ve seen before just when someone, somehow, needs to save the day in the next film, due in cinemas just over a month later.
That could hold water if the Marvel team are planning on ending the whole of this phase of the MCU with some clumsy, deus-ex-machina "then Captain Marvel comes and saves everyone and they all live happily ever after" plotline. And maybe they are, but I'd have to say that on the evidence of the previous 20 films, it seems likely that the plot of Avengers: Endgame will be slightly more complex than that. The Russo Brothers, who are directing the film, have been wilfully studious in their preparations for it, judging by press reports.
So we’re left with that one undeniable hurdle to the film’s success – the fact that not many people know who Captain Marvel is. There is, indeed, no getting around that, but does it matter? Nobody knew who the Guardians of the Galaxy were when they entered the MCU, but both their films have netted around the $1.5 billion mark combined.
Plus, Marvel are expert marketers. You may never have read a Captain Marvel comic, but it's safe to say you already know she's Marvel's first female MCU star, she's the most powerful hero in the universe and she's going to have a big role in the events of Endgame.
That’s probably all you need to know right now, because it’s also probably enough to make you want to know more by going to watch the film.
Captain Marvel is in cinemas across the UAE