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How Marvel Studios broke Captain Marvel

While critics talk superhero exhaustion, Marvel has also done plenty to undermine Captain Marvel

This weekend’s miserable showing for The Marvels has given commentators more ammunition for their ongoing stories about “Marvel exhaustion.” While I think those arguments have merit, I believe there’s another issue also at work in the Marvels' failure: Having heralded Captain Marvel as a major new presence in the MCU in 2019, Marvel has largely undermined her as a viable character in the years since.

In part, Captain Marvel’s troubles started with where her solo film left her. Having established Carol as an extremely powerful and complex character, because they set the movie in the 1980s—a decision that in retrospect was clearly a huge mistake—Marvel needed to explain why no one has ever heard of her since. So they came up with the idea that rather than returning to Earth after her confrontation with the Kree, Carol would stay in space to help the Skrulls find a homeworld, with only Nick Fury and the Rambeaus aware of her existence.

Right away, that move isolated Captain Marvel from the rest of the MCU. When she shows up in Avengers: Endgame, with Fury having been blipped, she has no connections to anyone whatsoever. And the film does nothing to give her any. Sure, Thor says he likes her, and she gives Peter Parker a “Hey there.” But all in all Carol gets less than 4 minutes of screen time in the 182-minute film. Endgame co-writer Stephen McFeely acknowledged she was in the film “a little less than you would have thought.” (Ya think?) But, he argues, “That’s not the story we’re trying to tell.”

It’s a preposterous comment, especially given Marvel’s skill in introducing new characters in the midst of big stories. But it’s also true that Endgame was shooting scenes for Captain Marvel before her own film had even been written, though it was going to be released first. “She’s saying lines for a character 20 years after her origin story, which no one’s written yet,” says McFeely. “It’s just nuts.”

Whether because the writers and producers didn’t know how to write Carol, fell down on the job (or both), Captain Marvel is all business in Endgame, first trying to find and kill Thanos, then, five years later, leading the female super heroes in trying to keep the Infinity Gauntlet away from him. For a hot second near the end she gets to go one on one with him, a move very clearly meant to justify using her in the first place. But it’s all over quickly.

And that’s it: Carol shows up. She fights. She leaves.

Captain Marvel's next appearance is two years later in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ mid-credits scene. Alongside Banner and Wong, Carol analyzes Shang-Chi’s ten rings. But once again, she has nothing character-specific to say or do, other than suddenly bail. The writers make a joke of it: “Yeah, she does this a lot,” Bruce says. But rather than helping Carol, that just makes her the butt of the joke. She’s basically the weirdo who won't hang out with us.

Over the last four years Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy have both had films set in space. The recent Disney+ TV show Secret Invasion also focused on the Skrulls. But Carol is given a role in none of these.

You can’t kick a character around for five years and then be surprised when you’ve lost her audience. And what's really too bad is, The Marvels goes a long way toward fixing the problems the studio created. Carol is finally given some meaningful relationships in the MCU—including paradoxically one with Valkyrie, which very much begs the question why she wasn’t used in Thor: Love and Thunder. The film also allows Carol a return to form as a character, her empathy and humor tempering the often grim no-nonsense vibe of the character's MCU cameos.

And at the film’s end she’s finally back on Earth, which should allow her to finally have a place of her own in the ongoing MCU story.

No one at Marvel is going to be pitching another Captain Marvel film anytime soon. And that’s fine; at this point, Carol Danvers needs relationships in the MCU, not another Kree story of her own. I just hope the company doesn’t write her off entirely. Because there really is no one in either the MCU or the DC Universe with Captain Marvel's combination of guts and warmth, self-sacrifice and human failing. The world could do with a lot more stories about characters like Carol Danvers.

The Marvels confirms that (SPOILER) is coming to the MCU