The Problem of Captain Marvel (in “Civil War II”)

I finally made some time to catch up on the last of the Civil War II crossover, which has received mixed reviews—such reviews being mainly concerned with the problem of Captain Marvel. There’s been a lot of talk about how Carol Danvers was portrayed by Brian Michael Bendis, namely that he made her into a two-dimensional supervillian and then failed to provide a meaningful resolution for her story arc (read: consequences).(1) This is, in my view, true to a certain extent. As I noted in a previous post on this crossover, lasting effects in comic books are effectively non-existent. Consequently, the only thing that matters is whether or not the story of the moment is good.

The main Civil War II series, unfortunately, is not very good, and it is not very good mainly because of the way it shortchanges the Carol’s motivations. For the purposes of this critique I’m going to set aside the core concept of whether or not its ethical to punish people for the things they might do, and the fact that no one in the story ever ever gets to what is—in my view—the crux of the issue: the very real problem that these vision, even when correct, lack all context.(2) My problem, and—seemingly—most people’s problem centers on Carol’s depiction in the main series.

The ideological question in Civil War II is whether or not it’s right to use prediction (in this case via the glimpses of possible futures by an Inhuman named Ulysses) as evidence in the prevention, and prosecution, of crime. In the main series, Carol Danvers is provided with only the most basic of motivations: if she can stop one bad thing from happening, she doesn’t care about the cost. It’s a position that shows no nuance at all. From this perspective, Carol is a one-trick pony, inexplicably dedicated to a flawed a system and unwilling to allow dissent or debate on the subject. At the start of the series, it’s possible to chalk this behavior up to her feelings about the death of James Rhodes and her inability to accept that what happened to him was a) partially her responsibility and b) unnecessary. But as things start to go wrong, as Ulysses’ visions start to prove fallible and sometimes self-fulling, Carol still won’t change course. She doesn’t come to any realization about what she’s been doing and repent. She maintains the belief that she’s right from start to finish. More than the fact that she fails to realize the moral quandary of her choices, though, is her failure—in the main series—to sufficiently explain her actions.

We get a much fuller understanding of Carol’s position in Ruth and Christos Gage’s Captain Marvel title. We see her work through the reasoning. We see her struggle with the ethics. We see her face political pressure. We see her worry about what will happen if someone other than her takes over the operation. She’s still wrong, of course, but she’s wrong with decency and thoughtfulness.

She’s not a supervillain…

Captain Marvel vol. 9, no. 7 (2016)
Ruth Fletcher Gage, Christos Gage, Marco Failla, Matt Wilson
Figure it out, assholes, ’cause I ain’t giving any hints…

Civil War II no. 7 (2016)
Brian Michael Bendis, David Marquez, Justin Ponsor

The same cannot be said of the main title. Carol’s actions in Civil War II read like those of a supervillain, and not even a three-dimensional one. It’s clear that, like all villains, she doesn’t think that she’s the villain, but we don’t know why she thinks that. This is a major failing on the part of the writing, although I’m not sure if it’s a failing on the part of Brian Michael Bendis(3) or if it is a failing on the part of the mini-series structure, but I suspect it’s probably a bit of both. In order to get all of the bombastic action into the series—all the fighting, all the twists, all the turns, all the perspectives, all the set-up for the new status quo—something has to give. There’s simply not enough space for all the action and all the motivations in an eight-issue mini-series, and the editors were probably thinking, “Readers can get Carol’s perspective from her title anyway, so we don’t need to worry about it here.” But the same could be said of Tony Stark (who had not one but two personal titles during this crossover), and his motivations were never unclear. We always knew exactly why he was doing what he was doing.

Carol, meanwhile, never discusses her point of view. She never explains. She just pushes forward. And she refuses to be swayed by any counter-argument. She refuses to accept any moral authority other than her own, but she won’t say why. Not in the main series, at any rate. An explanation for her tight-lipped approach is somewhat addressed in Captain Marvel, when Carol explains to Hawkeye that, while she is truly concerned about making mistakes, she cannot express her doubts to anyone lest they be used against her by either her “allies” or her “enemies.”

It’s a useful take on Carol’s position, but it’s not in the main series and it—or something like it—should have been. It would have done a world of good.

Superhero-vs-superhero stories are difficult to pull off. Outside of Captain America: Civil War, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a truly successful take on the genre. The desire is—as it should be—to create a conflict that enables the reader to feel empathy for both sides, and that’s extremely difficult to do. But by burying Captain Marvel’s motivations behind a wall of bravado and bluster, Bendis makes dual empathy virtually impossible.

1) See, for example, Evan Narcisse, “Civil War II is Ruining Captain Marvel,” io9 (August 18, 2016); Kieran Schiach, “The Character Assassination of Carol Danvers by the Writer Brian Michael Bendis,” Comics Alliance (September 23, 2016); and Rob Bricken, “How Civil War II Turned Captain Marvel Into a Supervillian,” io9 (January 26, 2017).
2) The context question is addressed in Kelly Thompson’s excellent A-Force tie-in (issues 8-10), but it never comes up in the main series, whose focus is solely on the probability of accuracy.
3) For the record, I quite like Bendis’s work, and he’s particularly good at character-building. Bendis’s talent for characterization makes the lack of characterization here all the more glaring.


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