Comparing Two Fresh Starts: Captain Marvel and Star Wars
In longstanding ongoing serial storytelling franchises, eventually the inclination to make a fresh start with iconic characters will arise. It happens with some regularity in Marvel and DC superhero comics, to varying degrees of commercial and critical success. In their corresponding movies (and television), multiple iterations of Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, the Joker, the Flash, and others have appeared over the last twenty years. Both Marvel and DC rely on the concept of a multiverse, sometimes telling stories with different versions of a character simultaneously. The Star Wars franchise, by contrast, has (to date) rejected this approach. From the early 1990s until the early 2010s, Lucasfilm maintained a single continuity. Although the execution was imperfect within the Expanded Universe storyline, not to mention attempting to reconcile those tales with George Lucas’ concurrent storytelling in the Prequel Trilogy and The Clone Wars, the basic premise held firm: Star Wars did not have alternate timelines, nor would it reboot its characters each time it brought aboard new creative teams. After the acquisition by Disney and the decision to make new Star Wars movies on an ongoing basis, Lucasfilm rebooted – but maintained the principle of a single continuity for the franchise. The prior storyline, rebranded as Legends, would close down; the new storyline, begun with The Force Awakens and its tie-in materials, would launch a new continuity in which future Star Wars storytelling across all mediums would (imperfectly) be kept consistent and integrated as a single timeline. Star Wars was not, and (to date) is not, a multiverse.
The year 2012 provides an interesting point of comparison for examining two different opportunities for fresh starts with prominent female characters. Though the stories ultimately released a few years later, the reboot of Star Wars originates in 2012: George Lucas’ work on a treatment for the Sequel Trilogy, the arrival of Kathleen Kennedy, the formation of a story group and a creative brain trust, the announcement of the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm, and the formal completion of the acquisition just before the end of the year. With far less global fanfare at the time, in 2012 Marvel Comics also rebooted the character of Carol Danvers, making her the titular character in a Captain Marvel comic written by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Seven years later, a Captain Marvel film inspired by DeConnick’s characterization made over a billion dollars at the global box office, and Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker will arrive in theaters in December.
The fresh start for the character of Captain Marvel demonstrates how ongoing serial storytelling can take advantage of such a reboot to strengthen the character and the franchise. Within the realm of comics storytelling, DeConnick’s run on Captain Marvel marked another iteration of a character with over forty years of previous appearances, but the fresh start she unveiled for Carol Danvers made a far greater impact than simply a new take on a familiar face. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Captain Marvel film introduced that newly redefined character to a broad global audience without preconceived notions of backstory or characterization. Taken together, these stories completely changed the trajectory of the character.
First, the new Captain Marvel – for the first time written by women – is guided by a consistent vision of who the character is, rather than ad hoc development over time. When written by varying creative teams of men, Carol Danvers was Ms. Marvel, Binary, and Warbird; a member of the Avengers, or the X-Men, or not part of a team; an Earth-bound human or a cosmic alien hybrid. DeConnick’s Captain Marvel, Margaret Stohl’s The Life of Captain Marvel, and the Captain Marvel film each presents a different variation on the specific origin of her powers – but the characterization, personality traits, and motivations remain constant and reliably written.
Second, the new Captain Marvel repudiates and repairs many of the problematic tropes that had mired the character in the decades she was written by men. As thoroughly laid out in the her chapter in Carolyn Cocca’s book Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation, Carol Danvers has over the years been written with tropes including: a love interest to a much more powerful man; fainting from overexertion when taxing her powers, or having a split personality between her ordinary and superpowered lives; impregnation by rape; experimentation by evil aliens; depowering for an extended period of time, or memory loss for an extended time, both later repaired by a powerful male character; often the sole female character, or having few or no female friends; portrayal as humorless and shrill; and of course, drawn in sexualized costumes or poses. Some of the men who wrote or drew her over the years meant well, but ultimately could not escape what Cocca describes as “good intentions and blind privilege” (page 188). In DeConnick’s hands, these tropes are eliminated or retconned. In the movie, Carol has agency throughout the story, including investigating her amnesia and firing the shot that results in her acquiring superpowers, as well as the support of friends and allies. The new Captain Marvel is the central character in her own story, rather than an adjunct to the adventures of men.
Third, the new Captain Marvel used the relaunch to significantly improve representation among the characters surrounding Carol on her adventures. In the comics, she has numerous female friends and colleagues, including Spider-Woman as her best friend, in addition to male allies like Captain America, Iron Man, Rocket, and several members of the Alpha Flight spaceforce she leads; her love interest is Rhodey (War Machine), who shares her military background but nothing close to her superpowers. In the MCU movie, gender-swapped Mar-Vell gives Carol a female mentor figure, Maria Rambeau is her best friend, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury functions as her mission partner on Earth. The secondary cast is diverse, too, including Korath, Minn-Erva, Att-Lass, and Maria Rambeau.
Fourth, the Captain Marvel film used the fresh start to break with other past traditions, too. Rather than the rote steps of a standard Hero’s Journey based on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth in which a superhero acquires powers and learns to wield them responsibly, Captain Marvel tells her Heroine’s Journey origin story as an emotional journey of self-discovery instead. The movie also uses longstanding lore to surprise the audience: the Skrulls, who are one of the most iconic villains of the Marvel comics, are the refugee victims here; Talos functions as Carol’s mentor in her rediscovery of her connections to Earth, rather than as the nemesis she initially believes him to be. Grounded in the familiar storytelling terrain of the MCU, Captain Marvel is able to take chances with Carol’s story in a way that pays big dividends.
Finally, Marvel Studios recognized the potential to build upon the excitement for the comics’ Captain Marvel when launching the character onto the silver screen. In fact, the precedent came from the comics themselves: simply the announcement that DeConnick would be writing Carol Danvers in a Captain Marvel title, combined with the reveal of the costume redesign by Jamie McKelvie, generated a massive surge in enthusiasm for the series before the first issue was ever published. The “Carol Corps” of devoted fans – later recognized in the title of the mini-series Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps written by DeConnick and Kelly Thompson – only built more momentum as the comic storyline unfolded. By the time Brie Larson’s casting as Carol Danvers was announced at San Diego Comic-Con in 2016, Marvel had confidence it could transpose that enthusiasm into the broader movie-going public, as well. With a U.S. domestic box office over $425 million – more than Iron Man 3, Captain America: Civil War, Wonder Woman, or Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – they were proven right.
By contrast, the fresh start for Star Wars since 2012 has failed to similarly take advantage of a storytelling reboot to strengthen its portrayals of most important female characters. Particularly in the Skywalker Saga movies, Star Wars has fallen back into the same patterns that undermined the success of the franchise in the era of the Prequel Trilogy and Expanded Universe. Instead of using its clean slate to do better, Lucasfilm has repeated the same mistakes. In each of the five ways that Captain Marvel’s relaunch successfully charted a new course, Star Wars has come up short.
Most importantly, permitting the new Skywalker Saga movies to be created on an ad hoc basis by men has once again greatly hindered the development of the core female characters. In the Prequel Trilogy, Padmé regressed from central protagonist to love interest to homebound by pregnancy. In the Expanded Universe, male authors did little better: Leia was initially mostly relegated to the political arena, and once she finally trained as a Jedi a quarter century after Endor she rarely undertook any missions separately from Han; Mara faced inconsistent characterization, was sidelined by a mysterious illness, and regressed in her characterization leading to her death; Jaina also lacked consistent characterization, often was subjected to a love triangle as her primary arc, and never received equal depth of development to her twin brother Jacen. In The Force Awakens, Leia is portrayed as a general rather than a politician, arguably a better interpretation of her character development after the Original Trilogy – but her damaged relationship with Han was so clearly an unwise choice that Lucasfilm moved to quickly reaffirm the importance of their relationship in the novel Bloodline and the Star Wars comic series, as well as later material such as Forces of Destiny and Galaxy of Adventures. In The Last Jedi, Leia is knocked into a coma early in the film so the story can focus on the conflict between Luke and Kylo Ren. Despite millions of women who have yearned to see Leia as a Jedi ever since the momentous reveal in Return of the Jedi, at no point in either film does Leia even touch a lightsaber, much less ignite or fight with one – and she only uses the Force in The Last Jedi because Kathleen Kennedy insisted Rian Johnson include at least something, and he preferred an instinctual untrained reaction to a display of Jedi knowledge. The new female lead, Rey, is undeniably the central protagonist of The Force Awakens; in The Last Jedi, however,she does not drive the story but rather serves as the vector to advance and resolve the feud between Luke and Kylo. In fact, despite the initial intention to make the Sequel Trilogy the origin story of a female Jedi, the development of Rey’s story was so ad hoc that Rian Johnson made a list of all the possibilities for who Rey might be, including options as ludicrous as a clone or robot. If the male creators could not be bothered to know the basic identity of their supposedly lead character, it is hardly surprising that her characterization and portrayal weakened across the two films. And if they did not even devote adequate focus to Rey, what chance did the other female characters have?
For similar reasons, the new onscreen Star Wars has perpetuated more tropes than it has smashed. The independent and self-reliant Rey of The Force Awakens abruptly puts all her faith to save the galaxy on two undeserving men in The Last Jedi. The ace pilot Poe Dameron, a great example of non-toxic masculinity in the first film, regresses in the second film to suit Johnson’s Twelve O’Clock High homage. The tropes in Solo: A Star Wars Story are even worse, from fridging Val and L3 to Qi’ra the inscrutable untrustworthy femme fatale. Star Wars Rebels fared better than Star Wars Resistance, but both still suffer from the lack of diversity in the writers’ rooms. At least the one trope that The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi managed to avoid, compared to Star Wars’ track record, is any sexualized portrayal of Rey on screen.
Although the two new Skywalker Saga films are frequently praised for improving the onscreen diversity in Star Wars movies, looking closer makes the issue more complicated. Several years later, it can be easy to forget that the first cast announcement for Episode VII in April 2014 was sharply criticized for its lack of diversity (nine white men, two men of color, and two white women) and seemingly followed by a last-minute gender-swap of Captain Phasma. Oscar Isaac’s Poe was slated to be killed off early in The Force Awakens, only emerging as an important player later in production. The Last Jedi introduced three new secondary characters who aren’t white men (Rose, Holdo, and DJ), but the representation they provide is limited. None of the three has a character development arc; their characterization remains static throughout the film. Each serves only as a foil for the development of a male character (Finn in the case of Rose and DJ, Poe for Holdo), and only one remains part of the story at the film’s end – and she is unconscious. Across two films, Rey has no female companions and no female mentors. Contrast that with Jaina Solo in the Expanded Universe, whose circle included Leia, Mara, Tenel Ka, Tahiri, and others. Rogue One offered the most diverse principal film cast – then killed them all off. Representation is better in the less widely consumed mediums, with greater diversity than the films in the characters and voice actors for Rebels and Resistance, and among the prominent new characters introduced in the books and comics, such as Doctor Aphra, Rae Sloane, Vi Moradi, and Sinjir Rath Velus. It may be true that representation in Star Wars is improved from what it used to be, particularly compared to the Original Trilogy and the core cast of the flagship Expanded Universe storyline, but compared to Captain Marvel and other stories, Star Wars is hardly leading the way.
The new era of Star Wars, especially the Skywalker Saga, also has been cautious about departing from the traditions and nostalgia of the franchise. The plotline of The Force Awakens and the Hero’s Journey undertaken by Rey is rightly called out for the beat-for-beat similarities to A New Hope. Although The Force Awakens does some things differently, particularly the parallel arc for Finn, very little about Rey’s arc stands out as a Heroine’s Journey for a female protagonist. The Last Jedi likewise mirrors the structure of The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones: the heroes are separated for most of the film, they fail to attain the objectives they set out to achieve in the first act, and the film ends with the heroes defeated and seemingly overmatched by their adversaries. Most of the controversial surprises in The Last Jedi – particularly Snoke’s death and Rey’s heritage – come not as much from the overall lore of Star Wars as from the mystery box setup of The Force Awakens. Only Luke’s characterization as a grumpy, fatalistic retiree who refuses to join the fight against evil – a portrayal that endures for most of the film’s two hours, shifting only in the final few minutes – marks a stark contrast to pre-2012 tales. Everything else in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi is entirely familiar to those versed in Star Wars lore: a girl Jedi in a central heroic role (Jaina); a former Imperial as her friend, mission partner, or possible love interest (Jag); Han and Leia’s son fallen to the dark side (Jacen) due in part to the manipulations of a dark sider with mysterious connections to the old Empire (Lumiya); the fallen son (Caedus) murders a close family member (Mara), tries to lure others to follow his dark side path (Tahiri and Ben Skywalker), and leads military units to seize tyrannical control of the government – and even orders the shooting down of the Millennium Falcon by forces under his command. This hardly resembles using the fresh start to break new ground.
Finally, Lucasfilm’s reboot of its storytelling catalogue eliminated any possibility to build upon existing fan enthusiasm for other characters when continuing the stories beyond the principal characters of the six George Lucas films. By announcing the Legends decision in April 2014, and revealing unfamiliar names like Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, and Kylo Ren in December 2014, Lucasfilm made clear that the new trilogy in the Skywalker Saga would not include any popular Expanded Universe characters. For the first new film, this decision did not hinder consumer interest in the movie: thirty years of anticipation for an Episode VII that most Star Wars fans thought they would never see gave The Force Awakens a tremendous surge of interest and a sense of culmination matched only by Avengers: Infinity War and exceeded by Avengers: Endgame at the worldwide box office. That goodwill carried over to Rogue One, but not enough to put that Star Wars film ahead of Captain Marvel, Aquaman, The Fate of the Furious, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the live-action Beauty and the Beast, or Incredibles 2. While The Last Jedi surpasses all of those, but not Black Panther, its earnings were far more front-loaded than The Force Awakens, signaling a weakness in word of mouth and repeat viewings. After three consecutive annual number one films, Solo: A Star Wars Story failed to earn as much as Ant-Man and the Wasp at the U.S. box office, finishing not even among the top ten highest-grossing movies of the year. With The Rise of Skywalker six months away, the multiplicity of fan interpretations and predictions for the final film – many of them entirely irreconcilable – indicates the degree of indeterminacy within the Sequel Trilogy’s first two films. Instead of enthusiasm grown from passion for the characters and confidence in the storytellers, in much of the active fandom the mood instead seems apprehensive, even anxious, about how the story will be brought to an end.
And now, Lucasfilm will be taking at least a three year break after Episode IX before the next movie, currently scheduled for December 2022. How will the franchise keep fans engaged for what comes next? The Skywalker Saga is ending, so fans cannot count on looking forward to more stories with the characters from those films, even the next-generation ones. With the Expanded Universe stories shelved by the reboot, there can be no “Carol Corps” to help generate prospective excitement for upcoming stories with known characters not yet seen on the movie screen. The anticipation to look inside the mystery box of long-awaited Episode VII is one thing; expecting to build anticipation for an entirely unknown tale of entirely new characters is something very different – and if anything, the track record of the Expanded Universe indicates that side stories and new characters have a much more difficult time connecting with a broad audience of Star Wars fans compared to the flagship storyline of the Skywalker family soap opera. It is true, of course, that some Star Wars fans would express disinterest in movies featuring Jaina Solo or Mara Jade, Revan or Bastila Shan, Zayne Carrick or Cade Skywalker. But not every Marvel Comics fan was excited about Black Panther or Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange or The Eternals, either.
No set of story choices for an ongoing serial storytelling franchise will please everyone – but some have a better chance than others at building upon existing fan enthusiasm to generate social media buzz, casual audience interest, ticket purchases, and ultimately new fans for the franchise. The success of Captain Marvel in the comics and MCU shows what is possible with a fresh start for iconic characters and their storylines. The contrasting decisions by Lucasfilm for the Star Wars franchise, unfortunately, do not appear to have achieved similar results.
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