Captain Marvel In The '70s: The Far-Out Epic Behind The Modern Movie

Editor Picks | March 7, 2019

Captain Marvel on the verge of losing the ultimate battle to Thanos, who has caused him to rapidly age and (most likely) die, in Captain Marvel 33, from 1974. Source: bronzeagebabies.blogspot.com

If you're looking to take in the latest heroic blockbuster, you might have wondered -- who is this Captain Marvel, and what does she have to do with any of these other movies? Well, this particular hero, originally male, is a special one within the vast Marvel Universe (the comics, not the films), representing a peak of creativity. The mind behind Captain Marvel was Jim Starlin, who also worked wonders with Thanos and Adam Warlock. Starlin's trippy, philosophy-soaked storylines were unlike anything else on the comics rack at the time.

It was a trying time for the country. The optimism of the '60s had given way to a great come-down. The Vietnam War was a constant bummer for everyone, both those who objected to it and (even moreso) those who served and came home to what seemed like a cold reception from an ungrateful public. The president who'd said he wasn't a crook had turned out to be a crook. Some of our favorite political leaders and rock heroes had died or been killed. For many young people and shell-shocked hippies, the early '70s was a time for soul-searching.

It was a good time to get back to the basics and consider the big questions, without illusions about peace and love: What is life? Why are we here? What does any of this matter? Why are we in Vietnam? How do we humans live our daily lives when we've got enough nuclear weapons aimed at each other to blow up the planet 100 times?

The time was ripe for popular entertainment that tackled philosophical issues, an escapist fantasy that was also a heavy trip. A comic book that sliced and diced the narrative form; keeping readers interested in the swashbuckling action, then leaving them wondering what the hell did I just read? after they got to the end. Jim Starlin wrote (and drew) the sort of comic book we'd never seen before, where life and death, being and nothingness, sanity and madness battled it out for the highest of stakes. Clashes between Captain Marvel and Thanos were the sort of story that blew the mind of 12-year-olds, and kept stoned college students up all night long, over-analyzing it as they'd been taught to dissect Sartre or Nietzche.

Jim Starlin Created A Universe-Threatening Villain

Captain Marvel explains his nemesis in the pages of Adam Warlock. Source: sequart.org

In 1974, the Marvel Universe, home to the Avengers, Spider-Man, the X-Men and many other beloved comic book heroes and villains, had been around for over a decade and could do with some new ideas. The world created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961 had reignited interest in comic books, and had revolutionized the medium. But Kirby left Marvel in 1970. The big titles he'd co-created -- Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America -- were soldiering on in his absence. They were entertaining, often even good, but the weirdness was lacking. Marvel needed someone to go out there and push boundaries again. Enter a young writer/artist named Jim Starlin.

Starlin was a Navy vet with an interest in comics. After he got out of the service, he got into the industry in 1972 and was soon filling in on established titles for Marvel Comics. He had a three-issue run on Iron Man in 1973, in which he introduced the characters Thanos and Drax the Destroyer. Thanos was an incredibly powerful villain that Starlin had actually dreamed up back when he was in college studying psychology. Starlin has said that he wasn't sure how long he'd last in comics, so when given the chance to script and draw a title himself, he went ahead and used his Thanos character -- it might be his only chance.

Thanos existed out there, in space -- a menacing, incredibly dangerous presence but not really a common, containable threat like the bad guys Spider-Man was collaring or even the power-mad evil genius Dr. Doom, perennial foe of the Fantastic Four. Thanos was an existential threat to the entire universe. A couple months after Starlin's Iron Man stint, Marvel Comics handed him a series called Captain Marvel; Starlin came on as artist (and uncredited co-plotter) with issue 25 and then as writer/artist with the next. Captain Marvel was a cosmic superhero, an alien of the Kree race (given name: Mar-Vell), spending his time out in space in plotlines that had a heavy science fiction element.

Starlin Picked Up Where He Left Off With Adam Warlock

Adam Warlock having an identity crisis in the mid-70s. Source: sequart.org

Captain Marvel hadn't been a popular character; nor had his series -- it had been on the brink of cancellation for years and was only published bi-monthly. In comic books, this is often where true creativity finds its best opportunity -- Jim Starlin had a free hand to make something out of nothing. (It should be noted that, while Starlin is considered the mad genius behind Captain Marvel, he did some of it in collaboration with writers Mike Friedrich and Steve Englehart.) Through Captain Marvel's struggle with Thanos over the fate of the universe, the character progressed from a human (well, Kree) hero to something more supernatural. In truth, Captain Marvel was really more of a vessel for ideas, eventually achieving a zen oneness with the universe, than a character with a personality. After Starlin's run on Captain Marvel, which only lasted 10 issues, he took over another title in the "cosmic" category, Adam Warlock. Warlock was already a lot like the Captain Marvel Starlin had created, and allowed Starlin to more or less pick up where he left off with his wordy, idea-heavy dramas. Starlin once said:

"I had basically taken Captain Marvel, a warrior, and turned him into sort of a messiah-type character. So when I got to Warlock, I said to myself, 'I got a messiah right here to start off with; where do I go from there?' And I decided a paranoid schizophrenic was the route to take."

Starlin's runs on Captain Marvel and Adam Warlock have always been considered a high point of comic books, particularly '70s comics. Though the two title characters were theoretically the heroes of their stories, the enduring and fascinating character Starlin created was really Thanos. Over the years, Starlin has come back to Marvel Comics to revisit Thanos, Captain Marvel, and Adam Warlock in galaxy-sweeping epics.

So What Happens In The New Movie?

Brie Larson as Captain Marvel. Source: IMDB

If you’ve been reading Marvel Comics since the original Infinity War then you know that Carol Danvers wasn’t Captain Marvel at the time. That honor went to Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell), a Kree warrior who could fly and had the ability to absorb energy. That being said, Carol Danvers is definitely going to replace Mar-Vell as Captain Marvel in the upcoming film.

On top of that Danvers is likely to take on the storyline of Adam Warlock, who hasn’t appeared in the movies (Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU) yet, but who played a major part in the original Infinity War mini-series. So how did the heroes of the Marvel universe defeat Thanos? Keep reading to find out. 

Captain Marvel Destroyed Thanos’ Source Of Power

Captain Marvel karate-chops the original Cosmic Cube. source: marvel

In Marvel Comics, Thanos is basically the final boss to end all final bosses. Not only is obsessed with death but he’s a villain who can’t be physically matched -- unless Mar-Vell (Captain Marvel, remember) is in the nearest galaxy. Thanos and Captain Marvel have a fierce back and forth throughout the comics, but in Captain Marvel #33 Captain Marvel embarrasses Thanos in front of everyone.

In this issue, Thanos is drawing his power from the Cosmic Cube, so Captain Marvel straight up karate chops it so hard that he destroys it. With that attack Thanos is gone and Marvel takes off back to space to continue policing the universe.

The Cosmic Cube doesn’t exist in the MCU, but its counterpart is the Tesseract, which is actually the vessel for the Space Stone, which could very well be karate chopped to death come Avengers: Endgame

Adam Warlock Turns Thanos To Stone

source: marvel

Obviously Adam Warlock isn’t Captain Marvel, but it’s likely that Carol Danvers will be taking over Warlock’s storylines in Avengers: Endgame, but which one? Warlock has defeated Thanos a couple of times, and while one defeat specifically has to do with the Infinity Gauntlet, the first one is more straight forward so we’ll cover that first.

In Avengers Annual # 7 from 1967, Adam Warlock is caught in the Soul Stone, he doesn’t pop up until Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2 (1977) when Spider-Man releases Warlock from the Soul Stone, and that’s when Warlock turns Thanos into stone. In the 1970s this is technically what passed for dramatic irony. 

In Issue #3 Of Infinity Gauntlet Adam Warlock Puts A Worldclass Wrecking Clue Together

source: marvel

While Avengers: Infinity War and the Infinity Gauntlet mini-series follow similar storylines, they play out a little differently. The one thing’s that the same is Thanos’ snap, which does away with 50 percent of the galaxy’s population. Once this happens Marvel’s greatest heroes - The Avengers - are dumbstruck and unsure of how to proceed.

Enter: Adam Warlock. He’s technically stuck in the soul world - purgatory if you’re nasty - and he comes out of the nether realm to take over a dead body, alter its appearance to match his, and then he gathers The Avengers along with Spider-Man so they can plan an assault on Thanos while Warlock puts together a plan to talk Thanos out of being a baddie.

This won’t play out exactly the same in Endgame, but look forward to Carol Danvers putting a team together to take on the mad tan. 

Warlock Convinces Thanos To Join Forces With The Avengers

souce: marvel

After Thanos snaps the world’s heroes out of existence there’s no way that The Avengers would actually work with him, right? In the Infinity Gauntlet saga Warlock convinces everyone to work together because there’s an even bigger problem facing them - Nebula gets her hand on the Infinity Ganutlet.

In this storyline Adam Warlock, the yin to Thanos’ yang, brings Thanos and Doctor Strange to meet Nebula. The mad god tricks her into taking everything back 24 hours - prior to Thanos’ snap. If you want to wow your non-comic reading friends with your super-narrative guessing abilities, tell them that Carol Danvers is going to carry out Warlock’s function here, you’ll probably be right. 

Galactus And Epoch Are Brought Into The Fight Against Thanos

source: marvel

Aside from Adam Warlock, there are a few more characters who haven’t even shown up yet - Galactus and Epoch, both of these characters are cosmic entities within the Marvel Universe and neither of them are happy that Thanos has harnessed the power of the Infinity Gauntlet. Warlock appeals to these two cosmic entities to help him stop Thanos, which is likely what’s going to happen when Carol Danvers reappears.

It’s unclear if the new Captain Marvel is going to petition Galactus to help in the fight against Thanos - or if Galactus is even around at this point - but look forward to more cosmic entities being teased in Endgame. 

Adam Warlock Wields The Infinity Gauntlet

source: marvel

If the infinity gauntlet is so powerful, then why aren’t the good guys using it? Adam Warlock finally gets his hands on the gauntlet after Nebula turns time back 24 hours she turns into a tortured creature that Thanos treated her as. Warlock uses this unfortunate turn of events to snag the gauntlet and keep it as his own.

This point in the narrative is also something that audiences are likely to see in Endgame. If the MCU is trying to turn Carol Danvers into the top hero it would make sense for her to wield the infinity gauntlet and return things to a happy medium. 

Thanos Becomes A Farmer

source: marvel

In the epilogue to Infinity War Thanos survives, no worse for the wear, and Nebula chooses to die rather than be tried in a galactic court. Rather than continue scheming up evil ways to take over the world, Thanos becomes a farmer on a backwoods planet.

At the same time, Adam Warlock has to deal with the fact that he’s the strongest being in the universe. In the end he disassembles the infinity gauntlet and distributes the stones to heroes he believes can best take care of them. Don’t bet money on Carol Danvers doing the same thing in Endgame, but keep this plot point in mind while you’re sitting in the theater. 

Tags: Comic Books

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.