The new Captain Marvel movie showcases the most powerful hero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She controls energy, she regenerates, she has far-reaching cosmic awareness. As embodied by actress Brie Larson, she is young and beautiful and badass. Her name, you ask? Carol.
The character Carol Danvers made her comics debut back in 1968. Back then, the name Carol would have been a likely choice for a young woman. In fact, it was a top-five girl’s name of the 1940s, and far more popular than any name is today. By the time Brie Larson was born, though, Carol’s popularity had plummeted. As a result, the name feels unlikely for the new movie character. More, it feels unlikely for any superpowered demi-alien. We’ve all known so many Carols—neighbors, teachers, great-aunts—that the name is grounded in everyday humanity.
This super-naming mismatch isn’t unique to Captain Marvel. It’s the curse of a booming superhero industry built on characters introduced over half a century ago. Take a look at the “everyday human” names of the other highest-profile D.C. and Marvel heroes:
Captain America: Steve
Iron Man: Tony
Wonder Woman: Diana
Here’s that set of names in historical baby name popularity terms.
You can see that as a group, the superhero names peaked from the 1930s-1960s. The average American with one of those names has already reached retirement age. Just as significantly, most of the names were huge hits in their times, either as full names or nicknames. That makes them so familiar today that they’re easy to overlook.
Modest, familiar names might seem a suitable choice for mild-mannered alter egos, but I don’t believe they were originally intended that way. New superheroes today are usually given catchy, up-to-the-minute names. Alternate Spiderman Miles Morales, introduced in 2011, is one example. Similarly, back when the mild-mannered names were first chosen, most would have come across with more of a fashion spark.
Take Steven. The name was bestowed on two comic-book Army officers introduced in 1941: Steven Trevor of Wonder Woman, and Captain America Steven Rogers. At that time, Steven was modern and super-trendy, a sleek respelling of the more traditional name Stephen. Think of it as the Jaxon of 1941. Inevitably, over the course of 72 years the name’s impact has changed.
When Hollywood translated the comics heroes to the screen, they could have updated their names. After all, moviemakers take plenty of creative license with other aspects of the franchises. If you can transport quintessential World War II hero Wonder Woman back to World War I, why not “Captain Marvel, Rayne Danvers”? It speaks to the power of names that Hollywood doesn’t cross that line. Superhero names, no matter how anachronistic, are sacrosanct.