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Captain Marvel and the Great Superhero Name Problem

March 8, 2019 laurawattenberg 5 Comments

Captain Marvel and the Great Superhero Name Problem

March 8, 2019 LauraWattenberg 5 Comments
Carol Danvers 1968 Debut; 2019 Captain Marvel
Carol Danvers in 1968 and 2019. Images: Marvel.com

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:

Batman: Bruce
Captain America: Steve
Flash: Barry
Hulk: Bruce
Iron Man: Tony
Spider-Man: Peter
Superman: Clark
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.

LauraWattenberg
LauraWattenberg

Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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5 Comments

  • Bethany March 9, 2019 at 2:58 am

    Oh wow! Yeah, if you look at those names without context… “super” is not the word that comes to mind. I wonder if there’s any way to keep character names from becoming dated. Or should we just resign ourselves that 50 years from now, Miles Morales and Kamala Khan will sound like our parents?

  • nedibes
    nedibes March 11, 2019 at 6:50 pm

    The names that seem to age the best are the ones that either weren’t ever super trendy or had a strong connection to the character, or both.

    Peter still feels OK-ish for a kid, and it seems to have had the most stable popularity (no sharp peak or steep drops).

    Tony and Diana feel a bit more dated in general, but they still seem to fit the characters pretty well—Tony because it’s a synonym for rich and stylish, two defining characteristics of the hero, and Diana because of the Greek mythological connection.

    Clark manages to have both things going for it: stable, mid-to-low-level popularity and an etymological connection to Superman’s day job. I wonder if the writers were aiming for a bookish, not-so-stylish name to fit the hero’s mild-mannered alter-ego, and inadvertently hit on the formula for a name that wouldn’t go stale too quickly?

  • lucubratrix March 14, 2019 at 9:48 pm

    I think that there is some gendered-ness to this because male names have in general been more in keeping with “timeless traditionals” whereas female names have in general been more prone to trends. I don’t think Carol is any more dated than Bruce or Barry, but thanks to the greater volatility of female names we’re having this conversation now (and I’ve heard this discussion outside of name enthusiast circles, too, about how Carol is a weird name for a superhero because it’s a “grandma name”).

    I think Carol is a totally reasonable name for a superhero… I like the idea that women don’t need to be on-trend and youthful to be superheroes, and their names don’t necessarily either.

  • Elizabeth April 3, 2019 at 5:57 pm

    What strikes me as really strange is that DC’s Kara Danvers (aka Supergirl) precedes Marvel’s Carol Danvers by a decade. Kara “Linda Lee” Danvers was first introduced in 1959, while Carol Danvers didn’t appear until 1968. I would have expected the reverse. And Marvel using Danvers as the surname? I just don’t buy it that it’s a coincidence as some have suggested. That’s absurd. Theft or homage — or maybe a bit of both.

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