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How Captain Marvel changed the MCU’s Tesseract timeline, explained

The movie sheds some light on one of the most powerful objects in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Annette Bening in Captain Marvel
Annette Bening in Captain Marvel.
Marvel Studios
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel has introduced a slew of new characters that will change the fabric of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Captain Marvel herself is Earth’s last great hope against Thanos, and the new movie marks the first time fans have gotten to see the photon-wielding superhero in action. The Skrulls, with their shape-shifting abilities, could twist the MCU’s established relationships and organizations into pretzels if they so choose — Avengers included. And the Kree aliens, some of whom Captain Marvel revealed to be warmongers and propagandists, seem to be more nefarious and threatening that we thought.

But perhaps the most intriguing new character isn’t one who can shape the future of the MCU, but rather one who has already altered it, and who has been living alongside some of our favorite characters all along: scientist Wendy Lawson, a.k.a. the Kree scientist Mar-Vell, played by the inimitable Annette Bening.

Bening technically plays two characters; she is also the avatar of the Kree’s Supreme Intelligence, which takes the form the person whom you most admire. But it’s Mar-Vell who’s actually had a hand in recovering an Infinity Stone, inspiring Carol Danvers to be a hero, and shifting the future of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization.

Her character is also is a twist on Carol Danvers’s comic book origin story, a winking homage to a Marvel Comics hero, and a benchmark for how far Danvers has come.

Mar-Vell and Project Pegasus’s big reveal in Captain Marvel, explained

Bening’s Wendy Lawson is only in Captain Marvel for about eight minutes total. But no other character comes close to her per-minute impact on the movie’s overall story.

Captain Marvel introduces Lawson during a flashback sequence in which Carol Danvers is captured by the Skrulls and put into their memory-scanner machine. Lawson appears in Danvers’s memories, and the result, as we’re told by the Kree, is that the Skrulls believe Lawson holds the key to a technological advancement that will help them win the war between the two species.

That makes Lawson a person of interest when Danvers crash-lands on Earth. Finding Lawson is especially important to Danvers, not just to help the Kree win the war but to help her learn more about her previous life on Earth (Lawson is also the figure the Supreme Intelligence takes the shape of when appearing to Carol).

As the audience and Danvers eventually find out, Lawson is actually part of a joint organization of NASA and the US Air Force called Project Pegasus. Though the scope of Project Pegasus’s research and what exactly they’re doing with all their funding and technology isn’t quite clear, Captain Marvel shows Lawson and Danvers talking about flying during Danvers’s previous life on Earth.

But in a massive reveal, Lawson turns out to be a Kree scientist named Mar-Vell who was actually trying to help the Skrulls find a new home. The Skrulls are actually refugees. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that the Skrulls aren’t the villains, and the Kree are not the “noble warriors” they’ve been portrayed as — the truth had been obscured by Kree propaganda to keep the war going against the Skrulls.

Mar-Vell found this out, and subsequently decided to help the Skrulls. While at Project Pegasus, she was trying to find them a new home, and some of her efforts hinged on her harnessing the power of the Tesseract — the object that we know from previous Marvel films is eventually revealed to be a powerful Infinity Stone.

In Captain Marvel, Bening’s Mar-Vell dies trying to help and protect the Skrulls, and her death inspires Danvers to finish Mar-Vell’s mission.

The presence of Mar-Vell and Project Pegasus fill in some blanks in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The nifty thing about Mar-Vell is that the character, along with Captain Marvel’s ’90s setting (a period of time we hadn’t yet seen in the MCU), adds a new wrinkle to what we thought we knew about the MCU and the Tesseract, a.k.a. the Space Infinity Stone.

A couple of things to keep in mind: 1) The chronology of the MCU does not correspond to the order in which its films were released, and 2) the first time audiences saw the Tesseract onscreen was in May 2011, during Thor’s post-credits scene (more on this in a bit).

In the MCU’s chronology, the full story of the Tesseract began several decades ago.

The first time we’re comprehensively introduced to the Tesseract is in Captain America: The First Avenger, which came out in July 2011. The First Avenger is set in the early 1940s, and its plot revolves around the Red Skull tracking the Tesseract to Norway (via Norse mythology) and stealing it in hopes that he can cultivate and harness its energy to win World War II. Captain America thwarts Red Skull’s plan, Red Skull gets beamed up through a wormhole the Tesseract creates, and both Captain America and the Tesseract ultimately plunge into the ocean.

At the end of The First Avenger, Howard Stark finds the Tesseract, but does not find Cap:

In MCU chronology, we know that Stark went on to study the Tesseract because of drawings shown in Iron Man 2 — which came out in 2010, before the first official Tesseract sighting in Thor’s end credits and its in-depth backstory in The First Avenger, but takes place some six decades after The First Avenger.

Howard Stark’s drawings in Iron Man 2 imply that Tony Stark’s arc reactor (and its different permutations) relies on Tesseract technology originally discovered by Howard Stark — but we didn’t know that when Iron Man 2 came out. It wasn’t until The First Avenger began to reveal the Tesseract’s history that we started to get a more complete picture.

Howard Stark’s notes and possible Tesseract drawing in Iron Man 2.
Howard Stark’s notes and possible Tesseract drawing in Iron Man 2.
Marvel Studios

So, according to The First Avenger and Iron Man 2, the Tesseract was found by Howard Stark post-World War II and studied by Stark for an undefined amount of time. Eventually, Nick Fury comes to possess it.

This is where Captain Marvel starts to fill in some of the blanks. In Captain Marvel, we learn that the Tesseract was somehow possessed by Mar-Vell in 1989 (and perhaps some years prior) — the year she died and that Carol Danvers was captured by the Kree army.

It gives us a hint of what was going on with the Tesseract before we witnessed Loki stealing it from Fury in 2012’s The Avengers (which takes place around 2008 or 2012 in the MCU — Spider-Man: Homecoming tinkered with the timeline, leading to a contentious debate about when Avengers took place).

And the key to the timeline is Project Pegasus.

In Iron Man 2, it’s revealed that Howard Stark was working with Project Pegasus before his death in 1991. Tony Stark opens a box of files labeled “Project Pegasus” in the movie, when he’s trying to create his new element:

Tony Stark coming into contact with Project Pegasus.
Marvel Studios

Mar-Vell also worked with Project Pegasus — it’s introduced in Captain Marvel as a joint NASA-USAF project that S.H.I.E.L.D. has access to. While we don’t know if Mar-Vell and Howard Stark crossed paths before she died in 1989 and he died in 1991, nor does Captain Marvel specify exactly how long Mar-Vell researched the Tesseract or when she brought it to her space lab, some kind of Tesseract handoff happens at Project Pegasus.

In Captain Marvel, we see Danvers’s “cat” Goose uses his tentacle mouth to keep the Tesseract with him and Nick Fury for safekeeping, and it’s not till decades later — as seen in one of the film’s two end-credits scenes — that Goose coughs it up on Nick Fury’s desk, presumably handing it off to Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.

Project Pegasus also ties into the Thor credits scene from 2011, and 2012’s The Avengers. In the Thor scene, Fury asks Doctor Selvig — a scientist working with Jane Foster and a witness to the events of Thor — to research the Tesseract in a secret underground lab. However, unbeknownst to Fury, Loki is scheming in the shadows:

Then in The Avengers, prior to everything spinning into chaos and an intergalactic invasion, it’s revealed that the lab where Selvig has been working is called … Project Pegasus!

In The Avengers, the operation is a joint venture between NASA and S.H.I.E.L.D. — a slight difference from when we learn that it’s a joint venture between NASA and the US Air Force in Captain Marvel.

But its primary purpose seems to be studying the Tesseract.

Project Pegasus in The Avengers.
Marvel Studios

Captain Marvel reveals that the Tesseract had a brief spacetime detour in the ’90s and that the Skrulls and the Kree, along with a few cosmic beings like Captain Marvel and the late Mar-Vell, all know about its existence to some degree.

After that, it doesn’t resurface in the MCU chronology until The Avengers. After Earth’s Mightiest Heroes defend the planet against Loki’s Chitauri invasion, Thor returns the Tesseract (and Loki) to Asgard for safekeeping. All is relatively well until the events of 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, when Asgard is destroyed and Loki saves the Tesseract at the very last moment.

Then in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos kills Loki and reveals that the Tesseract is actually an Infinity Stone by crushing it in his palm. Thanos eventually assembles the full Infinity Gauntlet, snaps his fingers, and poof — half of all life in the universe disappears. Expect someone to fill in Carol Danvers on all of these details — perhaps in an abridged fashion — in April’s Avengers: Endgame.

Mar-Vell’s presence in Captain Marvel is also an homage to the comic books

Mar-Vell’s possession of the Tesseract and involvement with the rest of the MCU aren’t the character’s only Easter eggs in Captain Marvel. In fact, Mar-Vell is actually a big part of Carol Danvers’s origin story — with a twist.

When Danvers was first introduced in Marvel’s Super-heroes No. 13 in 1968, Mar-Vell’s alter ego of Doctor Wendy Lawson was actually Doctor Walter Lawson, and Danvers was Lawson’s love interest:

OMG! Look how cute Carol and Mar-Vell are!
Marvel Comics

Superhero love is adorable, right?

The problem is that Danvers, in many of her early appearances, was kind of written as a hapless girlfriend. And even when she became a superhero in the ’70s, the initial editorial conceit was that Danvers would get a bad headache or faint as her superhero persona took over, leaving the actual Danvers with no recollection of performing superhuman feats.

Captain Marvel introduces puts a new spin on this story by making Walter a Wendy.

Much of Danvers’s origin story is otherwise left intact in the film — the explosion of a Kree device is what grants her powers, just like in the comics. But in the comics, it happened because the explosion caused Mar-Vell to give some of his Kree powers to Danvers, who was his girlfriend at the time (the explosion and origin story is revealed in 1977’s Ms. Marvel No. 2):

Carol Danvers obtaining her powers in the Ms. Marvel comic book.
Marvel comics/Joe Sinnott

In contrast, the movie sees Danvers take a more active role, blowing up the device on purpose to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. That’s in line with more modern comics, where Danvers is the author of her own destiny.

Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick’s first run on the Captain Marvel comic in 2012 gave Danvers more agency in obtaining her powers, by introducing a time-paradox storyline where she actively chose to acquire superhuman abilities and become the hero she wants to be:

Carol Danvers choosing her destiny in Captain Marvel No. 6.
Marvel Comics/Dexter Soy

The shift to make Mar-Vell a woman in the Captain Marvel movie also seems to be inspired by a character in DeConnick’s run, Helen Cobb.

Cobb is a pilot whom Danvers admires greatly, not unlike Danvers admiring Wendy Lawson/Mar-Vell in the movie (and seeing the Supreme Intelligence take Lawson’s form). Cobb also flies jets, to the chagrin of her Air Force bosses who don’t allow women to fly. And Bening’s Lawson/Mar-Vell and Cobb have a few similarities in their appearance, namely their short hair and jackets.

Helen Cobb in Captain Marvel No. 1.
Marvel Comics/Dexter Soy

Here’s another shot of Cobb, slightly younger than she is in that newspaper clipping:

Helen Cobb in her younger years in Captain Marvel No. 5.
Marvel comics/Dexter Soy

In Wendy Lawson, a.k.a. Mar-Vell, a.k.a. an amalgam of the Marvel Comics characters Helen Cobb and Mar-Vell, Captain Marvel has managed to give us a character that we never knew existed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but who is also now an unforgettable presence, even if we might not see her again. She inspired Carol Danvers and gave her agency. And if we’re lucky, perhaps we’ll get to know the character a little better in the future.