Shazam had a face, but does he have a name? It’s been announced Zachary Levi will don the red suit and white lightning bolt in David F. Sandberg’s 2019 DC film, but we don’t know if he’ll go by the magical proclamation that turns Billy Batson into a superhero or his initial title, Captain Marvel.
That’s right, Shazam isn’t actually called Shazam – or at least he wasn’t originally. When Billy Batson and his superpowered ego first appeared in 1940, it was as Captain Marvel. The problems this led to should be obvious. His comics ceased publication in 1952 (due to complicated legal issues not worth getting into here) and about a decade later, Marvel, seeing an opportunity for a strong copyright term, created their own Captain Marvel. This caused a snag when DC bought the rights to the original Captain Marvel in the early 1970s – they couldn’t release any comics under his name. Instead, they went with the magic word that transforms Billy into his adult alter ego – Shazam!
But while the covers promised Shazam, in the pages the hero still went by Captain Marvel. The confusion was never really that damaging considering that Mar-Vell – Marvel’s inspired character who take the mantle – was never that popular (it’s presumed the Captain Marvel run remained more for the copyright than anything else) and Shazam! was a second-tier DC comic himself. Things eventually reached a truce in 2011 when, as part of the New 52 relaunch, DC changed up their Captain Marvel to look less like Superman and flat-out renamed him Shazam.
However, the story doesn’t end there, or even in the pages of the comics. In 2019 we’re getting two Captain Marvel movies: one, called Captain Marvel, will be from Marvel Studios and star Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, the inheritor of Mar-Vell’s title (she went by Ms. Marvel for a long period in print); the other is New Line Cinema’s Shazam!, part of the DC Films banner (although it’s unclear if it’ll be in the DCEU shared universe) with Zachary Levi bringing the grown former Captain Marvel to life. These films will be released just two months apart – Marvel’s in March, DC’s in April – and long-term fans are waiting with bated breath to see if any of the long-standing comic standoff comes to the big screen developments.
While the name change in print may lead to some to think a deal was reached, by all accounts Billy’s Marvel became Shazam entirely at DC’s behest – there’s nothing legally limiting them actually using it outside of covers. Whether that’s true or not on film (Marvel-related movie rights are notoriously complicated) isn’t known, but it would seem the choice to use Captain Marvel in Shazam! is entirely up to the creators.
So what do we know from the production? The obvious branding move – both for DC synergy and avoiding confusion with Marvel’s own version – is to go New 52 and just have Shazam; there the only potential nomenclature conflict is with the song-recognizing app. But considering he’s a predominantly legacy character whose iconography comes from the Golden Age of Comics, it feels weak to simply avoid one of his key facets.
It’s definitely on the creative’s minds. When tweeting about getting the role, Levi said he was excited to be “bringing the original Captain Marvel to life“. That could easily have been him just showing fans on the fence that he knows the weight of what he’s taking on, but it may also be some indication that the comic origins will not be lost. Sandberg has been referring to him as Shazam, which points to no Captain, although that has been interchangeable with the exclamation point-less title.
Ultimately, Captain Marvel being uttered at some point in Shazam! is something that’s impossible to rule out – given the planned lighthearted tone, a gag would definitely be fitting. For now, unless Sandberg puts a pin in it, the real proof will be in Levi’s costume – if they go with the post-2011 hood and cape look from when he was known purely as Shazam, rather than the Golden Age beefcake, we may have our answer.
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