2019 is set to be the most exciting year ever for fans of superheroes named Captain Marvel. Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel, starring Academy Award winner Brie Larson, will roll cameras next year for a March 8, 2019 release. Not to be outdone, Warner Bros. Pictures is planning to shoot the next DC Extended Universe movie within a similar timeframe for a 2019 release as well – the long awaited Shazam! feature film. For long-time comic book fans, this fun bit of mirroring between Marvel Studios and DC Films is extra compelling because the superhero now called Shazam was the first and original character to be known as Captain Marvel.
Created by writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck for Fawcett Comics in 1939, the superhero now known as Shazam debuted as Captain Marvel in Whiz Comics #2 (1940). (Strangely, Captain Marvel still wasn’t the character’s original name – his creators first called him “Captain Thunder”.) The concept of Captain Marvel’s powers and alter ego is the stuff of pure fantasy wish fulfillment: an orphaned boy named Billy Batson discovered a secret underground tunnel that was a magical portal to a place called the Rock of Eternity. Therein resided an ancient and powerful wizard named Shazam, who gifted Billy with magical powers and the invulnerable body of an adult hero and charged him with the sacred duty to fight against evil.
Shazam empowered Billy Batson with the properties of six “immortal elders”: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. When Billy said Shazam’s name, he could call down magic lightning and be transformed into Captain Marvel – a muscular, superpowered, caped superhero who could fly. Captain Marvel soon spawned an entire Marvel Family supporting cast of fellow, similarly magical heroes: Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., even Uncle Marvel. He had a sidekick, a talking tiger named Tawky Tawney, and his primary villains included his evil counterpart Black Adam (who will be portrayed by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in his own DCEU feature film) as well as the mad scientist Dr. Sivana.
Captain Marvel was the most popular character of the golden age of comic books. His comics sold 14 million copies in 1944, and at his highest point of popularity, his bi-weekly comics had sales of 1.3 million. This popularity outstripped Superman’s, and DC Comics especially took notice of how similar Fawcett’s hero, affectionately known as “The Big Red Cheese,” was to their own Man of Steel. DC Comics sued Fawcett in 1941 and after many years of litigation, the courts declared DC’s Superman copyright was valid. Fawcett settled out of court and in 1953, the company shut down its comics division, ceased publication of Captain Marvel, and agreed never to publish the character again. This eventually opened the door for the good Captain and the entire Marvel Family of characters to join the DC Universe.
THE TWO CAPTAIN MARVELS
In 1972, Captain Marvel debuted in the DC Universe when DC licensed the property from Fawcett. However, in the interim years Marvel Comics had decided to create their own superhero character called Captain Marvel. When DC tried to launch the original character’s comic, Marvel issued a cease and desist over the name, which caused DC to title their hero’s comic Shazam! after the wizard and the magic word. DC’s World’s Mightiest Mortal, the new nickname given to him, still retained the name Captain Marvel, however. For the next few decades, comic book fans would simply settle into the idea that DC Comics had a Captain Marvel, and Marvel had their own completely different version.
The World’s Mightiest Mortal and the rest of the Marvel Family settled into the DC Universe. Captain Marvel joined the Justice League during its post-Crisis on Infinite Earths relaunch in 1987, and several high profile creators like John Byrne, Roy Thomas and Jerry Ordway essayed the good Captain’s adventures in miniseries like Shazam! A New Beginning, and The Power of Shazam! Yet the character seemed lost within the DC Comics pantheon and never reached the heights of his golden age popularity. Captain Marvel’s most memorable appearance in the 1990s was in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ mega-successful alternate future tale Kingdom Come, fittingly as the antagonist to Superman while under the thrall of Lex Luthor.
During the Infinite Crisis era of DC in 2006, the company retooled the character to shed the “Captain Marvel” name once and for all. The Wizard Shazam was killed off and Billy Batson’s alter ego assumed the name of Shazam and the wizard’s magic.
When DC Comics rebooted its universe into the New 52 in 2011, DC Films President Geoff Johns personally took control of the character’s direction. With artist Gary Frank, Johns introduced Shazam in back up stories in the pages of his flagship Justice League comics. This new Shazam was more mystical and less “Superman-like” than his previous incarnation, complete with a costume featuring a long cloak and hood. The more innocent Billy Batson of the previous era was re-conceived as well; the new Billy Batson was a troubled teen full of attitude. Eventually, this new Shazam also joined the Justice League. Along with Shazam, Johns reintroduced the Shazam Family, the Wizard, and Black Adam into the New 52 DC Universe.
SHAZAM IN LIVE ACTION
The DCEU’s cinematic version of Shazam! directed by David Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation) won’t be the first live action incarnation of the World’s Mightest Mortal. Similar to Superman and Batman, Captain Marvel made his debut in the 1941 Republic serials The Adventures of Captain Marvel with Tom Tyler as the Captain and Frank Coghlan, Jr. as Billy Batson. Captain Marvel came to television in 1974 in the live action series Shazam! (later merged into the Shazam/Isis Hour), which lasted 3 seasons. Jackson Bostwick portrayed the Captain in the first season, and John Davey took over the role for the remaining seasons.
We don’t yet know who will portray The World’s Mightiest Mortal or his youthful alter ego Billy Batson in Shazam!, but the mix of fantasy adventure and the wish fulfillment of a young boy who utters a magic word and gets to become a superhero is an intriguing and powerful concept that should resonate with audiences if executed well. Shazam! could be a breath of fresh air and the start of an exciting new chapter in the DC Extended Universe. It will also be very interesting to see which version of “Captain Marvel” will eventually be the mightiest hero at the box office.
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