Shazam and Captain Marvel’s journey from comics to the big screen


Two superheroes are making big screen debuts this year: Captain Marvel and Shazam. From DC to Marvel, they have a complicated history together. So we’re here to break it down.

Captain Marvel is pretty well regarded as one of the most central superheroes in comic book history. Why shouldn’t they be one of the best of the best? Captain Marvel is full of different superpowers, bravado, and a whopping amount of personality. That’s a lot to fit into a single red leotard… or was that a blue and gold flight suit? Wait, what Captain Marvel are you thinking about?

Comic book history is tricky enough when we stick to one character at a single company. As it turns out, however, when you ask for “Captain Marvel,” you’ll make more than a couple of people turn around. And, no, this isn’t simply a case of multiple people taking on a superhero mantle within a given title. The struggle over who gets to be Captain Marvel has its part in the rivalry between two of the biggest comic book companies in history.

If we’re going strictly by the publishing record, neither DC nor Marvel got there first. Captain Marvel initially appeared in print in 1940, in Whiz Comics #2, published by Fawcett Comics. He was created by writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Peck, who first conceived of him in 1939.

This Captain Marvel is actually the alter ego of one Billy Batson, a young boy living on the mean streets of early 20th century New York City. Billy gains the ability to turn into a muscular, spandex-clad, caped hero after a pretty rough life. He starts as a homeless newsboy who follows a stranger into a mysterious subway tunnel, where he meets a magical wizard. Considering how that could go, the fact that Billy is granted superpowers by the wizard is actually a pretty positive turn.

The wizard is an ancient man who’s been on this side of reality for thousands of years. He learned to harness the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury, becoming a powerful being in his own right. That’s a mouthful of a backstory, so he simply goes by “Shazam.” The wizard Shazam grants Billy his powers and then disappears. For Billy, it’s simply a matter of uttering that magic word, thus summoning otherworldly lightning and turning an orphan newsie into a crime-fighting superhero.

If you think this Captain Marvel looks an awful lot like Superman, then you’re completely right. Superman premiered in 1938 and was quickly followed by a bevy of lookalike ubermenschen, down to the unnatural powers and tight clothing. You might be forgiven for thinking that this Captain Marvel was Superman himself. Even their first covers, where both superheroes wear tights and throw cars into the air, look pretty similar.

Captain Marvel soon began to outsell Superman. DC Comics, who owned Superman, wasn’t happy to sit idly by. DC sued Fawcett Comics, starting a legal battle that would meander forward through the 1940s and wouldn’t resolve until 1954. In that year, DC effectively gained control of the character, but largely abandoned his story for the next few decades.

While DC was letting its Captain Marvel sleep, another comic publisher moved in. Marvel Comics started making bank on its own characters beginning in the 1960s. It was natural enough for the company to want a hero with its own name. M.F. Enterprises, another company, had already debuted a much-derided character named, yep, “Captain Marvel.” If it was going to land its idea and preserve the name, Marvel Comics had to act fast.

Thus, Captain Marvel first appeared in actual Marvel comic books starting in 1967. The character was first a Kree alien warrior known as “Mar-Vell” who took an inordinate liking to Earth and its humans. The name eventually passed on to a number of character, including Monica Rambeau, who is a fully capable adult in the comics, compared to the young Monica Rambeau portrayed in the 2019 Captain Marvel film.

Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL..Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2019

Eventually, fighter pilot Carol Danvers became the current Captain Marvel. Depending on which origin story you pick up, she either gains irradiated powers early on and spends years as Ms. Marvel first, or she jumps right to the jumpsuited, Kree warrior-inspired butt-kicker played by Brie Larson in the film.

Yes, this all means that Captain Marvel had his origins as a copyright claim. Marvel now owned the rights to the name. Later, legal battles between Marvel and DC eventually meant that Billy Batson found himself in an awkward place. This character could call himself “Captain Marvel,” to be fair, but the name couldn’t legally appear on any title or promotions. DC officially rebranded the character as “Shazam” with its New 52 relaunch in 2011.

But what about the characters themselves? After all, it’s not like you’re heading to the movie theaters to hear a long dissertation on copyright law in comics. What’s the essence of each Captain Marvel?

Shazam is arguably at his best when he’s delving into the campy, goofy, and ultimately noble fun of being a superhero. How else can you succeed when your main character gains powers after meeting a subway wizard? Okay, you can go serious with Shazam – looking at you, Final Crisis – but that’s not where the heart of the character lies. Shazam also has significant roots in the realm of fantasy and magic, distinguishing himself from the more science fiction-inspired Marvel character.

Meanwhile, Captain Marvel is no slouch in the humor or nobility departments, but neither would you call her “campy.” Carol Danvers has a vast, cosmic story that isn’t afraid to shy away from issues like refugee crises or intergalactic wars. The current Captain Marvel has a lot riding on her shoulders.

So, who should you read and watch in theaters? Well, both.

Why not? Isn’t there room in this world for all sorts of Captain Marvels? Well, except for the M.F. Enterprises one. (Sorry.)

Despite their tangled legal histories, Shazam and the current Captain Marvel are pretty distinct. One serves your need for a serious, spacefaring hero, while the other has a distinct fantasy background with a frankly goofy vibe. At least, if the trailer is anything to go by, that’s how DC is playing it on the big screen.

Carol Danvers is really the evocation of the modern superhero, with a complicated interior life and a cool spaceship or two. Shazam is a bit more old-fashioned, drawing on the silly joy of early comic books.

Related Story. Shazam is more than a story about a superhero. light

For all that they have faced off in comic book history over the years, there’s no reason we can’t enjoy the stories of both heroes.