There are two films premiering over the next few weeks starring superheroes called Captain Marvel. But, thanks to a long, twisted dispute dating back more than five decades, only one Captain Marvel film is able to use the name “Captain Marvel.”
And if you think that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. But let us explain how we wound up with this curious situation.
First we need to rewind to 1938, when Superman created the superhero genre overnight, and comic book publishers, eager to get into the burgeoning superhero market, began creating countless flash-in-the-pan heroes in an attempt to recapture the magic of Superman.
Heroes such as Major Victory, Stardust the Super Wizard and Air-Male and Stampy — yes, these are all real — would only last a few issues before being tossed into the dustbin of comics history.
But in 1939, writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck created a hero that, for a time, would become the most popular superhero in the world.
His name? Captain Marvel.
Published by Fawcett Comics, Captain Marvel made his debut in Whiz Comics No. 2. Like many heroes of the time, Captain Marvel was gifted with flight and superstrength, but what made him unique was that beneath the red suit, yellow lightning bolt and winning smile, he was really a 12-year-old orphan, Billy Batson.
Chosen by the wizard Shazam, Billy would transform into Captain Marvel whenever he spoke the wizard’s name. Granted the powers of the gods Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury, Captain Marvel was for a generation of children the purest form of wish fulfillment.
Among Captain Marvel’s supporting cast was Billy’s twin sister, Mary Marvel, and his best friend, Freddy Freeman, better known as Captain Marvel Jr. (Quick side note on Captain Marvel Jr.: His design would later inspire the fashion choices of none other than Elvis Presley.)
Captain Marvel proved so popular that he starred in the very first motion picture based on a superhero, the 1941 live-action movie serial Adventures of Captain Marvel, starring Frank Coghlan Jr. as Billy Batson and Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel. (It’s also, hands down, one of the best movie serials of all time.)
But Captain Marvel’s success story came to an end in 1952, when DC Comics — then called National Comics — won a four-year copyright-infringement legal battle against Fawcett. DC secured an out-of-court settlement from its rival; with comic sales already slumping after World War II, Fawcett closed up shop, and Captain Marvel comics went out of print in 1953.
In 1967, Marvel Comics, riding high with its continuing success with heroes such as Spider-Man, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, realized that Fawcett had let its Captain Marvel trademark lapse and had Stan Lee create a brand-new “Captain Marvel.” Marvel Comics quickly trademarked the name, because why shouldn’t Marvel Comics own Captain Marvel?
This Captain Marvel was a wholly new character, an alien named Mar-Vell sent by the Kree Empire to spy on Earth. Eventually, Mar-Vell abandoned his mission and sided with Earth to become one of its many protectors.
While the character was never popular during this era, Marvel kept the character in publication in one form or another for decades, to keep the trademark valid. This included stories such as Marvel Comics’ 1982 graphic novel The Death of Captain Marvel, which killed off Mar-Vell.
Later that year, Monica Rambeau was introduced as a black, female Captain Marvel. While Rambeau has a minor role in the upcoming Brie Larson film, the character was just the first of many characters who temporarily took on the “Captain Marvel” mantle.
One of Mar-Vell’s original supporting cast included U.S. Air Force pilot Carol Danvers. Created by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan in 1968, Danvers would be upgraded to superhero status in 1977 as Ms. Marvel, after an explosion caused Mar-Vell’s Kree DNA to fuse with hers. (Comics are weird.)
Introduced as a socially progressive hero, Ms. Marvel had her fair share of ups and downs, including an unfortunate storyline in which Danvers was brainwashed and impregnated by a villain from an alternate dimension. That child then grew up to be a copy of that villain and — you know what? I’m not even sure how to explain this storyline without grossing everyone out.
Meanwhile, DC Comics chose to revive the original Captain Marvel in 1973. Due to Marvel Comics’ trademark, DC was unable to use the name “Captain Marvel” on the cover, and thus titled the series Shazam!
That title became so linked with the character that fans began using the monikers Shazam and Captain Marvel interchangeably. It wasn’t until 2012 that DC Comics officially changed the original Captain Marvel’s name to Shazam.
But Shazam wasn’t limited to just comics. From 1974 to 1977, Filmation produced a live-action TV series that featured Billy Batson and his “Mentor” driving around the country in an RV. Shazam would continue to appear in various forms of media throughout the years, from animation to video games, and even the Beastie Boys’s 1999 music video “Alive.”
In July 2012, Marvel Comics hired writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Dexter Soy to reintroduce Captain Marvel, with the former Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, taking on the title.
DeConnick’s series met wide acclaim, quickly elevating Danvers from Marvel’s B-list to one of the publisher’s most powerful heroes.
Over the years, Carol Danvers has appeared in various media, both as Ms. and Captain Marvel, but the Brie Larson film is the first time the character appears in live action.
After their tumultuous history, it’s no accident that Captain Marvel and Shazam! premiere within a month of each other: They’re the heroes that their respective universes need. Captain Marvel is introduced as the MCU’s most powerful hero, one who plays an integral role in saving the universe in Avengers: Endgame. Meanwhile, Shazam — the World’s Mightiest Mortal — rescues the formerly grim-dark DC Extended Universe with his childish joy.
Both have their powers thrust upon them. Both are lost souls who learn to use their abilities for a greater purpose. Both represent a return of hope to worlds recently defined by tragedy. Both remind us that heroes are more than billionaires with special suits or space gods who crash to Earth; that marvels can be found in anyone.
As long as they’re trademarked.
Plus, you can deep-dive into Shazam’s history with Shazam!: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal, an assortment of Captain Marvel/Shazam collectibles gathered together by writer/designer Chip Kidd and photographer Geoff Spear. Available in hardcover and paperback on Amazon.
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