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A Brief History of ‘Shazam!,’ the Original Captain Marvel

In anticipation of the live-action movie, here’s a guide to past iterations of the manchild superhero, from comics and cartoons

DC Comics/Ringer illustration

Less than a month ago, Captain Marvel zipped up into the exosphere and single-handedly beat back a gigantic Kree invasion force with some cool flippy, twirly moves. She was aided by the dulcet tones of Gwen Stefani, and the power of a literal dying star—the same kind of dying star that powered the forge from whence Thor pulled his awesome ax-hammer. Carol Danvers revealed herself to be the kind of hero who was capable of severity but knew she had comedic chops, like Thor, which was fun, and made Captain Marvel in excess of $1 billion in gross box office worldwide. There were a lot of Now That’s What I Call the 90s music cues, and Samuel L. Jackson befriended an alien demogorgon cat. Finally, there was a post-credits scene setting up Captain Marvel’s next appearance, in this month’s Avengers: Endgame.

Except before that there’s going to be another Captain Marvel movie, this time from DC Comics. This one, however, is called Shazam!, because legally it has to be called that.

The short version is this: Captain Marvel was actually “Captain Marvel” before Captain Marvel. I know, that was hard to track. Shazam, canonically, is the name of the ancient wizard who bestows his magic powers on the actual hero, Captain Marvel—the big guy in the red suit with a lightning bolt on his chest who says “shazam!” He (Captain Marvel, not Shazam) is meant to be Earth’s champion, its protector.

To untangle that a bit: The Captain Marvel character was first introduced in Fawcett Comics’ Whiz Comics collection, Volume 1, in February 1940. He appears on the cover, pitching a car full of gangsters against the side of a building like a baseball: “Gangway for Captain Marvel!,” the tagline reads. The issue is only 12 pages long, and the story is so blunt and practical that it becomes accidentally funny. Young Billy Batson is selling newspapers outside the subway station, in which he sleeps, when a weird man in a trench coat wanders up and says “follow me.” Billy, with boy howdy enthusiasm, follows, meets Shazam, gets his powers, and fights a bad guy.

‘Whiz Comics’ Vol. 1 #2, Pg. 11
Fawcett Comics

Created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck, Captain Marvel was basically Superman—then the most popular superhero—but if his alter ego were the kid who reads the comics instead of a square-jawed beat reporter from the Midwest. And if said superhero had a command of, rather than a vulnerability to, magic. Eventually, DC Comics filed a copyright lawsuit against Fawcett Comics, on the grounds that Captain Marvel and Superman were too similar. Fawcett discontinued its title in 1953, and Captain Marvel lay dormant for 20 years, until DC licensed the character in 1973, and relaunched Captain Marvel alongside Superman, under his own title: Shazam! In the meantime, however, the name “Captain Marvel” fell into public domain, and was picked up by Marvel Comics. So for legal reasons, Captain Marvel couldn’t appear on screen as his big, red, affable self, until now. Sort of.

By the by, there’s already a short on-screen adaptation of that first DC issue of Shazam!: Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam, a 25-minute animated DC feature that came out in 2010, as part of a compilation that also highlighted lesser-known characters like Green Arrow, the Spectre, and Jonah Hex. The first 10 minutes of Superman/Shazam! are its most compelling. Like Parker and Beck, writers Michael Jelenic and Jerry Siegel and director Joaquim Dos Santos quickly render Billy Batson’s place in the universe, make him believable as a person, and then lead him to make unbelievable choices. He yawns and scratches himself, fails to do a single pull-up, and flexes in the mirror. You can see his Superman T-shirt throughout. He goes to the cupboard and pulls out a half-eaten bag of chips, and cheerfully feeds the rats in his apartment, which he’s clearly squatting in.

Of course, Superman/Shazam! has to touch on the mythology—there’s a long speech about the “immortal elders” and the champions they’ve plucked from the masses since the beginning of time. But again, the story is simple. Kid accepts the kindness of strangers, kid gets powers, kid fights bad guy, kid learns something about being a hero in the process.

In Superman/Shazam! the bad guy is Black Adam, ostensibly Captain Marvel’s equal and opposite. You know, the one who was supposed to be played by the Rock, although we can be reasonably certain that’s not going to happen now. The big bad in Shazam!, out Friday, is Dr. Sivana, who appears in Captain Marvel’s first four issues of Whiz Comics. His backstory, like any mad scientist’s, involves thwarted ambition, but Sivana stands apart because his rejection by the scientific community led him to move to Venus. Never mind that it’s uninhabitable. And actually, never mind the mythology.

Shazam! the live-action movie, critics seem to agree (so far), is pretty good on account of it being lightweight and lighthearted (I mean, there’s an exclamation point in the title), neither of which is a quality that people have really come to associate with DC in the recent past. Aquaman was cool and all, but before that there was Man of Steel, which just sort of galumphed along for two and a half hours and then was over; then Batman v. Superman, which was totally joyless. Wonder Woman was a brief high point before the mess that was Justice League, and Suicide Squad we’re not even going to talk about. At the very least Shazam! can’t be an exercise in finding newer and more interesting ways to kill Bruce Wayne’s parents or make Superman seem interesting; it seems David Sandberg took a superhero story and directed it like a teen movie, thank goodness.

This story is about a kid who slipped past cosmic barriers to join in some great metaphysical game, one that, to his continual surprise, he happens to be very good at. Maybe even the best. Isn’t that supposed to be fun?