In the space of two months next year, audiences will be able to see Captain Marvel and Shazam! The former of which will be the first female-led feature film for the now decade-old Marvel Cinematic Universe, while the latter is the long-awaited adaptation of one of the oldest superheroes of the 20th century made by the competing DC Cinematic Universe and Warner Bros.
But to those familiar with the characters or their acknowledged roots within comic industry and lore, the two of these characters getting features in such close proximity with such high profile and studio clout is a very strange kind of miracle when their backstories of production are considered. You see, both characters one (and in some cases still do) carry the moniker of ‘Captain Marvel’.
The character who was once more popular than Superman and the character nobody cared for have somehow switched places in the collective consciousness, and the reason why the tables shifted is a fascinatingly complicated one.
Created by Artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker in 1939 in the wake of the explosive success of Superman by Action Comics, the original Captain Marvel first appeared in Whiz Comics #2, published by Fawcett Comics. Here, he is the alter ego of homeless newspaper boy Billy Batson, a boy who, by speaking the magic word "SHAZAM!" – an acronym of six "immortal elders": Solomon (Wisdom), Hercules (Strength), Atlas (Stamina), Zeus (Power), Achilles (Courage) and Mercury (Speed) – can transform himself into a costumed adult sized with the powers of flight, strength and speed amongst many others.
It’s not really hard to decipher exactly why this suddenly had such mass appeal to an audience of young children. If superheroes are essentially embodied wish fulfilment power fantasies, then Captain Marvel is possibly the best distillation and realisation of this conception ever conceived. A literal personification of the form, and throughout the 1940s the character became one of the worlds most popular superheroes, with outstanding sales that outsold even Action Comics’ own Superman.
Obviously, this success was never going to go unnoticed, and after National Allied Publications soon merged with Detective Comics, Inc., forming National Comics Publications in 1946, they began issuing copyright infringement suits against many other publishers for infringing on their own best-selling character.
National Comics Publications, Inc. v. Fawcett Publications, Inc. became the primary concern for both companies, involving DC’s own negligent in copyrighting several of their Superman daily newspaper strips, appeals and retrials. Following a twelve-year legal battle, and a decline in sales for Captain Marvel Adventures after 1945 to only half of their original wartime figures, Fawcett agreed to permanently cease publication of comics with the Captain Marvel-related characters and to pay National $400,000 in damages and ended up closing the doors on their entire operation in 1953.
Then, in the heat of the Silver Age of comics (1956 - 1970), DC licensed the Captain Marvel characters from Fawcett – a slow process which eventually ended with the acquisition of rights to all of the Captain Marvel expanding family in 1991 – with intentions to revive the character and return the brand to publication.
However, at this point the ever-expanding Marvel Comics, formerly known as Timely Comics Inc., had something a monopoly on the era financially and culturally with an expanding range of newly beloved characters making debuts every couple of months. Since the trademark for the title of ‘Captain Marvel’ had ostensibly lapsed following the infringement suit, and the fact that the character had been out of print for over a decade, the rights to the actual name ‘Captain Marvel’ were no longer owned by anyone – and once other publishers took notice of this, things got more complicated.
In 1966 the small publisher M. F. Enterprises released a short-lived Captain Marvel series (that was ceased in a small settlement to Marvel Comics at a later date). But Marvel Comics debuted its new ‘Captain Marvel’ character in Marvel Super-Heroes #12 (December 1967, written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Gene Colan, and quickly trademarked the name.
Commencing with his own series in Captain Marvel #1 (May 1968), this new Captain Marvel was established as an alien of the Kree race called "Mar-Vell", who had come to earth as a spy. However, following a change of heart concerning his superiors, and a confusion in which his title Captain Mar-Vell was mistaken for a superhero called ‘Captain Marvel’, he came to identify with his human neighbours take up the mistaken moniker for real.
As equally fantastic (if slightly more contrived) as this pitch was, few readers actually seemed to take to this new addition to the ever-expanding Marvel canon. In a shakeup by writer-artist team Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in issue #17 (October 1969), the character was given a new uniform, designed by Kane and colourist Michelle Robinson, and much stronger abilities.
There was also the introduction of sidekick Rick Jones, in a plotline where Jones and Marvel "shared molecules" allowing only one to exist in the real world at a time. Thomas stated that the intent of the change was to create a more science-fiction oriented update that was reminiscent of Fawcett Comics' original Captain Marvel, who similarly had an alter-ego that could not co-exist with the superhero.
But it just kept going, including another revamp of the character by artist and plotter Jim Starlin throughout the 70s and 80s, and a memorable storyline and apparent death in Marvel's first graphic novel, The Death of Captain Marvel, in 1982.
Meanwhile, the effect that this had was that it forced DC to market all of their merchandise and collected publications relating back to the original ‘Captain Marvel’ under the shiny new moniker of Shazam! from 1972 until the present day.
This, in turn, led many to assume that "Shazam" was the character's name. DC later officially renamed the character "Shazam"—and his associates the "Shazam Family"—when relaunching its comic book properties in 2011 as a part of The New 52 relaunch of DC (a top-down rebuild of the entire DC Universe and cast of characters following on from the timeline-altering events of the Flashpoint storyline, but that’s an entire thing unto itself)
The Shazam family is as much a convoluted mess of madness as anything of the counterpart hero, and during its original run Fawcett expanded the franchise to include other "Marvels", primarily Marvel Family associates Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr., who can harness Billy's powers as well. There’s also the non-powered Uncle Marvel, and lutenists including Tall Marvel, Fat Marvel and Hillbilly Marvel… yes, all of this really happened.
But the story of Marvel’s ‘Captain Marvel’ isn’t quite over yet. The character has lived on under numerous successors in the Marvel universe, Including Monica Rambeau, Genis-Vell and his daughter Phyla-Vell and Noh-Var, but in recent decades he’s been rather overshadowed somewhat by its own female counterpart, Ms. Marvel aka. Carol Danvers.
Much like Captain Marvel, most of the bearers of the Ms. Marvel title gain their powers through Kree technology or genetics, and the title has been carried by other characters such as Kamala Khan, but Carol Danvers is probably the most fascinating to discuss.
Danvers appeared first as a supporting character, an officer in the United States Air Force and a colleague of the Kree superhero Mar-Vell in Marvel Super-Heroes #13 (March 1968). She was mostly forgotten, but later became the first incarnation of Ms. Marvel in Ms. Marvel #1 (1977) after her DNA was fused with Mar-Vell's during an explosion, giving her superhuman powers. A socially processive and consciously feminist character, Danvers is noted as fighting for equal pay for equal work in her civilian identity.
This spin-off series was published on only a bimonthly basis until it was ultimately cancelled in 1979. But she continued to make regular appearances with the superhero teams such as the Avengers and the X-Men.
But then, something happened. In The Avengers #200 published in 1980, Ms. Marvel is kidnapped by a new character named Marcus (the son of Avengers foe Immortus) and taken to an alternate dimension, where she is brainwashed, seduced, and impregnated. She gives birth on Earth to a child that rapidly ages into another version of Marcus, who takes Ms. Marvel back to the alternate dimension with no opposition from the Avengers, who just assume that Ms. Marvel and Marcus to have fallen in love… again, this really happened.
Readers and critics of the form were furious as the nature of the storyline, with Comic book historian Carol A. Strickland leading the pack in an essay titled "The Rape of Ms. Marvel", which suggested that this constituted as rape and decried the writers for taking such an unjust turn that took. It is still considered to this day to be one of the worst storylines Marvel Comics have ever published.
She was brought back little more than a year later by former solo title writer Chris Claremont, who sought the right the wrong done to Carol Danvers. In Avengers Annual #10 (1981), Danvers mysteriously returns to earth in the heat of a battle between the Avengers and the Brotherhood of Mutants. After some bickering and plot details where Danvers loses her powers completely, Danvers angrily confronts the Avengers and berates them for standing idly by as she was taken against her will.
She leaves the Avengers and joins the X-Men for a short period, before a succeeding serious of events putting her character in flux where she is known as Binary and Warbird with other groups, succumbing to alcoholism, cleaning up and taking up the role of Ms. Marvel reinvigorated once again.
That’s where she pretty much remained for many years, rising to prominence through major storylines as Marvel Comics’ most prominent and celebrated female superhero. But in 2012, Carol Danvers assumed the mantle as the current Captain Marvel in an ongoing series written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and illustrated by Dexter Soy, that looked to explore her character further.
This is just a small glimpse into a small fraction of the very messy history of comic book publishers suing and screwing each other over that expands far beyond just this instance, but it’s one of those strange instances now where we’re seeing two characters with a history as strangely bound as this reaching such mainstream appeal in such a small space of time.
It’s still unknown just how closely they’ll be adhering to original comic storylines. Captain Marvel looks to be starting afresh with Danvers a reimagined version of the original Marvel character – although Jude Law appears to be on hand as a version of the original Mar-Vell – with a new 90s setting and story elements lifted from 2008’s Secret Invasion storyline.
Shazam! looks like a traditionally structured but modern adaptation, but geared more toward children and a comedy approach, with mentions and glances toward primary archenemies Dr. Sivana and Black Adam, both of whom are purportedly set to appear in upcoming adaptations played by Mark Strong and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson respectively. (Incidentally, Captain Marvel also turned out to be the first comic book superhero to be adapted into a film, in a 1941 Republic Pictures serial titled Adventures of Captain Marvel.)
How both will ultimately stand up is down to their treatment of the source material, audience responses to the characters on screen, and the shadow of the omnipresent superhero genre at the forefront of Hollywood cinema approaching a critical mass point where it may have to evolve or possibly die (not that the old models of Hollywood success even still hold up in the internet age).
But to see imaginatively conceived films in the genre – one a change of course from its darker series instalments, and the other a validation of a character who’s suffered more than her fair share of misfortune and following the genre possibly into a new era of progression – they’re stimulating to emerge in the dominated pop culture landscape that the genre is leaving behind.