The world of comic book lore is vast and confusing, even before you come into the different continuities of film franchise adaptations (and get even more bewildering when different studios produce content about the same characters). Among the many, many confusing characters with similar names and superpowers, two stand above the rest in terms of their bizarre, intertangled history: Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel.
To be specific, we mean the Captain Marvel of Marvel Comics and the former Captain Marvel of DC Comics, now known as Shazam. These people:
Credit: MarvelCredit: Warner Bros
In the last several years, both Captain Marvel and Shazam have seen their popularity explode after receiving their own starring vehicles from Disney and Warner Bros, respectively. However, the weird, decades-long legal battles over the characters are still little known, so we’re going to break it down.
However, before we can even begin to explain why both Marvel Comics and DC Comics have wrestled over who gets to use the name “Captain Marvel,” we need to explain who these heroes are.
Who Is Shazam?
Shazam is one of the world’s oldest still-published superhero characters, with his first appearance dating back to Whiz Comics #2 (1940), published by the now-defunct Fawcett Comics.
Credit: DC Comics
If you notice that the barrel-chested, dark-haired superhero who also wears a cape, just remember that Superman predated Captain Marvel/Shazam by two years, and that’s going to be on the test.
Captain Marvel (as Shazam was initially known) is the superpowered alter-ego of Billy Batson, a good-hearted newsboy orphan who becomes mystically empowered by an ancient wizard with the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. For the record, those are wisdom, strength, stamina, power, courage, and speed.
Captain Marvel was originally to be called “Captain Thunder,” which would have made all sorts of future lawyer bills. However, that name was already trademarked, leading to the suggestion of “Captain Marvelous,” then “Captain Marvel,” and years and many lawsuits later, just Shazam.
The character immediately skyrocketed in popularity, and Billy Batson was joined by a whole Marvel Family, including Captain Marvel Jr and Mary Marvel. However, by then, Fawcett Comics’ rival National Comics Publications had noticed similarities to Superman, its own star superhero, and sued them into oblivion.
Credit: DC Comics
The 12-year lawsuit is one of the longest of its kind in the history of comic books, and ultimately, National Comics (which would later become DC Comics) prevailed. Fawcett Comics ceased publication of all superhero comics in 1953, and for at least a while, there was no Captain Marvel out there at all.
Who Is Captain Marvel?
In the meantime, another comic book publisher named Timely Comics rebranded itself as Marvel Comics and realized it would probably be good for them to own the Captain Marvel name but not the then-defunct character.
However, yet another publisher, M. F. Enterprises, got there first and published a brief Captain Marvel series in the 1960s because no one can ever stop making comic books with that name. So as to not get into the safe hot water as Fawcett Comics, Marvel purchased the name rights from M.F. Enterprises for less than $5000, which would prove to be a wise decision.
The first character (of many to come) to use the name Captain Marvel in Marvel Comics was a Kree alien named Mar-Vell, who was created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan and debuted in 1967. This version of the character was an advance agent for the harsh, militaristic Kree empire, who later defected to the side of humanity and became a hero in his own right.
Credit: Marvel Comics
However, this particular Mar-Vell was not particularly popular and was revamped by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane as a character who switches places with a human teen named Rick Jones by the power of a pair of super-powered bracelets called Nega-Bands. You would think that Marvel Comics would not want to so overtly reference the Fawcett Comics Captain Marvel/Shazam as to make him switch places with a human boy through (basically) magic, but you’d be wrong.
At this point, Marvel Comics was invested in making this Captain Marvel work, so Jim Starlin was given a shot to revamp the character yet again. Finally, this version of Mar-Vell, who was reimagined as a cosmic universal guardian and constant foe of the Mad Titan Thanos, caught the imagination of fans.
Credit: Marvel Comuics
Those fans were understandably shocked when Marvel Comics killed off the character in Marvel Graphic Novel #1 – The Death of Captain Marvel (1982) after a long and painful battle with cancer, an atypically human death for comic books.
To date, Mar-Vell remains one of the few characters who have died in Marvel Comics that has stayed dead and has become enshrined as a symbol of heroic nobility in fandom.
Credit: Marvel Comics
That’s All For Captain Marvel, Then?
Nope! If you thought that Marvel Comics was persistent in trying to popularize Mar-Vell as a character, you have no idea the lengths that the company is willing to go to not let the Captain Marvel trademark lapse.
Since Mar-Vell, there have been numerous successors who have taken on the title, not all of whom have any direct connection to the original captain.
The second captain was Monica Rambeau, a New Orleans police lieutenant who developed energy-based superpowers and was given the name Captain Marvel by members of the press who understood the importance of retaining brand imagery.
Credit: Marvel Studios
Later, Rambeau would take the name “Photon” and let Mar-Vell’s son Genis-Vell assume the title. Then he wanted to be called Photon himself, and she had to switch yet again. Currently, Rambeau is played by Teyonah Parris in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Genis-Vell himself was created from the genes (get it?) of Mar-Vell after his father’s death and took on many of his traits, including wielding the Nega-Bands and palling around with Rick Jones. Unlike his father, on at least one occasion, he has gone insane and threatened to destroy the universe.
Next up was Phyla-Vell, a daughter of Mar-Vell created by her brother’s flawed reconstruction of the universe. Following her was Khn’nr, who turned out to be a Skrull (the ancestral enemy of the Kree) masquerading as Mar-Vell until the false superheroic identity overcame his own personality.
An extradimensional Kree named Noh-Varr took on the title for a while and has since redubbed himself Marvel Boy, which seems like a downgrade.
Currently, the official Captain Marvel is Carol Danvers, a human woman introduced in the earliest Mar-Vell stories, who has had a slew of various powers throughout her history. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Brie Larson was introduced as Danvers in Captain Marvel (2019) and will reprise the role in the upcoming The Marvels alongside Teyonah Parris and Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan AKA Ms Marvel.
So Why Does Marvel Have the Name Now?
As we said, the first superhero to be called Captain Marvel was the Fawcett Comics version until the company that would eventually become DC Comics put him out of business. Ironically, DC Comics decided it would like an alternate version of Superman in case it needed a spare and purchased the rights to the Shazam character in 1971.
However, by that point, Marvel Comics had firmly established that it was not going to let go of the name, so even though the Billy Batson character preceded Mar-Vell (and all his follow-up heroes) by almost 30 years, DC Comics couldn’t do anything about it.
Credit: DC Comics
This led to the comic book company making numerous attempts to relaunch the Marvel family, but the character has never managed to attain his pre-lawsuit popularity. For decades, DC Comics published comic book titles with some variation of the title Shazam, while, confusingly, the character was still referred to as Captain Marvel in-universe.
The 2011 New 52 event (in which DC Comics once again attempted to reboot continuity) solved one problem by outright just calling the character Shazam.
However, this caused yet more issues, considering that the wizard who originally gamed the Marvel family powers was already named Shazam (technically Shazamo at first), which begs the question of if they are now different characters or differently aged versions of the same being.
Credit: Warner Bros.
Even more worryingly, this raises a logistical question: in order to transform from Billy Batson to his superpowered form, he has to say “Shazam” out loud. So, can the character no longer even say his own name? How does he introduce himself to people?
What Is the Future of Captain Marvel and Shazam?
After decades of legal hassle, both Marvel Comics and DC Comics have successful live-action films based on their versions of Captain Marvel.
Brie Larson has starred in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Carol Danvers since 2019, with the character’s complicated backstory heavily streamlined. While initially presented as a possible successor to Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, Marvel Studios has seemed to walk that back and might even be getting nervous about Larson in general. A lot of the future of Captain Marvel will depend on how this new movie does.
Zachary Levi has played Shazam in the DC Extended Universe, also since 2019, with his self-titled movie becoming a surprise blockbuster. However, the sequel, Shazam! Fury of the Gods bombed so hard that it seems to have taken away any future plans for a third movie.
We’re not even going to get into the weirdness that is Marvelman.
Credit: Marvel Comics
Which version of Captain Marvel do you prefer? Use your magical catchphrase of choice in the comments below!
Captain Marvel, the cosmic Marvel superhero, and the mystically empowered hero Shazam wouldn’t seem to have much in common, and yet… Read More