Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel has been a smash-hit, with the latest MCU movie breaking box office records around the world and setting a high standard for the next superhero film on the block, Shazam!, when it debuts in March.
However, the two movies share a lot more than a spring release date. By strange coincidence, the hero of Shazam! also used to be known as Captain Marvel – until very recently, in fact – and to circumvent the confusion, the film’s director decided to sidestep the issue of what Zachery Levi’s hero was called altogether.
“I mean yeah, he used to be called Captain Marvel,” David F Sandberg told RadioTimes.com.
“So we had fun with it because, OK, we can’t really call him that because there’s another Captain Marvel movie coming out almost at the same time. It’s pretty funny, isn’t it?”
Accordingly, throughout Shazam! the adult superhero that young foster kid Billy Batson transforms into never quite gets his own name – at one point, Captain Sparklefingers is suggested – and even by the film’s end he doesn’t have a snappy moniker beyond “the hero.”
But why the confusion? Why are there two Captain Marvels? And what should we be calling this character anyway?
Well, the whole thing kicked off back in 1939, when a company called Fawcett Publications started their own comics division to capitalise on the popularity of Superman.
Back then Marvel comics didn’t exist – the company existed but was called Timely Comics – so Fawcett had no reservations about creating a Superman-esque character called “Captain Marvel” (shortened from Captain Marvelous, after they also couldn’t get the rights to their preferred “Captain Thunder” name).
The comic became a huge success, outselling even Superman, and Captain Marvel actually became the first superhero ever to be adapted to screen, for a 1941 serial. However, in 1953 the company stopped selling the comics after DC (aka Detective Comics, the creators of heroes like Batman and Superman) sued them for copyright infringement, suggesting the character was a copy of Superman (mainly due to his appearance, abilities and alter-ego that worked in journalism).
After a lengthy legal process, Fawcett eventually paid DC a settlement and agreed to never publish the stories again (sales had dropped anyway, making it an easier decision than it might have once been) – and that might have been that, if not for the unexpected resurgence of superhero comics, known as the Silver Age of comics, in the mid-1960s.
Fawcett’s settlement meant they couldn’t publish the character any more, but DC decided they’d license Captain Marvel and his “Marvel family” of sidekicks to add to their own stable of heroes, later acquiring the characters outright.
The one problem? By the time DC tried to bring the character back in 1972, Marvel Comics (now existing under its familiar name) had created and copyrighted its own Captain Marvel, an alien warrior called Mar-Vell who fought alongside the heroes of Earth using his Kree abilities and powerful nega-band technology.
This didn’t stop DC, who kept the character name but retitled his ongoing comic book “Shazam!,” the magic word said by young Billy Batson to transform into his alter ego and back again. In other words, while the superhero was still called Captain Marvel, any comics and merchandise related to him were just branded with Shazam!, giving DC enough leeway to keep using the character.
At one point DC did try subtitling the series “The original Captain Marvel,” but a cease-and-desist letter from Marvel led them to change it to “The World’s Mightiest Mortal” instead.
Over the next few decades the character continued to appear in his own comic series from time to time and in team-up books with varied success, and as time went on more and more people assumed (thanks to the copyright-friendly branding) that he was called Shazam! – and so, in 2011 during a company-wide reboot called the New 52, Captain Marvel was officially renamed. Captain Marvel was dead – long live Shazam!
Annette Bening as the Supreme Intelligence/Mar-Vell in Captain Marvel(Disney)
In the meantime, Marvel’s version of Captain Marvel had also gone through a few changes. After Mar-Vell, various other cosmic characters had ended up using the Captain Marvel name, and they were followed in 2012 by Carol Danvers, who had existed in Marvel comics since 1968 (gaining powers after being caught in an accident caused by Mar-Vell’s Kree technology) but had previously gone by Ms Marvel, Binary and Warbird among other codenames.
It was the Carol Danvers Captain Marvel that ended up being adapted by Marvel Studios for her eponymous movie this year, mostly skipping over the others – but the original Mar-Vell, now transposed into a female character and played by Anette Bening (above), makes an appearance as well, meaning that technically three Captain Marvels will be in cinemas at the same time when Shazam! is released.
Of course the first Captain Marvel of them all, the alter-ego of Billy Batson, won’t be referred to by his original name in his solo movie, but the history’s still there – and according to director Sandberg, the character has fallen out of popular culture for long enough that it barely matters what we call him anyway.
“To me Shazam! is a snappy name, and I don’t mind him being called that these days,” Sandberg told us.
“Because most people these days also don’t really know about him. He was very big in the past, but then he’s kind of been forgotten. So it’s cool to be able to introduce him to new audiences with his new name.”
Just how he manages to introduce himself without accidentally changing back into a teenage boy is a question for another day…
Shazam! is released in UK cinemas on 5th April, and Captain Marvel is in cinemas now