Shazam! is back. So, who is the real Captain Marvel?

Cairns on Cinema

John Cairns

Today, we turn our attention to the latest superhero movie to grace our cinema screens, “Shazam!”

The reason I am mentioning this flick is because of the massive cut-out ad for Shazam! that greeted all of us at the Capitol Annex at their VIP night a couple of weeks ago. That got my attention, and everyone else’s.

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This movie opened in wide release on Friday and is already getting lots of raves on Rotten Tomatoes. Its “Tomatometer score” is upwards of 93 per cent.

In more good news, the film opened to a weekend North American haul of $53.5 million, finishing in first place. Considering its budget was only $90 million, it should make a nice profit when all is said and done. Lots of people say they are fed up with superhero movies, but clearly this genre has life left yet. 

Just the thought of “Shazam!” brings back memories of my childhood. It was an era when I would buy countless second-hand comics from the local comic-book stores and binge-watch endless cartoons and kids shows on Saturday morning.

One of those shows was, you guessed it, “SHAZAM!” It was one of the small number of live-action shows produced by the Filmation studio, which was better known for its Saturday animation output.    

These were the adventures of Billy Batson, who had superhero powers derived from the elders Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. The show featured Batson and his mentor travelling the country to right wrongs and seek justice for all.

I can hear the voice of the announcer in my mind now:

“In times of dire need, Batson has been granted the power by the immortals to summon awesome forces at the utterance of a single word.”

SHAZAM!

“A word that transforms him in a flash into the mightiest of mortal beings, Captain Marvel!!” 

Uh, um, what? Captain… ‘Marvel’?

“Wait a minute. I thought Captain Marvel was a woman! This guy is totally different! And what is DC doing with a character named ‘Marvel’ anyway? What is going on?”

What is going on is a goldmine for intellectual property attorneys. In fact, disputes over the character sum up the entire existence of this hopeless, hapless superhero.

My search of Wikipedia and other online articles turned up plenty of information about this entire well-documented mess. What follows here is my Coles Notes version of all of that.

Back in the Forties and Fifties, there were a series of comic books put out by the Fawcett Comics company called “Whiz Comics.” The star of this series of comics was Captain Marvel, complete in his red-and-gold suit, whose abilities included flying through the air.

The character was introduced in 1940 and soon became the most popular comic book character in the USA, which seems hard to believe today. Republic Pictures even did movie serials featuring Captain Marvel.

Folks at National Comics Publications, known today as DC Comics, were furious. They thought this was a blatant ripoff of their Superman character and storylines, which they just created.

They sued Fawcett for copyright infringement, and the legal battle that followed in the early Fifties brought the mighty Captain Marvel to his knees.

This complicated case ultimately ended in the same manner that so many civil cases end, with an out-of-court settlement. After an appeals court sided with the litigants and ruled Captain Marvel was indeed a copy of Superman, Fawcett threw in the towel.

Fawcett did a $400,000 settlement with DC and agreed to kill the Captain Marvel comics, thereby washing their hands of this whole legal fiasco. The last Fawcett comics featuring Captain Marvel were published in 1953. 

Given how lucrative the superhero genre is in Hollywood today, this is unbelievable. Trust me, had this legal dispute erupted this decade, I guarantee you Fawcett would have fought DC all the way to the Supreme Court.

You’ve got to remember, this was a different era. The early fifties were rough times for the whole comic book industry. Sales were in a slump. What’s more, the industry was under fire from the US Congress over concerns that comics were leading to “juvenile delinquency.” This was all happening while “McCarthyism” was going full-blast.

There were congressional investigations, particularly into the “horror” genre of comics. These happened about a year after Fawcett gave up on Captain Marvel. The company that later published MAD Magazine, EC Comics, had to get out of the comic book business entirely for this very reason. The reputation of the whole industry tanked with the general public.

Fawcett surely figured comic books were on its last legs, and so they cut a deal. Who knew?

At the time, it looked like this was the end of Captain Marvel for good. It turned out that he wasn’t dead yet. As it turned out, it was the archrivals DC who were instrumental in bringing him back.

With interest in comic books on the rise, thanks to the hit TV series “Batman” and the rise of Saturday morning cartoons featuring “Superman” and “Spider-Man,” DC was looking for new characters to boost sales.

They obtained the license to Fawcett’s old superheroes including Captain Marvel, and started publishing in 1972. However, his revival turned out to be more complicated than expected. Yes, the Captain was in legal trouble once again.

Marvel Comics had trademarked the name “Captain Marvel” in 1967 for one of their characters: an alien from another planet called Mar-Vell who bore no resemblance to the original Captain Marvel at all.

It turned out Fawcett had let their trademark lapse for Captain Marvel. They must have figured it would have been a waste of time to keep it, but Marvel swooped right in and registered it.

I suppose this is the time to point out that Marvel Comics itself did not take on the “Marvel” name until 1961, eight years after Fawcett put the original Captain Marvel out of his misery. 

The bottom line is DC had to go to great lengths to avoid using “Captain Marvel” as the trademark for their newly-acquired line of comics.

Instead, the comic books went by the name “Shazam!” The TV series, similarly, was “Shazam!”

Making a bizarre story even wilder, here’s another factoid. When CBS gave “Shazam!” his Saturday morning show, they paired it for a while with a series about a female super-heroine. That show went by the rather unfortunate title of “The Shazam!-ISIS Hour.”   

That’s right. “The Mighty ISIS” saw her good name eventually sabotaged by Middle Eastern terrorists. You can’t make this stuff up.

At the time of the TV show, it was pretty confusing for the kids at home because we would think Shazam! was the actual name of the superhero. I read that DC eventually gave up and renamed the character “Shazam!” just to get it over with.

To top it off, Marvel created another Captain Marvel to replace their first one.

It figures. 

They came up with the character Carol Danvers, who was involved in an explosion in which she  gained her super-powers from the original Captain Marvel.

After going by other monikers such as “Ms. Marvel” for years, Danvers finally became “Captain Marvel” once and for all in the comic books.

Now, she is a cinematic blockbuster hit. “Captain Marvel” starring Brie Larson crossed one billion dollars at the global box office recently.

While she is raking in all the glory for Disney, the original “Captain Marvel” can’t even use his own name in his own Warner Bros. movie. Figuring out what name he should adopt is an ongoing joke throughout his latest flick. “Captain Sparkle-fingers!”

This contrast of fortunes between these two characters and movies, both screening at the same time, sort of illustrates how far the original Captain Marvel has fallen.

Still, folks at Warner Bros. and DC obviously have faith in the potential of this superhero. There is talk now of including “Shazam!” in future Justice League movies.

Based on the positive buzz from this weekend’s release, it appears the reinvented “Shazam!” might finally be ready for a pop-culture comeback.

“Shazam!” is on at the Capitol Annex.

© Copyright Battlefords News Optimist

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