'Captain Marvel' and 'Shazam!' Share a Complicated Past

Lawsuits dating back decades have shaped the two heroes, now in theaters.
Warner Bros./Photofest
Lawsuits dating back decades have shaped the two heroes, now in theaters.

That Warner Bros.’ Shazam! arrives in theaters just weeks after Marvel’s Captain Marvel is a strange probable coincidence that underscores the long-running, often litigious history shared by the two properties, which stretches back to the 1940s and includes multiple lawyers in multiple permutations. If you’ve ever wondered why Shazam’s name is the same as the magic word that changes him from kid to superhero…keep reading.

Originally, Billy Batson didn’t turn into Shazam when he said the word “Shazam”; instead, he was the first comic book Captain Marvel, debuting 80 years ago in 1939’s Whiz Comics No. 2. Created by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker, he was one of comics’ first superheroes, and also one of the nascent medium’s most successful characters as a whole.

In his heyday, the original Captain Marvel was the best-selling superhero in comics, outselling Superman with more than a million copies sold each month. With that kind of success, it’s no surprise that Fawcett saw the potential to turn the character into a franchise, launching additional series including Captain Marvel Jr., Mary Marvel and The Marvel Family. (There was also Uncle Marvel, Freckles Marvel and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, because of course there was.) Faced with this kind of competition, DC — or, as it was then known, National Comics Publications — sued Fawcett, claiming that Captain Marvel was based on Superman, with neither party fully aware of just what would happen as a result.

The lawsuit between National and Fawcett stretched out for 12 years, from 1941 through 1953. Initially, the case was decided in Fawcett’s favor on a technicality in 1951, with the presiding judge declaring that, although Captain Marvel was derivative of Superman, National had been negligent in upkeep of Superman copyright, and therefore the suit had no standing. An appeal led to a reversal of both findings, with Second Circuit Appeals Court Judge Learned Hand — his real name — deciding that National’s copyright was valid, but that Captain Marvel wasn’t derivative of Superman, although certain superpowers or events may be. The case was sent back for a retrial.

That retrial didn’t happen for a number of reasons, not least of which being that Fawcett decided that it wasn’t worth the time or hassle. By this point, Captain Marvel’s sales — indeed, superhero comic book sales across the board — were in free fall and publishers assumed the superhero fad was over. Fawcett settled with National, agreeing to pay $400,000 in damages and permanently cease publication of the character. The final Captain Marvel titles from the publisher were released in 1953, with Fawcett essentially shuttering as a publisher at the same time. The character wouldn’t be seen in comics again for two decades.

The next comic book hero to use the name Captain Marvel didn’t come from Marvel Comics, however; in 1966, short-lived independent publisher M.F. Enterprises released the first issue of its own Captain Marvel series, featuring an android who could split his body apart to fight crime in multiple directions simultaneously. The series lasted just five issues before disappearing after Marvel Comics got involved…but not in the way many would expect.

After M.F. Enterprises launched its Captain Marvel, then-Marvel Comics publisher Martin Goodman approached the company with an offer: Marvel wanted to buy the character for $6,000. M.F. publisher Myron Fass refused, and Goodman retaliated in an impressively underhanded way, pushing Stan Lee and Gene Colan to create Marvel’s own Captain Marvel, debuting in 1967’s Marvel Super-Heroes No. 12.

Fass then sued Marvel for trademark infringement, arguing — reasonably — that Marvel’s character was created in bad faith; Marvel responded by claiming that it owned the comic book rights to the word Marvel, and that it considered the M.F. Enterprises character an infringement on trademarks that it owned. The case was settled out of course, with M.F. Enterprises accepting $4,500 in exchange for ceasing publication of its Captain Marvel.

Marvel’s Captain Marvel graduated into his own comic book series in 1968; that series continued until 1970, when it ended with a 21st issue guest-starring the Hulk. Two years later, DC — looking to find new properties to publish in response to Marvel’s growing marketplace dominance — licensed the rights to the original Fawcett character; at the same time, Marvel relaunched its own Captain Marvel series with a new creative team and new direction. Coincidence? Potentially. DC’s revival didn’t actually hit stores until 1973, so it’s possible Marvel was entirely unaware and the decision to relaunch was unrelated, after all. And yet…

DC’s 1973 revival of the original character was hindered by the fact that it couldn’t call the series Captain Marvel, thanks to Marvel having nabbed the trademark to that title during the original’s hiatus. Instead, the series was named after Billy Batson’s magic word: Shazam No. 1 appeared with the subtitle The Original Captain Marvel, something that would be dropped from the series by its 15th issue after Marvel sent a cease and desist letter. (It was replaced on the cover with The World’s Mightiest Mortal, a tagline from the character’s 1940s era.)

Both Marvel and DC’s Captain Marvels proved to be hard sells with fans, leading to short runs and irregular relaunches over the next few decades. Marvel went far harder with its various attempts to find a successful use of the name, with multiple characters using the Captain Marvel identity following Mar-Vell’s demise in 1982’s high-profile The Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel. Between that point and Carol Danvers assuming the name three decades later, no less than five different characters called themselves Captain Marvel, only to fail to keep enough interest to prevent their replacement in favor of the next big thing.

DC, meanwhile, tried to reboot the character in 1987’s Shazam! The New Beginning, and then again in 1991’s The Power of Shazam!, 2006’s The Trials of Shazam! and 2007’s Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil and subsequent Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! series, with each series earning a number of fans but no long-term commitment that lasted beyond a few years at most.

Keeping with the theme of the two characters being linked through coincidence, it was 2012 when both Marvel and DC’s Captain Marvels debuted in the versions now appearing in movie theaters. For Marvel, 2012’s Avenging Spider-Man No. 9 introduced Carol Danvers — previously the original Ms. Marvel — as its latest Captain Marvel, arguably the publisher’s most popular incarnation of the character to date; for DC, Justice League No. 7 saw then-DC CCO Geoff Johns re-create Billy Batson’s alter ego as Shazam, jettisoning the Captain Marvel name altogether in favor of the title that had been on the character’s front covers for the previous four decades. (DC would later reuse it in 2015’s Thunderworld Adventures and Convergence: Shazam!, so the publisher hasn’t entirely relinquished claim just yet.)

With the release of Shazam! in theaters, and Captain Marvel breaking $1 billion internationally just weeks after release, both incarnations of the Captain Marvel name are finding a level of success and public awareness they haven’t enjoyed in decades, if ever before, and nary a lawsuit in sight. Well, that we know of just yet, at least.