Can 'Shazam!' Fit Into the DC Movieverse?
Little is known about Warner Bros.' Shazam! movie, beyond that The Rock has signed on to play the movie's antagonist, Black Adam, and the fact that it will, apparently, be part of the same fictional universe as Justice League, Suicide Squad and the other DC superhero movies. Which raises the question: Is the movie Shazam! doomed to repeat the comic book version's mistakes?
A little history is required before we go any further. Although he's not one of the most recognizable superheroes out there, Shazam is one of the longest-serving; he debuted in 1940's Whiz Comics No. 2, the creation of cartoonist C.C. Beck. At the time, though, he was called Captain Marvel — a name the character continues to use, on occasion, to this day despite Marvel claiming a trademark on it in the mid-1960s.
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To say Captain Marvel was successful when he first appeared would be an understatement; appearing across a number of series published by Fawcett Publications (including his own solo title, Captain Marvel Adventures), he was outselling every other superhero in the medium by the mid-1940s, a fact celebrated with the cover tagline "LARGEST CIRCULATION OF ANY COMIC MAGAZINE." Sadly, the hero's career would never reach such heights again.
A lawsuit from National Publications — which would later become DC Entertainment — claiming that Captain Marvel was derivative of Superman dragged on for years, going through multiple judgments (first, that Captain Marvel was derivative but National had failed to copyright Superman appropriately, then that National had copyrighted Superman but that Captain Marvel didn't constitute infringement even though some of his powers did) before being settled in 1953 in a way that essentially ended Captain Marvel's career: Fawcett shuttered its comics department, agreed to never publish a Captain Marvel title again and paid National $400,000 in damages.
That Captain Marvel survived at all after that is a fluke, but in 1972, National — now known as DC Comics — licensed the rights to the character for a 1973 relaunch that mixed reprints of the original material with all-new stories originally written and drawn by Beck himself. By this point, Marvel had trademarked the Captain Marvel name, so the series was titled Shazam!, with each cover announcing that the title featured "the original Captain Marvel."
The revival wasn't a great success; Beck soon quit, dissatisfied with the direction DC had decided to take with the character, and the series was cancelled with its 35th issue, setting in place the template for Captain Marvel's future in the DC portfolio — periodic revivals that fail to find a large enough audience, followed by long stretches of disuse punctuated by guest appearances in other comic books.
Of the character's irregular reappearances, arguably his most successful were two 2015 releases: Convergence: Shazam! and The Multiversity: Thunderworld. What set those two revivals apart from anything else DC had attempted in decades were their refusal to try and retool the character to make sense in the wider DC comic book universe. Not only did the atmosphere of both reflect Beck's original optimism (and moral simplicity), but they restored the idea that Captain Marvel — and he was, once again, called Captain Marvel in both comics despite the "primary" character having been officially renamed Shazam in 2012 — worked best in a world where he (and his "Marvel Family" of sidekicks and siblings) were the sole force for good against the "Monster Society of Evil."
In a world where Superman and the Justice League exists, Captain Marvel doesn't really make sense. His power set is already represented and the mythical figures that give him his powers — "Shazam," the magic word that transforms him from the underage Billy Batson into the adult superhero, is an acronym for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury, each of whom lend him specific attributes of theirs — are already present via the Wonder Woman mythology. Plus, the wish fulfillment aspect that made the hero so popular to children in the 1940s and '50s is flattened somewhat by the fact that, well, he's just less special when surrounded by countless other characters as colorful as he is.
The dissonance is even more pronounced when you compare the childlike sense of joy and wonder implicit in the best Shazam! stories with the cynicism and stylized "realism" of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice or Suicide Squad. How can the two co-exist side-by-side? Can the DC Extended Universe contain both, comfortably?
That is the core question movie executives will have to answer before the 2019 movie. Without that core belief that good will overcome evil, Shazam! isn't the Captain Marvel of old — and arguably doesn't offer anything that the DC movie mythology already possesses elsewhere, with the exception of the phrase "starring Dwayne Johnson." DC's comic arm struggled to make the Shazam! work for decades before last year's successes — does DC Films have the same troubles lying ahead?
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