Shazam! — Movies’ Mightiest Mortal?

Rumors of a Shazam movie have been circulating for years — draft screenplays existed in the early 2000s, and persistent chatter identified Dwayne Johnson as villain/antihero Black Adam. Recently, more concrete news has emerged: the Shazam! film is slated for a 2019 release, with Zachary Levi playing the hero and Asher Angel as his child alter ego, Billy Batson.

But who is this Shazam character, and why are comics fans so anxiously excited about the possibility of the movie? Although the name isn’t as well-known as it once was, the superhero with the funny name was once the most popular comic hero in the world — and the first to appear on movie screens.

Created in 1939, Captain Marvel (as he was then known) was publisher Fawcett Comics’ attempt to get in on the superhero craze started by Superman. Writer Bill Parker and artist C. C. Beck created the character, with Beck giving him a distinctive appearance modeled on actor Fred MacMurray. Captain Marvel had many of the same powers as Superman, but unlike his competitor, he wasn’t just an adult in a costume. Captain Marvel was actually Billy Batson, a young boy (about the age of the presumed audience) who could transform into his heroic form by saying the magic word “Shazam!” When he did, Billy would be granted the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Put the initials together, and they spell Shazam.

Captain Marvel was a huge hit — indeed, for a time, his adventures, which had a more freewheeling, fairy-tale-like quality to them, outsold Superman’s. He was even adapted for the big screen in a 1941 serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, before either Superman or Batman were. However, Captain Marvel’s success was not to last. Superman publisher DC sued, claiming copyright infringement, and the legal challenge, combined with flagging sales, took Captain Marvel off comic stands in 1953. DC eventually licensed — and later purchased — the character, eventually bringing Captain Marvel into the DC Universe alongside Superman.

But the character’s troubles weren’t over yet: in the interim, Marvel Comics had begun their own Captain Marvel character (who is related to, but not the same as, the Captain Marvel coming to cinemas in 2019. Comics!). Due to the trademark conflict, DC titled the Captain Marvel comic Shazam! Eventually, they simply changed the name of the character to match, which was only slightly confusing, given that there was a different character called Shazam already in the stories.

So what makes Captain Marvel different from a character like Superman? While there are lots of similarities, the key difference is one of tone. Captain Marvel’s adventures were always funnier and more whimsical than Superman’s, aided by Beck’s cartoony art style. While Superman comics had their share of fairy-tale elements, Golden Age Superman lacked anything as charming as Captain Marvel’s talking tiger friend, Mister Tawky-Tawny.

If you’re about to object that Silver Age Superman stories were full of this kind of whimsy — which they were — you may be interested to know that one of the major Superman scribes of the era, Otto Binder, started working on Superman titles in 1954, the year after his previous employer stopped publishing. And where had Binder previously been working? You guessed it: at Fawcett Comics, writing (among other things) Captain Marvel stories.

In the modern day, DC’s version of Captain Marvel has drifted. In some versions, the character maintains Billy Batson’s rather naive, childish personality, which is a nod to the fact that the character is a reminder of a different era in comics. In other incarnations, writers have tried to update the character for the modern day with a darker, more conflicted personality.

So Captain Marvel’s history has been a convoluted one, and it’s hard to guess which of its many eras will be the inspiration for the film. It’s telling that Levi, who is best known for comedy work in series like Chuck and films like Tangled. However, director David F. Sandberg is best known for his atmospheric horror films, so who knows? Maybe he’s got a superhero adventure full of childlike wonder he’s been wanting to make for years. Either way, with the uneven state of the DC films, Shazam! — an oddity with a weird title, no big stars yet and an offbeat premise — is going to be interesting to watch develop.

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