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Brie Larson as Captain Marvel
Brie Larson as Captain Marvel
Marvel

The Odd Tale of the Captain Marvels

On March 8, the Captain Marvel movie, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and starring Brie Larson in the title role, will be released — the latest film from the unrelenting juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While misogynistic haters have tried their best to destroy the film’s reputation before it’s even released, all the signs suggest that this will be another huge success story for Marvel, this time with a female-led film.

But here’s where it all gets a little bit odd. Just a month later, on April 5, a movie called Shazam will be released by the other comic book giant, DC. Unlike Marvel, DC’s recent moviemaking history has been patchy at best. DC has been unable to create a cohesive universe, with many moving parts on the big and small screens, whereas Marvel has excelled. But the curiosity here stems from the fact that the character of Shazam was created in 1939 and originally called ... Captain Marvel. So, in other words, there are two movies about a character called Captain Marvel that are about to be released one month apart.

It gets weirder still. DC’s Captain Marvel (who from here on will be referred to as Shazam to avoid inevitable confusion) was created by the now-defunct Fawcett Comics, which in 1952 was sued for copyright infringement by, would you believe, DC, because the latter felt that Shazam was a blatant ripoff of its own Superman. So Fawcett stopped publishing the books. Then, 20 years later, DC purchased the rights to Shazam and any related characters, and he was back. Ironically, the first issue of DC’s Shazam in 1972 also featured Superman on the cover. That seems like a cruel joke.

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Are you keeping up? Because we’re well into the rabbit hole now. By the time DC started publishing its Captain Marvel books, Marvel Comics had established a Captain Marvel character of its own. Rather cheekily, DC tagged its comics with the line “The original Captain Marvel,” but a cease-and-desist letter from Marvel put a stop to that. So it was agreed that DC could keep using the name “Captain Marvel,” but all titles, toys and merchandise had to have the word “Shazam” front and center, hence the current usage.

Interesting side note here: The battle over names has occurred more than once between the two giants of the industry. In 1964, Marvel introduced a character called Wonder Man, and DC sued because of its own Wonder Woman; Wonder Man was temporarily discontinued. Then DC introduced a character called Power Girl in 1976, which angered Stan Lee because Marvel had already established Power Man (aka Luke Cage).

As for the DC character himself, Billy Batson is a homeless 12-year-old boy (or 14, in the later rewrite) who is granted the power of the Greek gods by the Wizard Shazam (those gods being Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury). So when he speaks the word “Shazam,” Batson is transformed into a fully grown adult with a red suit, white cape and a shit-ton of powers.

Incidentally, there have been two previous live-action versions of DC's Captain Marvel — a 1941 12-part film serial called The Adventures of Captain Marvel, with Tom Tyler in the title role, and a 1974-76 TV show called Shazam! that saw Michael Gray play Billy Batson and both Jackson Bostwick and John Davey portray the Captain.

As for Marvel Comics, seven characters have held the title Captain Marvel since its creation in 1967. The first, and one of the two most important, was an alien military officer called Mar-Vell (see what they did there?). Sadly, Mar-Vell died from cancer in a 1982 book called The Death of Captain Marvel.

New Orleans cop Monica Rambeau was the second to hold the title from ’82, and she would later be known by a variety of names including Photon, Pulsar and Spectrum. In ’93, the genetically engineered son of Mar-Vell, Genis-Vell, became the third Captain Marvel, and he was followed in 2004 by his sister, Phyla-Vell. In the 2007 book Civil War — The Return, Skrull sleeper agent Khn’nr became the fifth, before Noh-Varr (formerly Marvel Boy) joined the Dark Avengers as Captain Marvel.

That’s six. The seventh is Carol Danvers, also the first character to hold the title Ms. Marvel, and the version of the character that Larson is portraying in the new movie. The Ms. Marvel history is interesting, too — there have now been four of those characters, including Danvers and, most recently, Kamala Khan, who happens to be the first Muslim Marvel Comics character to headline her own title.

Since her introduction in 1968, Danvers has gone through quite the evolution. As Ms. Marvel, her costume was practically nonexistent and certainly impractical for crime-fighting. Enlightened eyes don’t look kindly on it, nor should they. But as Captain Marvel, she wears much the same clothes as Mar-Vell. As ever, she’s a badass and it finally feels like she’s getting the respect she deserves. After all, many consider her to be the most highly powered hero in the Marvel Comics cannon. Meanwhile, Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel is also drawn dressing with dignity.

Captain Marvel, aka ShazamEXPAND
Captain Marvel, aka Shazam
DC

All of which means what? Again, two Captain Marvel–themed movies will be released in the next few weeks and, while Marvel’s Captain Marvel looks likely to be the film with more depth, not to mention that kick-ass female lead, both will have their merits. There have even been hints that the characters Kamala Khan and Monica Rambeau will appear in this movie or future installments in the franchise.

Some are comparing Shazam to Tom Hanks’ 1980s fave Big, and there’s probably some truth there. That film explored the perils of adolescence, and Shazam promises to do the same. While not homeless, Batson is an orphan in the movie, passing from home to home thanks to a broken system. Zachary Levi plays Shazam in the new film, while Asher Angel plays Batson. To his credit, Levi recently called out those looking to disparage the Marvel Comics/Brie Larson film through an online video, stating:

"There are people out there making defamatory and completely fictitious reviews and posts of Brie Larson's Captain Marvel — and trying to pit Shazam against it, saying they're gonna support us and not them because of things they are making up. For anyone out there who thinks you're doing me a favor, or you're doing Shazam a favor, you're not. This is not helping anyone or anything. There is no competition."

Of course, he's right. But the bigger picture is, we have diversity of gender, color, religion and age, plus a hard look at the broken foster system, between all iterations of the Captain. And you thought it was just dumb shit for nerds.

Marvel's Captain Marvel will be released on March 8, with DC's Shazam following on April 5.

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