Carol Danvers is getting ready to sweep the 2019 box office in her Captain Marvel solo film, but before she (or even Marvel Comics) had the moniker, there was another hero who made “Captain Marvel” a household name – and we don’t mean Mar-Vell.
Of course we’re talking about the Big Red Cheese himself, the hero modern audiences know as “Shazam!”. Shazam, as he’s called now by DC and as his upcoming movie is titled, began his superhero career as Captain Marvel, the first hero to use that name.
So how did the name “Captain Marvel” switch heroes (and publishers)? This twice-told tale is one of superhero comics’ oldest legal disputes, and though many historical-minded fans know how it all went down, we’re here to clear up any remaining confusion about how Carol Danvers became Captain Marvel, and the guy we used to know as Captain Marvel became Shazam.
Before we get to Shazam’s actual name change, we’ve gotta explore his history just a bit.
Like Superman, the first American superhero (and the character that defined most of the genre tropes), the original 1939 incarnation of Captain Marvel could fly, had super strength and speed, and wore a costume of tights and a cape to rescue people. Seeing the similarities between the characters, National Comics Publications (Superman’s publisher who later became DC) sued Fawcett, Captain Marvel's publisher, over copyright infringement against Fawcett, who published Captain Marvel.
If that seems drastic considering how many characters in modern comics share even more specific qualities, and how many superheroes were ripping off Superman even back in the 40s, bear in mind that National had a history of suing companies that published heroes it felt were too close to Superman, successfully putting a stop to the publication of Fox’s Wonder Man and Fawcett’s pre-Captain Marvel hero Master Man.
There’s one other factor that set the Captain Marvel lawsuit apart however – at his peak, Captain Marvel was selling more copies than Superman, and even became the first superhero to get their own live-action film.
Naturally, National didn’t like that Fawcett’s copy was outselling their original, adding fuel to a lawsuit that aimed to cease publication of Captain Marvel. National and Fawcett settled out of court, leading Fawcett to cease publishing comic books and sell the rights to some of its comic characters - but they held on to the Marvel Family and their other superheroes.
From there, Captain Marvel all but disappeared (though some less successful heroes briefly adopted the name over the years). Then, in the 1960s, another publisher entered the “Captain Marvel” dispute.
Realizing that since Fawcett had ceased publishing the adventures of Captain Marvel almost 15 years prior in 1953, in 1967, the still newly-christened Marvel Comics (formerly Atlas) realized that the famous hero moniker that included their namesake was not in use – and decided to make their own Captain Marvel.
Fawcett, who were prevented from publishing Captain Marvel comic books, had no apparent reason to dispute Marvel Comics' Captain Marvel at the time. DC didn't either - their dispute with Fawcett wasn't over the name 'Captain Marvel', but rather the visual and story elements.
Marvel’s Captain Marvel was entirely different – an alien hero who came to Earth as a conqueror before vowing to protect his adopted homeworld. And for several years, this version of the character was the only one on shelves – until 1972, when National, now rechristened DC Comics, licensed the original Captain Marvel from Fawcett’s owners.
From there, things don’t get simpler. Because the actual title “Captain Marvel” was now under trademark by Marvel Comics, DC couldn’t simply publish their hero’s stories under his own name, so they improvised. Drawing a name from both the wizard that gave Captain Marvel his powers and the magic word he speaks to become a hero, DC began using “Shazam!” as the title of their Captain Marvel’s comic book, and even began referring to the character by that name in other media, including television and toys.
And so Marvel’s Captain Marvel (or Captains Marvel – there have been a few people in the Marvel Universe to use the name) and DC’s Captain Marvel coexisted for some time, with DC purchasing Fawcett’s heroes outright in the 90s – that is, until the changing landscape of pop culture led to a scenario where, not only are Marvel’s Captain Marvel and DC’s Shazam! both getting their own movies – they’re getting them in the same year.
Coupled with an ever-evolving media landscape that increasingly ties TV, comic books, and movies together with themes and characters, DC has all but officially eschewed the name “Captain Marvel” from their books, now referring to their hero solely as Shazam, while Carol Danvers has become the last Captain Marvel standing.
DC currently publishes a Shazam! ongoing series, while a new Captain Marvel title launches at Marvel in January 2019.
On the movie side, Captain Marvel is due out in theaters March 8. Shazam! is scheduled for release just a month later on April 5.