The First Superhero Movie, and the Confusing Captain Marvel

If you’re like me, and you can’t possibly be, many’s the time you’ve wondered how and why both D.C. and Marvel Comics have a character named Captain Marvel. It’s a weird situation, kind of like “Coke vs. Pepsi”, but if both companies were named “Coke”.

The answer (why keep you in suspense?) is that Captain Marvel originated with neither publishing company. The origin of Captain Marvel dates to Whiz Comics #2, a Fawcett Publication, in an issue dated February, 1940. It was the most popular comic book superhero character throughout the ’40s, leading D.C. to sue for copyright infringement, asserting that it was a rip-off of Superman. Isn’t everything, though? Anyway, Fawcett ceased publishing the comic in 1953 rather than continue fighting it. Meanwhile in 1961, the company formerly known as Timely Comics re-branded as Marvel, a name it had occasionally used in the past. The name “Captain Marvel” made all kinds of sense for them to use as a character, so they invented a new one from scratch, which began appearing in print in 1967. This is a different character from the original one in all but name. Marvel’s take was sort of a cosmic space voyager, like the Silver Surfer or Dr. Strange. THEN in 1972, D.C., probably alarmed that Marvel was making hay out of a property they still felt belonged to them, got the rights from Fawcett to revive the original character, which it published under the title Shazam! (the magic word the character utters) to avoid conflict with Marvel Comics.

This addresses another vague question that had always nagged me about this character back in my youth: why this redundant superhero? I mean Superman pretty much renders all other superheroes redundant, but at least the other ones specialize: The Flash is fast; Aquaman swims; Wonder Woman has a special lasso that compels people to tell the truth and flies around in an invisible airplane. But Captain Marvel, like Superman, has ALL the powers. It made more sense when never the twain did meet. As to other similarities: besides the fact that they look alike, and wear similar costumes, there are actually many differences between the characters. Captain Marvel’s alter ego Billy Batson is a boy, more like Jimmy Olsen than Clark Kent (pointing the way to Spiderman’s Peter Parker, who seems to merge the two). And unlike almost any other superhero I can think of, he transforms, like The Wolfman, into an entirely different being. He doesn’t just change his clothes (again, like Clark Kent), he undergoes a complete metamorphosis. The process through which does so is magic, not like unlike the sort found in then contemporary stuff like Chandu, Mandrake, or The Mummy. He utters a magic word: Shazam!, which stands for the six immortals who give him his powers: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.

On March 28, 1941 Republic launched its 12 part serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel starring Tom Tyler as the hero. And this is what we are declaring to be the first REAL superhero movie. Some cite films about Zorro, but I’m inclined to place Zorro in a category of characters that influenced the superhero genre, without being a true one. Obviously Batman is based on Zorro, but I still think there’s a difference. Though Batman is depicted as having no superhero powers per se, the things the character actually does are still far in advance of those which real life human beings could ever accomplish (e.g., swinging between skyscrapers on a rope). This might be true as well of Zorro, but to a much lesser extent, one at which we might as well call ALL movie heroes superheroes (they basically are, if it comes to that). Similarly, though Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers had also preceded the Captain Marvel serial, one is inclined to regard those series more as sci fi/fantasy. As for the first Superman, Batman and Captain America movies of the ’40s, they were all made after The Adventures of Captain Marvel.

There was a very short-lived Captain Marvel radio show in 1943. Burt Boyar, who also briefly played Archie Andrews on the Archie show, was Billy Batson.

Those around my age likely as not discovered the character by way of the Saturday morning children’s show Shazam! (1974-77), shortly after DC’s revival of the original character. In this version Michael Gray played Billy Batson as a hippie kid who drives around America in an RV, under the guidance of one Mentor (Les Tremayne). The Captain himself was played by Jason Bostwick, who is inexplicably not related to Barry. Everyone’s favorite memory of this show and The Secrets of Isis, which it was paired with, is the cheesy green screen flying effect, which was laughable even to children.

In 2019 there was a feature length Shazam! film, which I never heard of before this morning which nonetheless did so well, that a sequel is slated for a 2023 release.

Meanwhile, back at Marvel, in 1982, Captain Marvel was reimagined as a female character. It is this version that made it to their big screen Captain Marvel in 2019 starring Brie Larson. This one did three times the box office of Shazam! and may be why I hadn’t heard of the latter — eclipsed!