Shazam! Captain Marvel’s History on Screen

Prior to appearing in big screen blockbusters, Captain Marvel had a troubled history. The character first appeared in comic books in 1940, quickly becoming the most popular superhero of the day – not even Superman could sell as strongly as Captain Marvel. In the years prior, National Comics – the precursor to DC – had filed lawsuits for copyright infringement for superhero characters it deemed too similar to Superman. Characters like Wonder Man and Master Man have faded into obscurity after their publication was halted in the wake of the lawsuits. Papers were filed to Fawcett Comics demanding they cease publication of Captain Marvel comic books in 1941, but Fawcett did not concede defeat – after all, they had big plans for Captain Marvel that year.

In March of 1941, Republic Pictures released the first chapter of their 12 part serial, Adventures of Captain Marvel. The serial not only introduced cinema audiences to Billy Batson and Captain Marvel, but to screen’s first superhero. In another rivalry with Superman, the serial beat the Man of Steel to his first screen appearance by six months. Adventures of Captain Marvel not only provided a fitting introduction to Billy Batson and his secret identity, but paved the way for the swathe of superhero film serials to follow.

Cover of Shazam comic books volume 1, showing Superman, Billy Batson and Captain Marvel

Meanwhile, offscreen, Captain Marvel comic stories continued, and the court battle between National Comics and Fawcett dragged on for a decade. After an initial victory for Fawcett, National launched an appeal that found whilst Captain Marvel himself did not infringe upon copyright, certain stories and elements could be deemed as derivative of earlier Superman plots, and suggested a second trial. With superhero stories falling out of fashion with comic buyers, Fawcett settled with National out of court rather than facing a lengthy second trial, with an agreement to bring Captain Marvel’s adventures to a close. Fawcett gave Captain Marvel his final comic in 1954.

By the 1970s, National Comics had become DC, and purchased the rights to several Fawcett Comics characters. Despite the previous litigation involving the two characters, Captain Marvel returned to comic books as a part of the DC family alongside Superman. During his 20 year absence, Marvel Comics had debuted their own character called Captain Marvel, so new comics were published with the title ‘Shazam!’

Captain Marvel and Isis, from a cross over episode of The Secrets of Isis

Shortly after his comic book return, Captain Marvel returned to the screen, in the TV series Shazam! by Filmation. The series starred Michael Gray as Billy, and Captain Marvel was originally played by Jackson Bostwick and later by John Davey. The series ran for three years, and its popularity prompted Filmation to create a second superhero series, The Secrets of Isis. The two series frequently overlapped, and Isis herself went on to feature in Shazam comics, her own stories, and other DC plots. Captain Marvel appeared on television screens once more during the 1970s, in a pair of TV specials called Legends of the Superheroes, alongside Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern and various other DC characters.

Captain Marvel moved to animation in the 1980s for the first time, in Filmation’s cartoon series Shazam! The series brought some of the other members of the Marvel Family to the screen for the first time. The series was originally broadcast as a part of The Kid Super Power Hour, bundled with another series, Hero High. Captain Marvel and Isis appeared as guests in several of the Hero High segments.

Batman and Superman cartoons in the 1990s were seen as the launchpad for the DC Animated Universe, which went on to cover several TV series and films until 2019. As a member of the DC roster, Captain Marvel has made several appearances, including in episodes of Justice League Unlimited and Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

The first feature length cinematic Captain Marvel hit screens in 2019 in Shazam! Asher Angel stars as Billy with Zachary Levi as his heroic counterpart – who is never identified by name on screen. The film spawned a spin off, Black Adam, introducing Captain Marvel’s antagonist to the big screen. The sequel to each, Fury of the Gods, is in cinemas now.

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