One of the most exciting upcoming DC movies is based around one of the very oldest comic book characters: Shazam, Earth’s Mightiest Mortal. At a glance, he might look like an off-brand Superman, but there’s more to this character than meets the eye – both in the pages of the comic and out. And he has nothing to do with the 1998 Shaquille O’Neal movie Kazam, so don’t even start.
Shazam’s Greatest Foe: Copyright Law
Shazam isn’t even Shazam’s name, technically. When Billy Batson was first blessed with powers, back in Fawcett Comics’ Whiz Comics #2 back in 1940, he was called Captain Marvel. I bet you can see where this is going, but we have one fight to get through first.
Captain Marvel was created shortly after DC Comics’ own Superman, but in those days ended up being even more popular than Supes himself. Fawcett published the comics up through 1953. During that 12-year period, DC Comics was concerned that Fawcett’s caped flying superhero was too similar to their caped flying superhero and brought suit against the company.
While the courts found that Captain Marvel was indeed infringing on Superman, the courts also found that DC had been negligent in copyrighting some Superman comic strips, and the courts said that DC had abandoned the Superman copyright. (If you ever wonder why companies are bringing lawsuits against fan creations, video game remakes, and the like – this is why.) DC and Fawcett went back and forth for years, and eventually one judge said that, Captain Marvel isn’t an infringement, but that if he’s doing things too similar (perhaps outrunning steam trains and bounding over skyscrapers with just one jump?), those feats and stories could infringe.
Sales of Captain Marvel began to fall, and Fawcett shuttered its comics division in 1953, eventually handing off the good Captain to DC. But the battle isn’t over, true believers! Because this is where Marvel gets involved.
DC decided to revive Captain Marvel under the name Shazam! – with the subtitle of “The Original Captain Marvel,” only to get a cease and desist from Marvel Comics, who owned the Marvel brand and had created a Captain Marvel of its own while Shazam was dormant. As a result, DC can’t call this character Captain Marvel in any advertising, merchandise, or promotional materials. In the pages of the book, characters can refer to him as such, but out here in our world, everything with that big yellow lightning bolt is under the Shazam moniker. These days, most fans call him Shazam.
So when you go to theaters this April, there are technically two Captain Marvel movies in the theater – if you know your comic history.
So why’s he called Shazam?
While Superman is an adult man and an alien refugee from a dead planet, Shazam is a mortal born right here on planet earth. Shazam’s secret identity is that of young boy Billy Batson. An unhappy orphan in a foster home, Billy ran away from home, only to find himself summoned by an old man, the Wizard Shazam. The wizard chose Billy for the good in his heart and bestowed upon him the power of Living Lightning. To summon the power, Billy has to invoke the names of the six immortal elders: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. Or, to shorten it a little: SHAZAM.
In the comics, Billy’s connection to that previous list of gods was severed, and the wizard replaced them with six other immortal beings from whom he could draw power. From these beings, Shazam draws powers like Superman-level strength, super speed, fire breath, immense knowledge and foresight, interdimensional travel, invulnerability, immortality, and more.
Because his powers are magical in nature, it turns out that Shazam is more than a match for Superman when he wants to be. In the classic Elseworlds mini series Kingdom Come, a mind-controlled Shazam beats the pants off Superman before Supes finally shakes Billy from his hypnotized state to finally save the day.
Shazam’s arch-enemy is Black Adam. Like Billy, the man who would become Black Adam was given powers by the Wizard. Instead of the powers bringing out his goodness, the presumed good man was corrupted by his newfound power, and the Wizard imprisoned him, only for him to be let out when the Wizard chose Billy as his successor.
The two have clashed many times over the years, but because they derive their powers from the same source, they can sense and find each other.
The man who let Black Adam out is Doctor Sivana who, in the process, injured his eye and gained the ability to see magic through it.
What to know going into the movie
To make the most of Shazam! this spring, you really don’t need to know much. The movie pulls a lot of stuff from the modern Shazam origin story. Billy is a troubled orphan who gains magical abilities. He goes for a joyride with his still-teenaged friend. We’ve seen this in the previews as Shazam does things like zapping peoples’ phones and, you know, buying beer. Dr. Sivana figures into the film, though with the movie still months away we can only guess at whether he’s the main villain.
Right now, everything points to Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam not appearing in this picture. Despite Black Adam being Shazam’s Joker or Reverse Flash, he’s getting his own movie, because the Rock is just that famous.
When the movie hits theaters in April, Zachary Levi will be playing Shazam, while Asher Angel plays young Billy Batson. Mark Strong (Kingsman: The Secret Service) plays Dr. Sivana, and Djimon Hounsou plays the Wizard.
Shazam is a superhero that is often more about fun than drama thanks to his kid side, so we can expect this movie to be lighter than most DC movie fare despite coming from horror director David Sandberg.
Shazam! Hits theaters on April 9, 2019.