Shazam! stars a superhero with a publishing history more convoluted than his origin story, and strangely enough, happens to have an odd connection to the recently released Captain Marvel.
Shazam was originally conceived as “Captain Marvel,” and during the 1940s, was an incredibly popular comic book character – even more popular than Superman.
But DC Comics reckoned that Captain Marvel was a little too close to Superman, and fired a copyright infringement lawsuit at Fawcett Comics, temporarily removing the character from the comic book landscape.
Two decades later, DC cheekily purchased the rights to the character and integrated him into the DC universe, where he was referred to within the pages of his comics as “Captain Marvel” but marketed as “Shazam,” due to an ongoing trademark conflict with Marvel Comics, which had since created a separate character sharing the name “Captain Marvel”.
Marvel Comics never found much success with their Captain Marvel, but had to keep publishing books bearing the name lest they lose the trademark; as a result, Captain Marvel was constantly reconfigured, reimagined and rebooted, until the dust finally settled on Carol Danvers, the version of the superhero we recently saw on screen.
Eventually, DC decided to back down from the increasingly petty copyright war, dropping the name “Captain Marvel” entirely and officially renaming their character, “Shazam.” The full story is significantly more complicated and interesting, but that’s the gist of it.
Ironically, neither DC or Marvel managed to turn their version of the character into a hit; both exploded into public consciousness only after hitting the big screen, with Captain Marvel riding the prior success of the MCU, dropping just before the big rematch with Thanos, and Shazam! embracing the outdated elements of the source material, turning the silly story into a self-aware coming-of-age comedy.
The fact that both films were released so close to each other is an amusing coincidence, but in the spirit of continuing the ancient rivalry, let’s compare how the two films introduced their respective characters to the public.
Shazam! follows both Aquaman and Wonder Woman, being the third film from the DCEU that embraces earnestness rather than try and emulate the grit of The Dark Knight trilogy.
It’s a smart shift, seeing as several of DC’s characters were conceived in a simpler, more innocent age, and Shazam! really emphasized how amusingly antiquated the titular character is.
Shazam! also boasts a perfectly structured origin story, with Billy Batson and villain Thaddeus Sivana sharing an insecurity which both connects and separates them; the two characters face a defining moment of rejection, shaping them into hero and villain, respectively.
Billy “becomes” Shazam after being rejected by his biological mother, understanding that his new foster family is where his loyalties lie. And in an extension of this theme, Billy is unable to defeat Sivana alone; it’s only after he extends his superpowers to his family that they manage to take down the villain, together.
Sivana, on the other hand, wallows in his rejection, envious of Billy and resenting his own downtrodden place in the family dynamic. Holding on to his bitterness and envy, he punishes the world for his sense of inadequacy, dismissing family values, a perfect inversion to Billy’s character arc.
The superhero family is established, and Sivana is granted a post-credits scene that teases his return for a sequel, or two.
Marvel has been pumping out origin stories for a decade now, and there’s a formulaic element to the films that Captain Marvel admirably attempts to shake up, to mixed results.
Carol Danvers is established both as a powerhouse, and a fish out of water. Her primary antagonist is Yon-Rogg, the Kree responsible for brainwashing her into fighting against the Skrulls.
Carol crashes to Earth and establishes a great rapport with Nick Fury, but her character doesn’t really change throughout the story; her big breakthrough comes from the realization that she’s fighting on the wrong team, and once she gets the facts straight, she has zero trouble shaking off her alien … racism.
Carol “becomes” Captain Marvel after a conflict with Yon-Rogg, but Yon-Rogg never feels like a physical threat, at any point in the film. Carol is easily able to overpower him from beginning to end, and upon reaching her full potential she destroys an alien armada that randomly appears in the sky, disposing of Yon-Rogg only as an afterthought.
It’s all a bit disjointed, with little connection between Carol and her antagonist; Yon-Rogg doesn’t mirror Carol’s dark side, he’s merely some guy who manipulates her. Carol undergoes no personal growth, simply a shifting of priorities, and by the end, we’re left with little idea of who exactly Carol Danvers is.
But at least we finally know how Nick Fury lost his eye … it makes sense why he never talks about it.
The winner, from a story perspective, is surely Shazam! But we’ll have to wait and see which film accumulates more at the box office, and Captain Marvel looks likely to have already won that war.
But Carol might end up eclipsing Shazam from a story perspective, eventually; Marvel’s characters tend to need a bit of time before they develop and become truly interesting; just look at how Thor and Captain America blossomed during their sequels.
And Carol’s in the Endgame now, in the capable hands of the Russo Brothers; the old rivalry isn’t quite over yet.