A Child with Godlike Powers–What Could Go Wrong?
Billy Batson: [running from a supervillain] “Could use a little help here, Shazam!”
[lightning strikes Billy, turning him into Shazam]
Shazam: [sees he’s transformed] “Holy moly, I’m big!” – Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam
A supervillain rampages through a city. He smashes into a zoo where schoolchildren are on a field trip. The teacher tells the kids to run and attacks the villain to distract him. The villain knocks the teacher back and prepares to crush him.
“Leave him alone!” a young boy yells at the villain. He advances on the child, lifts him by the shirt, and asks if he has any last words. “Just one” says the boy, “Shazam!” Lightning strikes the pair, knocking the villain back. A red blur flies after the villain and knocks him out with one punch. The blur slows to reveal Earth’s Mightiest Mortal: Shazam.
Shazam is one of the oldest superheroes. He starred in the first superhero movie, regularly outsold Superman, and has caused DC Comics no end of legal issues. So who is he? How’d he get his powers? Why do some people insist on calling him Captain Marvel? Let’s find out.
The Wizard’s Champion: Shazam’s Backstory
Wizard: “Say my name so that my powers may flow through you.”
Billy: “But I don’t know your name, sir.”
Billy: “Are you for real?”
Wizard: “SAY IT!”
Billy: “OK! Shazam? [transforms]” – Shazam! (2019)
Shazam can mean several things, so this is how we’ll tackle the definitions. The hero Shazam will be called by his original name, Captain Marvel. The Wizard Shazam will just be called The Wizard. And the word Shazam… let’s just say Shazam for that one.
Captain Marvel debuted in Whiz Comics #2 in 1940. Writer Bill Parker had created a superhero term powered by mythological figures. Fawcett Comics liked the idea better as one hero and recruited artist C.C. Beck to work with Parker.
Billy Batson was an orphan working as a radio announcer. While riding the subway one day, he was transported to a strange cave. There he met The Wizard, an ancient hero who wanted to pass on his powers to a new champion. The Wizard had decided that Billy was pure-hearted and could handle the burden without being corrupted. He gave Billy the ability to call on mythological figures and gods for power by saying the word Shazam and becoming Captain Marvel.
Captain Marvel soon learned how to transfer his powers and created a small army of Marvels, including his long-lost sister Mary, who was also empowered by Shazam. Billy’s best friend became Captain Marvel Jr., his uncle Dudley became Uncle Marvel, and even a bunny named Hopsy was given the powers of the gods. There was also a talking tiger named Tawky Tawny that served as a liason to The Wizard.
Captain Marvel’s stories are weird.
But they were popular. A young singer named Elvis Presley reportedly had his hair and some costumes influenced by Captain Marvel Junior.
Worlds Collide: Shazam’s History
Batman: “You were a little hard on the Boy Scout, don’t you think?”
Superman: “I thought I was the Boy Scout?”
Batman: “I did too, ’til I met Captain Marvel.” – Justice League, “Clash” (Season 4, Episode 7)
Captain Marvel was a massive hit, but ran into trouble when DC Comics sued publisher Fawcett Comics. DC alleged that Captain Marvel was a ripoff of Superman. Fawcett ultimately lost a lengthy trial, shut down their comics division, and sold Captain Marvel to DC. Karmically, Marvel Comics began selling their own Captain Marvel in the middle of the fracas, leading DC to publish Captain Marvel comics under the title Shazam.
Captain Marvel was transplanted into the DC universe, where he was often used in place of Superman. A team needs a Superman-esque member? Toss in Captain Marvel and call it a day. Captain Marvel also often fights Superman for various reasons and is roughly equal in terms of power.
Captain Marvel most recently appeared in the series Trinity War, where an attempt to bury a deceased foe’s ashes led to the opening of Pandora’s Box. The box opened a portal to another universe, unleashing an evil version of the Justice League called the Crime Syndicate of America (CSA). Captain Marvel helped stop the doppelgangers and was inducted into the Justice League.
Earth’s Mightiest Mortal: Shazam’s Powers and Personality
Black Adam: [holding a hostage] “You want to be a protector? Then protect this soul. Revert to your mortal form and I will prove a benevolent deity.”
Captain Marvel: “And then you’ll just kill me.”
Black Adam: “I will.”
Captain Marvel: “…Shazam.” – Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam
Captain Marvel’s powers come from various mythological figures, whose first initials were rearranged to spell Shazam. That ain’t egotistical at all, Wizard.
The Wisdom of Solomon gives Captain Marvel the Biblical king’s wisdom and counsel. He also gains knowledge from several fields of study, the ability to quickly process information, and hypnotic abilities. Very useful, just keep him away from babies.
The Strength of Hercules gives Captain Marvel incalculable strength. He’s traded blows with Superman, moved planets, and once worked with Superman to lift the Book of Infinite Pages. I repeat, Captain Marvel has lifted infinity! Don’t arm wrestle this guy.
The Stamina of Atlas gives Captain Marvel titanic endurance. He’s nearly invulnerable, never tires, and doesn’t need food, water, or air. Captain Marvel can be defeated by sufficiently powerful foes, but it is much easier to trick him into saying Shazam and transforming back to human form.
The Power of Zeus strengthens Captain Marvel’s other powers and gives him the power to conjure lightning. Captain Marvel often uses this power by saying Shazam and dodging the lightning bolt, causing the magic lightning to hit his foes. This backfires if he can’t dodge in time.
The Courage of Achilles keeps Captain Marvel from panicking during fights and prevents psychic attacks from hurting him. This power might sound lame, but when you consider that Captain Marvel is a child who constantly fights supervillains, monsters, and evil gods, you can see how it comes in handy.
The Speed of Mercury gives Captain Marvel super speed and flight. He’s gone faster than light many times and once caught an out-of-control Flash, which Superman claimed he wasn’t able to do.
The Actors who Play Shazam
Captain Marvel made his television debut in 1974’s Shazam! with Billy Batson played by Michael Gray and Jackson Bostwick as Captain Marvel. The Saturday morning series made numerous changes, most notably having Captain Marvel’s powers granted by the “Immortal Elders” and The Wizard being replaced by Mentor played by Les Tremayne.
The series ran three years before being cancelled. Bostwick reprised his role alongside Adam West’s Batman and Burt Ward’s Robin in the 1979 special Legends of The Superheroes.
Captain Marvel next appeared in The Kid Super Power Hour With Shazam. Burt Middleton voiced the character. Captain Marvel appeared in Justice League: Unlimited voiced by Jerry O’Connell. Rob Lowe originally voiced Captain Marvel in Young Justice, but was replaced by his brother Chad. Finally, Captain Marvel was a recurring character in Batman: The Brave and the Bold, with Tara Strong voicing Billy Batson and Jeff Bennett as Captain Marvel.
On the silver screen, Republic Pictures released The Adventures of Captain Marvel in 1941, starring Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel and Frank Coghlan, Jr. as Billy Batson. This 12 part serial was the first superhero movie ever made. Without Captain Marvel, there would be no billion dollar superhero franchises. There would be no Marvel Cinematic Universe. Every superhero movie ever made owes an unpayable debt to Captain Marvel.
Captain Marvel returns to cinema in 2019’s Shazam! Asher Angel plays Billy Batson while Thor veteran Zachary Levi plays Captain Marvel.
Didya get all that?
Superman, but magic instead of alien.
Jared Bounacos has written for Movie Rewind since 2017.