With rumors of Carol Danvers being added to the Marvel cinematic universe and news of the Rock playing Black Adam in Warner’s planned Shazam film, everyone’s talking about Captain Marvel. It’s a name with a screwy history, and you could quiz a cross section of fans with “Who is Captain Marvel?” and come up with enough differing responses to make your head swim. Both Marvel and DC have had prominent characters with that name, but to find out how that happened, you have to go all the way back to a company called Fawcett.
Fawcett introduced Captain Marvel in 1940 in the pages of Whiz Comics. The character was the alter ego of young orphaned newsboy Billy Batson, who could harness the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury by uttering the magic acronym “SHAZAM.” The character was hugely successful for Fawcett -- he was the first comic book superhero to make the jump to live-action film and his books routinely outsold Superman’s throughout the 1940s.
DC Comics (then National Comics Publications) didn’t like someone muscling in on its Superman audience, and sued Fawcett for what it saw as a direct theft of elements from Superman (the strength and flight, the cape and costume, the newsroom secret identity). The legal battle ran for 10 years, long enough to see superheroes begin to wane in popularity in the early 1950s. Unable to keep up the fight financially, Fawcett settled out of court and ceased publication on all of its comic books by 1953.
Fast-foward to 1967 and Marvel head honcho Stan Lee notices that the name of “Captain Marvel” is a lapsed trademark. Lee decides it makes a heck of a lot of sense to have a Captain Marvel character at a company called Marvel and debuts the new character -- an alien Kree spy named Mar-Vell who forgoes his mission to protect humanity -- in Marvel Super-Heroes #12. Eventually, the character gets his own monthly series with the title Captain Marvel.
DC Comics, at this time, decides to resurrect Fawcett’s original Captain Marvel through a licensing deal, but because Marvel has the trademark to publish comics called Captain Marvel, DC has to use a different name for the book and chooses Shazam. We’d love to know why DC wanted this character the company sued into oblivion for being derivative, all the while knowing it could no longer use the “Captain Marvel” name on the cover, but no matter -- Fawcett’s Captain Marvel was eventually bought by DC and folded into its superhero universe.
So, DC had a comic called Shazam, starring Captain Marvel, and Marvel had a comic called Captain Marvel starring Mar-Vell. Confused yet? How about Marvel further complicating the matter by retooling its Captain Marvel character to be the alter ego of a kid (Rick Jones) who turned into a powerful superhero (Mar-Vell) in a move that writer Roy Thomas said was directly influenced by Fawcett’s Marvel?
That version of Captain Marvel was a mainstay of Marvel comics throughout the 1970s. The book led to the spin-off title Ms. Marvel, featuring Carol Danvers, an Air Force security chief caught in a lab explosion that infuses her with Kree DNA. (Remember Danvers; we’ll be coming back to her in a bit.) Writer-artist Jim Starlin, creator of Thanos and Gamora amongst others, had a successful run on Captain Marvel before killing the character off in dramatic fashion in 1982. This was preceding the days where killing superheroes was something publishers did on a near-monthly basis.
The same year of Mar-Vell’s death, writer Roger Stern gave the “Captain Marvel” name to Monica Rambeau, the captain of a freighter who gets her powers from destroying an experimental weapon she finds smuggled in on one of her ships. The Rambeau Captain Marvel becomes a prominent member of the Avengers in the 1980s and even leads the team at one point. After Rambeau meets Mar-Vell’s son Genis-Vell in one of her adventures, she drops the Captain Marvel name out of respect to the fallen Kree hero. She’s currently known in the Marvel universe as Spectrum.
Genis-Vell picks up the Captain Marvel name and carries on his father’s legacy in all-new book with the Captain Marvel title. Like his father before him, he is also bonded to perpetual Marvel sidekick Rick Jones, and they share a more contentious relationship than Jones and Mar-Vell did. The book had a dedicated following, but struggled with sales until its cancelation in 2004. Genis-Vell’s sister (and former Guardian of the Galaxy) Phyla-Vell took on the name for a bit before being killed in action by Thanos.
In the meantime, while all this passing of the Captain Marvel mantle was going on, Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, was going through some changes of her own. Former Ms. Marvel writer Chris Claremont brought the character over into the pages of his new assignment on Uncanny X-Men and had Danvers get all-new powers from alien experimentation and an all-new identity as Binary. When Claremont moved on, no other writers seemed too interested in Danver’s bizarre, red-skinned, fire-headed alien identity and quietly reverted her to back to her original self with a new superhero name, Warbird.
While Carol was Binary though, that meant that the recognizable Ms. Marvel name was up for grabs. Marvel, apparently never one to let a name go to waste, affixed it to pro wrestler Sharon Ventura, whose most high-profile gig in the Marvel universe was as a female rock-skinned counterpart to the Thing in a revamped version of the Fantastic Four. Ventura never quite caught on with fans, and was given the brush off after the original Fantastic Four regrouped.
When it came time for Warbird to get her own solo series, Marvel dusted off the Ms. Marvel name once again (it’s more recognizable than “Warbird”) and gave it back to Carol Danvers. Would it last? Of course not.
When Marvel did a company-wide revitalization by introducing new concepts under the “Marvel NOW!” creative banner in 2012, Danvers was given Captain Marvel as her new superhero name. It was a nod to the classic character, Carol’s roots as an Air Force captain, and a new approach to marketing a female-led book without putting a signifier like Ms., Girl, She or Woman in the title. The Ms. Marvel name was transferred to Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenager who looks to Danvers as inspiration in Khan’s first superhero outing. So, in the current Marvel universe we have a Captain Marvel book starring Danvers as the title character and a Ms. Marvel book starring new character Kamala Khan as the title character.
Meanwhile, DC did a housecleaning of its own and gave all of its superhero books a clean start with the New 52 rebranding in 2011. This wiping of the slate gave the company the chance to completely retool its characters and one of the biggest changes was dropping Captain Marvel, as a name, from the DCU for good and renaming the character “Shazam.” Since Marvel made it impossible to publish books with the hero’s original name on the cover, and with DC not wanting to complicate future licensing, it made sound business sense to finally put the matter to rest with a name that people already closely associated with the character. If and when this character comes to film, it will be as Shazam, in a movie of the same name.
So, if Carol Danvers shows up in a Marvel Studios production, that means she’ll be Captain Marvel, right? Not necessarily, according to Badass Digest. It reports that tentative plans for the character to appear on film refer to her as “Ms. Marvel.” Seems she can’t catch a break and hold on to a superhero name for more than a few years at a time. Maybe they should just call her movie Carol Danvers since her full name is the only one that’s stuck around.
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