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Why Are There So Many Captain Marvels?

VO: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Thomas O'Connor
Oh Captains, our Captains! Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re taking a deep into one of the stranger pieces of comic book trivia out there: why do both Marvel and DC have their own Captain Marvel. How did this come about? How is it even legally possible? Let’s find out.
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Oh Captains, our Captains! Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re taking a deep into one of the stranger pieces of comic book trivia out there: why do both Marvel and DC have their own Captain Marvel. How did this come about? How is it even legally possible? Let’s find out.

The creation of writer Bill Parker and artist C.C Beck, the first Captain Marvel debuted in the pages of Fawcett Publications’ “Whiz Comics” #2 way back in 1939, not long after Superman’s debut in “Action Comics” #1. The story began when Billy Batson, a 10-year-old orphan, was brought to the lair of Shazam, a powerful and ancient wizard. Recognizing the inherent goodness in the young boy’s heart, the wizard bestowed upon Billy the powers of ancient heroes and deities: Solomon’s wisdom, Hercules's strength, Atlas’s stamina, Zeus’s power, Achilles' courage, and Mercury’s speed. What does that spell? By speaking the wizard’s name aloud, Billy could transform into an adult with a variety of powers, including super strength, flight, invulnerability, and super speed. With the youthful optimism of a child and the power of a god, Billy fought for the forces of good as Captain Marvel. Before long, he was even joined by an entire Marvel Family, a pantheon of similarly empowered heroes… and a rabbit named Hoppy.

The character was a smash hit, outselling his greatest rival Superman throughout the Golden Age of Comics and capturing the hearts and minds of children everywhere, who fell in love with the idea of a superhero who was really a kid like them. He even got his own live-action film serial in 1941. But sadly, Captain Marvel’s time as the biggest superhero on the block eventually came to an end. Captain Marvel was owned and published by Fawcett Comics, a rival of National Comics. If you haven’t heard of National Comics it’s because they changed their name to DC Comics in 1977 - yup, THAT DC Comics. National filed a lawsuit against Fawcett Comics claiming copyright infringement, arguing that Captain Marvel was a blatant ripoff of Superman. To make a long and somewhat dull story short, Fawcett ended the twelve-year court battle when they settled with National out of court in 1953, agreeing to cease publication of Captain Marvel and all related characters immediately after the publication of “The Marvel Family” #89. The popularity of superheroes had been in decline, and it just wasn’t worth keeping the long and costly legal battle going. This resulted in Fawcett folding their comic book line altogether, a key moment in comic book history.

But then in 1972, DC set out to expand their roster of heroes now that superhero books were back and more popular than ever thanks to what’s now known as the Silver Age. After deciding that Captain Marvel and his associated characters should make a comeback, DC licensed Captain Marvel from Fawcett. But there was a problem… a big problem.

In the nearly twenty years that Captain Marvel had been off the newsstands, another company had swooped in and picked up the copyright on the name. That company? None other than Marvel Comics. Hey, the name fit after all. Marvel’s Captain Marvel was the brainchild of head honcho Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan and first appeared in 1967’s “Marvel Super-Heroes” #12. Marvel’s version of the character was Captain Mar-Vell, an alien warrior from a spacefaring race called the Kree. Initially sent to Earth as a spy, which was especially easy given that some members of the Kree race known as “Pink Kree” looked indistinguishable from Caucasian humans, Mar-Vell came to love Earth and its people. Using his Kree military uniform as a disguise to keep his assumed human identity intact, Mar-Vell even acted as a hero, being dubbed “Captain Marvel” after his name was misheard. While he spent the first few issues in traditional Kree military garb, he would be gifted his iconic costume by the Kree Supreme Intelligence in issue #16.

So when DC decided to bring the original Captain Marvel back in 1972, they hit a major roadblock in not being able to actually use his name, which put a damper on things somewhat. But DC managed to get away with using the name so long as it wasn’t used anywhere in the title. From that point on, any comics or merchandise DC put out using the character featured the name “Shazam”, even if he was referred to as “Captain Marvel” by other characters in the actual story. And they weren’t shy about letting readers know that their hero was “The ORIGINAL Captain Marvel...” that is until they were forced to change that subtitle to “The World’s Mightiest Mortal” starting with issue #15 as a result of a cease and desist from Marvel.

And with this tenuous peace in place, both characters went about their merry way. DC’s Captain Marvel was eventually folded into the mainstream DC Comics continuity following the series “Crisis on Infinite Earths” after spending some time having adventures in his own self-contained universe. Beginning with the 1987 relaunch of the Justice League, Captain Marvel was included as a member of the team. When the DC universe was rebooted yet again in 2011, he was even officially renamed “Shazam” just to cut down on the confusion.

Across the aisle at Marvel, Mar-Vell had many adventures before tragically dying of cancer in 1982. Marvel kept the name in use by having it taken-up by a succession of characters, including former New Orleans cop Monica Rambeau, and even Mar-Vell’s own children, Genis-Vell and Phyla-Vell. Eventually, the mantle was taken up by Carol Danvers, a former Air Force pilot who received her own super powers after an explosion merged her DNA with that of Mar-Vell’s. After years going by names including Ms. Marvel, Warbird and Binary, Carol finally took up the legacy of her long-deceased friend in 2012, and she’s stuck with it ever since.

While we’d like to think that the landscape of comics is shaped entirely by the creativity of writers and artists, sometimes something as boring as copyright law can shape what we see on comics shelves each week. The strange saga of the Captain Marvel name is a prime example of this, and it’s remained one of the most interesting and confusing oddities in the history of comic books, one that both publishers acknowledged when the two characters briefly crossed paths in 2004’s “JLA/Avengers” crossover event. The strange rivalry between these two rages on, as both characters will be featured in big screen adaptations in 2019 that release just one month apart from each other.
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