When the news hit a while back that Brie Larson had been cast as Captain Marvel, it caused a little befuddlement with some folks who might not be completely up to date with the character. Specifically, the question came up, “I don’t get it – how the hell is she going to play the Shazam guy?” It’s an understandable mistake; the history of the Captain Marvel name is a long and convoluted one. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get into it.
The original Captain Marvel (and the one referred to in the question above), was published by Fawcett publications in the 1940s. This is the classic. Young Billy Batson merely says the magic word “Shazam” and is transformed into the fully grown Captain Marvel, gifted by the gods with flight, speed and incredible strength and power.
Fawcett’s Captain Marvel was immensely popular throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, often even outselling Superman. This, as you could imagine, infuriated Superman’s publishers at National Comics, who embarked upon a series of lawsuits alleging Captain Marvel to be a ripoff of the Man of Steel, and the two tangled in court for years. By early 1953, superheroes had begun to fall out of favor, and with Captain Marvel no longer the moneymaking machine it once was, Fawcett agreed to settle the lawsuits, promising to no longer publish Captain Marvel and his related titles, and even throwing some money National Comics’ way, just to get it over with.
By the mid-1960s, with the newly popular Marvel Comics taking the world by storm with Spider-Man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four, the powers that be at Marvel realized that, since Fawcett had let its copyright on the “Captain Marvel” name lapse, now was the time to capitalize, and so in the pages of Marvel Super-heroes #12 in December 1967, readers were introduced to…Captain Marvel, an all-new and entirely different character.
This new Captain Marvel was actually Mar-Vell, an alien soldier operating on Earth in disguise as an advance man for the Kree, an alien race investigating Earth to see if it’s a threat to their own interplanetary ambitions. Mar-Vell soon finds himself occasionally forced to appear in public in his alien uniform in order to protect people he’s come to know, and the press bastardizes his alien name “Mar-Vell “ as Captain Marvel.
The character had a decent run throughout the late ‘60s and ‘70s, appearing in his own title and later consistently in the AVENGERS and other titles, especially after he was given a much better costume by artist Gil Kane, and even spawned a spinoff series, MS. MARVEL, in which one of Mar-Vell’s supporting characters, Carol Danvers, was accidentally gifted with Mar-Vell’s super powers, and went on to join the Avengers. More on Carol later.
Meanwhile, the continued usage of the Captain Marvel name by Marvel meant that when DC purchased the rights to all of Fawcett’s characters in the early 1970s, they could no longer publish a comic called “Captain Marvel,” which is why every time DC tries to give the original Captain Marvel character his own book, it has to be titled SHAZAM!
Back at Marvel, writer/artist Jim Starlin capped off his lengthy run with the Mar-Vell character in 1982 with the graphic novel THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, in which Mar-Vell was struck down not in heroic battle to save the planet, but from cancer, contracted years before from exposure to a radioactive bad guy. It’s a beautiful, sad little book, one of the most human comics Marvel has ever published.
However, Marvel didn’t dare let the name go unused for fear of DC trying to get it back, so the same year a new Captain Marvel premiered in the pages of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #18. Monica Rambeau, an African-American woman who gains amazing energy powers in the line of duty working for the New Orleans Harbor Patrol, and soon joins the Avengers as the new Captain Marvel.
Monica Rambeau quickly became a mainstay of the Avengers series, remaining with the team throughout the 1980s. Unfortunately, once her creator, writer Roger Stern, left the series, she was swiftly pushed to the side, with successive writers not really knowing what to do with her. She’s still around, under a variety of different codenames, but has never regained the high profile she enjoyed in the ‘80s.
The ‘90s saw two different characters briefly take on the Captain Marvel name, Genis and Phyla, the heretofore unrevealed children of Mar-Vell. Neither made much of a splash.
After some of the worse mistreatment of any Marvel character I can think of (more on that another time), the Carol Danvers Ms. Marvel was written out of AVENGERS, then rescued by X-MEN writer Chris Claremont, who gave Carol new powers and a new name, Binary, and sent her off with the Starjammers, his team of frequently recurring space pirates. Carol Danvers returned to Earth in the late ‘90s and saw renewed popularity thanks to writer Kurt Busiek and artist George Perez, who returned her to her Ms. Marvel costume (the second one, designed by the great Dave Cockrum) and redubbed her “Warbird.” Before too long Carol Danvers was front and center in the Marvel Universe once more, taking a higher-profile spot in the Avengers than she ever had before, and even went back to the “Ms. Marvel” name.
By the 2010s, Carol Danvers’ prominence had been elevated to such a degree that she had become the premier female character in the Marvel line, and that importance was recognized with a new costume, a new ongoing series, and a codename change, with Danvers finally taking on the “Captain Marvel” name.