Fawcett’s Captain Marvel first leapt off the printed page and into theatres in 1941, with the 12-chapter Republic serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel, starring Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel and Frank Coghlan Jr. as Billy Batson. It’s pretty faithful to the basics of the Captain Marvel mythos, even starting off with Billy’s visit to the old wizard and learning the magic word. The Adventures of Captain Marvel is one of the stronger Republic serials, well shot and full of action.
Although it must be admitted, Republic’s version of the Big Red Cheese is much less whimsical and a little, shall we say, overzealous…
The next time people saw a live-action version of Captain Marvel wouldn’t be until 1974, with the Saturday-morning premiere on CBS of SHAZAM!
Morals-heavy and decidedly low on action, SHAZAM! followed Billy Batson and his Mentor as they roamed the nation in a Winnebago, looking to “right wrongs and create understanding,” with Billy occasionally getting advice and counsel from the pantheon of gods who provide the source of his powers. But it’s not like they fight Black Adam or Dr. Sivana here, instead they mostly tackle the dangers of hitchhiking, shoplifting or at most car theft (which at its most seventies-sounding, they refer to as “joyriding”). Still, Jackson Bostwick made for a likeable Captain Marvel (much more so than his second-season replacement John Davey), and when I was a kid, I lived for the five or six minutes each episode we’d actually get to see him flying around.
Captain Marvel returned to television in 1979, in the legendarily awful Hanna-Barbera prime-time live-action comedy specials Legends of the Superheroes. I’ve written about these a lot over the years, and they should be seen just to be experienced, but I certainly can’t say they’re enjoyable, and Captain Marvel as played by Garrett Craig doesn’t make much of an impact – although the first live-action appearance of Dr. Sivana, as played by Howard Morris, is kind of the only good thing in the endeavor.
The next time we saw the Marvel Family on TV, it would be the most faithful translation yet, with the animated Shazam! series appearing as part of The Kid Super Power Hour with Shazam!, a Saturday-morning Filmation offering airing on NBC during the 1981-1982 season. This series dug deep into the Shazam mythos, featuring the entire Marvel Family for the first time anywhere outside of the comics, with Junior, Mary Marvel and Uncle Marvel appearing in every episode, as well as favorite characters like Mr. Tawny the talking tiger, and nearly all of Captain Marvel’s rogues’ gallery, everyone from the Sivana Family to Mr. Mind to Black Adam to Mr. Atom.
These are a little dopey, to be honest, like most ‘70s and ‘80s Saturday-morning fare, but they’re fun and well designed, certainly worth going down a YouTube rabbit hole for a couple of hours. Also, fun fact: This series offers some of the earliest animation script work of Batman: The Animated Series co-creator Paul Dini.
Almost 25 years would pass before Captain Marvel’s next televised appearance, in a single episode of the outstanding Cartoon Network series Justice League Unlimited, “Clash,” written by Dwayne McDuffie and J.M. DeMatteis. Here we see Captain Marvel and Superman manipulated into duking it out by the machinations of Lex Luthor.
Even better for Luthor, it prompts Captain Marvel to quit the League, with Cap giving them a piece of his mind on the way out.
Great work here by all involved.
The 2008 Cartoon Network series Batman: The Brave and the Bold had several great Shazam! appearances, the best of which came in 2011 with the episode “The Malicious Mr. Mind,” which introduced the Monster Society of Evil to animation for the first time. Brave and the Bold really leaned into the whimsy and wackiness of the original Fawcett comics when they would use the Shazam characters, and it always came out great.
A more serious approach to Captain Marvel was taken in the 2010 Cartoon Network series Young Justice, in which Captain Marvel was a recurring character, with a running subplot culminating in the Justice League’s discovery that he was really 10-year-old Billy Batson, which leads them to debate whether they can continue to allow him to serve in the League.
Hopefully we’ll see a return of Captain Marvel when new episodes of Young Justice begin airing later this year.
And what’s next? Well, there’s this:
Shazam! Good times for Captain Marvel fans.
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