Created the year after Superman by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker, Captain Marvel is the alter ego of newspaper boy Billy Batson, who gains the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury when he says “Shazam!”
He was created when Fawcett Comics’ circulation director Roscoe Kent Fawcett said, “Give me a Superman, only have his other identity be a 10- or 12-year-old boy rather than a man.”
During the 40s, his comic book — Captain Marvel Adventures — claimed the “Largest Circulation of Any Comic Magazine” and was selling fourteen million copies a year.
This certainly didn’t make National Periodical Publications — the home of Superman — happy.
Republic made this serial was because Paramount Pictures successfully tied up rights to Superman and only made cartoons, not live action movies. Republic kept trying to get those rights and kept getting turned down. They took the script they had written for their Superman serial and changed it to The Mysterious Dr. Satan.
Then, they started talking to Fawcett and this became the first licensed live action comic book adaption.
National attempted legal action to prevent Republic from even making this serial, citing Republic’s failure at gaining the right for Superman. This would come back to haunt Fawcett, as litigation continued for seven years with National Comics Publications, Inc. v. Fawcett Publications, Inc. heading to trial in 1948.
While the presiding judge decided that Captain Marvel was an infringement, DC hadn’t copyrighted several of their Superman daily newspaper strips and basically had abandoned their Superman copyright. You can only imagine of Siegel and Schuster, who created Superman, felt after selling the rights to their character for $130. That said, the first court case went in Fawcett’s win column.
National appealed and secured the Superman copyright. In 1952, Judge Learned Hand did not find that the character of Captain Marvel itself was an infringement, but rather that specific stories or super feats could be infringements. Yet instead of a retrial, an exhausted Fawcett chose to settle, permanently canceling all of the Captain Marvel-related comics and paying National $400,000 in damages.
Fawcett creators Otto Binder and Kurt Schaffenberger ended up at DC, working on Superman. Hoppy the Marvel Bunny was sold to Charlton, British reprints became Marvelman instead of Captain Marvel for another decade. In 1972, DC Comics began licensing all of the Captain Marvel characters, except that Marvel was now around — which is why Marvelman became Miracleman but that’s another long story — which meant that now, Captain Marvel was Shazam. C.C. Beck did the first ten issues before quitting, saying “As an illustrator, I could, in the old days, make a good story better by bringing it to life with drawings. But I couldn’t bring the new stories to life no matter how hard I tried.”
For years, Shazam and his family lived on Earth-S, until the Crisis on Infinite Earths made all DC Comics take place on one Earth, which lasted for a few years until we came right back to a multiverse. By 1991, DC owned the characters outright and while they may have struggled to fit into their larger universe, the character has remained popular enough to get his own TV series in the 70s — this writer had a homemade costume as a child that he wore as soon as he got home from school — and the 2019 movie, which was released the very same year that Marvel had a Captain Marvel movie.
The serial changes up the origin somewhat. During an archaeological expedition to find the lost secret of the Scorpion Kingdom in the Valley of the Tombs, the Golden Scorpion is found inside a crypt. Only one person hasn’t entered the crypt, respecting the warning: Billy Batson, who is given the powers of Shazam by the ancient wizard with that very same name.
When the archaeologists come back to America, the villain known as the Scorpion starts killing them and stealing parts of the Golden Scorpion. Now, Captain Marvel must protect the surviving scientists and stop the villain from using the treasure for evil.
Directed by William Whitney — Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan: “Easily the most violent movies ever made for children were made by Witney (I say that as a badge of honor; get ‘em while they’re young). That would include many of his serials: Drums Of Fu Manchu, Spy Smasher, Dick Tracy Returns. And especially The Adventures of Captain Marvel, which easily contains in Tom Tyler’s Captain Marvel, the most homicidal berserker superhero of cinema. (Most of the gags and set pieces that Spielberg restages for Raiders of the Lost Ark are taken from Witney’s chapter plays)” — and John English, this is a fun serial, often looked at as one of the better examples of these short adventures. As for the effects, well, they used a weighted cape and a dummy to make it look like flight. People were amazed in 1941, though.
You can watch this on Tubi.