The Litigious History of DC and Marvel’s Rival Captain Marvel Characters

Carol Danvers is just one of many heroes to hold the Captain Marvel mantle for Marvel
Carol Danvers is just one of many heroes to hold the Captain Marvel mantle for Marvel
Marvel Entertainment

Behind-the-scenes struggles and legal wrangling have played just as big of a part in the history of comic books as the colorful battles on the pages themselves. And one of the most complex and long-lasting disputes in the industry has focused on Captain Marvel—or at least the two distinct versions of the character that have coexisted in a state of confusion at both Marvel and DC for decades.

Like many comic book tangles, this dispute was made possible because of the debut of Superman. Soon after his first appearance in 1938's Action Comics #1, there was a deluge of knockoffs from publishers looking for a piece of the Man of Steel pie. Though most of these were fly-by-night analogues, Fawcett Comics’s attempt at its own superhero wasn’t an inferior model—it quickly became real competition.

ENTER: THE BIG RED CHEESE

Fawcett’s Captain Marvel was created in late 1939 by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck and debuted in Whiz Comics #2. On his first cover, Captain Marvel is shown carelessly throwing a car against a brick wall, as two criminals bolt out of the windows. In Action Comics #1, Superman made his debut by hoisting a similar car over his head and driving it into the Earth, as the criminals inside fled.

The similarities were unmistakable: Here were two caped strongmen with heroic squints and circus tights leaping around cities and battling mad (and bald) scientists. But while Clark Kent got his powers from his Kryptonian physiology, Captain Marvel was, in reality, a young boy named Billy Batson who would receive his powers by shouting the magic word “SHAZAM!” If Superman was the straitlaced Boy Scout, Captain Marvel earned his moniker of "The Big Red Cheese" through sheer camp, a wink, and a nod.

Seniority mattered little to young comic book readers, and once Captain Marvel found his footing, he was outselling Superman at the newsstand and beating him to the screen by receiving his own live-action film serial in 1941. But as Captain Marvel reached larger audiences, DC was in the midst of legal action against Fawcett for copyright infringement. The claim was simple: Captain Marvel was a bit too close to Superman for DC's comfort.

DC wanted Fawcett to cease production of the serial and comics by the early 1940s, but Fawcett fought to delay a court battle for years. It wasn’t until 1948 that the case actually went to trial, with the dust finally settling in DC's favor in 1954. Legally, Fawcett would never be allowed to print another Captain Marvel book. By now, though, the superhero market was near extinction, so for Fawcett, it wasn’t even worth it to appeal again. Instead, the publisher closed shop, leaving Superman to soar the skies of Metropolis without any square-jawed competition on the newsstands.

MARVEL CLAIMS ITS NAME

The next decade would see a superhero revitalization, beginning with DC’s revamped takes on The Flash and Green Lantern in the late 1950s, and exploding just a few years later when Timely Comics changed its name to Marvel Comics and launched a roster of heavy-hitters like The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and The Hulk, all by 1962.

Marvel was a buzzword again, and in 1966, a short-lived company called M.F. Enterprises tried to capitalize with a new character named Captain Marvel—generally considered one of the worst superheroes ever put to paper.

Marvel now needed to stop inferior comics from using its name on their covers, so it obtained the trademark for the Captain Marvel name and went about protecting it by introducing yet another character named Captain Marvel. This new alien version of the hero made his debut shortly after in 1967's Marvel Super-Heroes #12.

The character was born purely for legal reasons. According to comic book veteran Roy Thomas, Stan Lee only created a Captain Marvel at publisher Martin Goodman's insistence: "All I know is the basis of the character came from a resentment over the use of the ‘Captain Marvel’ name."

Comics are nothing if not needlessly confusing at times, and by the early 1970s, Superman wasn’t quite the sales force he used to be. In need of some fresh blood, DC turned to an unlikely source for help: Fawcett. The company had reemerged in the late 1960s as the publisher of Dennis the Menace comics, but its hands were tied when the superhero business revived since it was legally forbidden from producing new Captain Marvel books. So they did the next best thing by agreeing to license the character and his supporting cast to DC in 1973.

CAPTAINS IN DISPUTE

Now the world’s two biggest publishers both had high-profile characters named Captain Marvel. But there was a catch: Since Marvel owned the rights to the name, DC couldn’t call its new Captain Marvel comic Captain Marvel. Instead, all of his comics went by the title Shazam, as did the character’s live-action TV revival in the mid-1970s. Oddly enough, the name of the character himself was still—wait for it—Captain Marvel. So DC could retain the character’s name in the stories but couldn’t slap it onto book covers or TV shows. Only Marvel could monetize the name Captain Marvel.

Right after Captain Marvel’s first DC book launched in 1973, there was an immediate hiccup. The full title of the series was the slightly antagonistic Shazam: The Original Captain Marvel. That lasted all of 14 issues before a cease and desist order from Marvel turned the series into Shazam: The World’s Mightiest Mortal. Marvel, on the other hand, found itself in the position to keep its trademark by continuously pumping out more books with Captain Marvel on the cover, which is why the company’s history is littered with reboots and new versions of the character turning up every two years or so.

By the 1990s, DC had outright purchased its Captain Marvel from Fawcett, but it could barely promote him. There are only so many times you can put Shazam on a comic cover but refer to him as Captain Marvel on the inside without confusing your readers. So in 2012, DC and writer Geoff Johns decided to end the decades of confusion and simply rename the character Shazam, because, as John said, “everybody thinks he's called Shazam already.”

In 2019, these two characters that are seemingly forever linked will have another shared milestone when they both make their big screen debuts. Marvel’s Captain Marvel will hit theaters on March 8, 2019, with Brie Larson playing the Carol Danvers version of the character. And after nearly 80 years of switching publishers, changing names, and lengthy legal battles, Zachary Levi will play the title role in Shazam! a month later on April 5.

Fans Think the Spider-Man: Far From Home Trailer Hints at Iron Man's Death

© 2018 - Marvel Studios
© 2018 - Marvel Studios

Marvel fans are seriously concerned for Iron Man. While Tony Stark is one of the few Avengers we know survived Thanos's snap at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, the new trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home seems to imply that the sarcasm-prone superhero might not make it out of Avengers: Endgame alive.

The detail in question comes from the first Far From Home movie trailer, which features Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) carrying a large check from the Stark Relief Foundation.

The panic regarding Stark’s fate is over the signature on the check—which belongs to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), the co-founder of the foundation. Fans became concerned when they saw that Stark hadn’t signed the check, with many jumping to the conclusion that Stark wasn’t able to sign the check himself because he had died at some point during the events of Avengers: Endgame. While it’s not confirmed whether Far From Home happens after Infinity War or Endgame, fans aren't willing to take any chances.

A few in-the-know viewers pointed out that a relief foundation is not the same as a memorial foundation, and that the organization was most likely set up for Stark industries, not for a deceased Tony Stark. As Potts was named the CEO of Stark Industries in Iron Man 2, it would make sense that she is the one signing the checks. These are valid points, but anxious MCU fans won't rest easy until they know that Stark is alive and well.

While Spider-Man: Far From Home doesn't arrive in theaters until July 5, 2019, Marvel fans will get the answers to at least some of their key questions when Avengers: Endgame hits theaters on April 26, 2019.

10 Fierce Facts About Jon Bernthal

Chuck Zlotnick, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Chuck Zlotnick, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Though the Marvel vigilante known as the Punisher has been portrayed by several actors including Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane, it’s Jon Bernthal who has left the biggest impression. The onetime The Walking Dead star has won over critics and audiences with his soulful performance as Frank Castle, a war veteran who grapples with his post-traumatic stress disorder by obliterating criminals.

For season 2 of The Punisher, an original Netflix series premiering on January 18, Castle is up against a fundamentalist group that embraces their right to bear arms; lurking in the margins is Jigsaw (Ben Barnes), a fellow soldier with a vendetta against Castle.

If the show has you curious for more information on the man behind the skull insignia, check out our round-up of facts about the Washington, D.C.-born actor, who has a reason for having such a pugnacious nose: He has broken it 14 times .

1. He nearly wound up in prison himself.

Jon Bernthal, whose father was a corporate lawyer (and now chair of the board of directors for the Humane Society), enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Washington, D.C. where he attended Sidwell Friends, the same private school that counts Chelsea Clinton and Sasha and Malia Obama among its alumni. But according to Bernthal, his preppy exterior masked a violent streak.

As a kid, Bernthal got into fights, sometimes with weapons. Much later, when he was in his 30s, a run-in with someone who was harassing Bernthal while the actor was out walking his dog led to a fight that nearly landed him in prison. In a 2017 interview with Esquire, Bernthal said he hit the man, who was following him home, and was brought in for questioning when the man hit his head on the pavement and was slow to regain consciousness.

“If that guy doesn’t wake up,” the cops told him, “you’re going away for life.”

Fortunately, the man recovered. Bernthal has limited the off-screen violence ever since.

2. He studied acting in Russia.

Bernthal became interested in acting in high school and was later accepted into Harvard's master’s in dramatic arts program. Before that, he was encouraged by his acting teacher, Alma Becker, to try out for the Moscow Art Theatre School. Bernthal went to Russia and was accepted into the school’s program.

"I absolutely fell in love with Russian culture, Russian people,” he later said. "I felt as an actor, there’s a real respect for the arts there that I don’t necessarily think too many of my peers at the time in America had.” As a result, Bernthal can speak fluent Russian. He also sports a tattoo of Becker’s name on his right wrist.

3. He almost punched out Oliver Stone.

Jon Bernthal in The Punisher
Cara Howe, Netflix

Years of scraping by as an actor were followed by a few breaks for Bernthal, including a part in director Oliver Stone’s 2006 feature World Trade Center. The famously temperamental Stone allegedly told Bernthal that his takes were subpar and that he was “vain.” Bernthal, who had not yet sworn off fistfights, replied that, "You might be Oliver Stone, but I will beat your f***ing a** right here on this set. In front of everybody here, I will beat your a**."

Stone wandered off. Nicolas Cage, who was starring in the film, was struck by the fact that Bernthal would stand up to the mercurial director. “Wow, man,” Cage told him. “There was adversity and you threw more adversity at it.” Bernthal said he and Stone later patched things up and the two became friendly.

4. He was once replaced by Andy Samberg.

With his feature film career still developing, Bernthal was excited to get a role in 2009’s I Love You, Man, starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel. Bernthal played Rudd’s brother, but the familial attitude did not extend to the set. Bernthal said he was largely ignored by the cast (no, he had not threatened to beat anyone up on this set). He began to sense he might not be around much longer. After one day of rehearsal, he was fired and replaced by Andy Samberg. Fortunately, The Walking Dead came along not long after. Bernthal played Shane, one of the survivors of a zombie-infested wasteland, for two seasons.

5. His dog enjoyed peeing on Ben Stiller’s trailer.

Following parts in little-seen films like 2002’s Mary/Mary and 2004’s Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding, Bernthal got a glimpse of a major Hollywood production with 2009’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Bernthal played Al Capone opposite Ben Stiller’s hapless night watchman. In 2017, Bernthal told The A.V. Club that his dog, Boss, had a habit of urinating all over the side of Stiller’s trailer on the set. “I always would try to get him to not do it, but he did it anyway,” the actor said.

6. He starred in a sitcom.

Bernthal’s brooding persona is not seemingly one that would lend itself to a sitcom, but he nonetheless wound up doing one. For The Class, a 2006-2007 CBS series, Bernthal appeared in an ensemble comedy about a group of classmates who rekindle their friendship 20 years after meeting in the third grade. (His co-stars included Lizzy Caplan and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.) It lasted just one season.

“I remember we took a private jet to Vegas and [director] Jimmy Burrows sat us down and said, ‘Look, I’m going to tell you guys the same thing I told the cast of Friends,’” he recalled in 2017. “'This is the last time you will ever go to a casino where you won’t get mobbed by fans. And he was right about Friends, but he was simply not right about us.”

7. He’s related to pro wrestler Kurt Angle.

Jon Bernthal in The Walking Dead
Gene Page, AMC

To Bernthal, Olympic gold medalist wrestler and WWE performer Kurt Angle is “Uncle Kurt.” Bernthal married Angle’s niece, Erin Angle, in 2010, making Bernthal Kurt’s nephew-in-law. Bernthal attended at least one WWE event to see Angle in the ring in 2017.

8. Tom Holland helped him land The Punisher.

Bernthal and actor Tom Holland were both appearing in the 2017 film Pilgrimage, a medieval action drama about clergymen transporting an ancient relic through Rome, when the two were both up for Marvel live-action roles as the Punisher and Spider-Man, respectively. Bernthal helped Holland by reading lines off-camera for an audition type; Holland acted onscreen in a similar video for Punisher producers.

9. He’s not that enamored with Marvel.

While many actors are dedicated fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Bernthal is not among them. “I got respect for those people,” he told Esquire. “But I don’t feel that way. I just don’t. It’s nothing against what they’re doing. That’s not what I watch.”

Still, landing The Punisher created a sense of responsibility for Bernthal—not only for comic fans, but for members of the military who often adorn their weaponry or gear with the character’s skull iconography. “He means a lot to people, not only the comic book fans, who this character really belongs to, but to members of law enforcement and the military,” Bernthal told Variety in 2017. “He means something to guys who’ve gone to fight and have died for this country with that Punisher skull on their body armor.”

10. He’s joining The Sopranos.

'Punisher' season 2 star Jon Bernthal is photographed during a public appearance
Dia Dipasupil, Getty Images

The same week season 2 of The Punisher debuted, it was announced that Bernthal would be appearing in The Many Saints of Newark, The Sopranos feature film prequel co-written and produced by David Chase. The movie will feature several of the series' characters as they navigate the ethnic tension and riots of 1960s Newark. Bernthal’s specific role has yet to be disclosed.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER