Thanks to the vagaries of comic book movies and their release schedules, we’ll see a Marvel movie in early March, Captain Marvel, which will go back to the ’90s and explain how Brie Larson’s superheroine will take leadership of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and then a month later, we’ll see Shazam!, DC’s comedic take on a foster kid who can become a superhero by saying a magic word. And this is likely to revive a very old beef, because one owns the copyright of “Captain Marvel” and the other owns the trademark. No, really.
To understand this, you have to know Shazam was actually the first superhero to be called “Captain Marvel.” In the 1940s, Captain Marvel was one of the most popular comic books in the nation, selling millions of copies, moving vast swaths of merchandise, and generally really ticking off DC, who thought Captain Marvel was a knock-off of Superman. In 1951, they won a lengthy legal battle and Fawcett, the publisher of Shazam’s adventures, had to stop publishing Captain Marvel, and ultimately shut down in 1953.
Fast forward to 1967, when Marvel realizes that while Fawcett still had the copyright to their characters, its trademarks had lapsed. As long as their Captain Marvel wasn’t a muscle-bound guy in a big red suit with a lightning bolt on his chest, Marvel could create their own version and do with it as they pleased. As one of the creators, Roy Thomas, reminisced to Newsarama, just why it came together depends on who you ask:
I have definite-but-unproveable memories of Stan telling me, at that time, that he didn’t want to do a Captain Marvel character, but Martin Goodman [Marvel’s publisher] wanted him to use that name so no one could use that character outside of Marvel Comics. At any rate, rather it was Goodman’s insistence or Stan’s idea, the character came about.
This became a problem in 1972, when DC licensed Fawcett’s superheroes, thus taking over the copyright. This creates a situation where Marvel has to keep publishing Captain Marvel comics, or DC might swipe the trademark. This also means that on the cover of Shazam comics, he has to be called Shazam, but inside them, he can be called “Captain Marvel.” If all this sounds very confusing, it is and has been for decades.
And DC, at the very least, is going to revive this forty-year-old beef next spring. When asked about it, Zachary Levi admits that this weird bit of comics history is going to come up, likely in the form of giving their distinguished competition a little jab. But at least both sides can agree they’re luckier than poor Marvelman.