This is going to be kind of a weird one. The upcoming SHAZAM movie looks like a lot of fun, and I’ll no doubt be there on opening weekend to watch it. But it does complete the character’s transformation from his original conception as Captain Marvel into something else. Based on everything we’ve seen so far in trailers and advance promotion, SHAZAM is built around the current notion of the character, one that really has its roots in Alan Moore’s MARVELMAN stories. The premise of SHAZAM is simple: it’s Tom Hanks’ BIG with super-powers. And that’s not really Captain Marvel at all.
The idea that Captain Marvel/SHAZAM is just Billy Batson in an adult body is really a relatively recent construction, a way of finding an additional wrinkle built into the character that would help to differentiate him from Superman, with whom he now shares a fictional universe. But this wasn’t the case with the original Fawcett Captain Marvel. While they share an existence, Billy Batson and Captain Marvel are two separate entities–Billy doesn’t become Captain Marvel so much as he summons Captain Marvel. (This is one of the things I enjoyed about Jeff Smith’s Monster Society of Evil project of a decade or so ago–he was one of the very few in recent memory to build his story around that original dynamic.)
Now, I don’t mean this as a question of right and wrong–there have been good and bad stories done with each set-up. But as a fan of the original Captain Marvel, my personal preference is for the original set-up. And so, all of this preamble is an excuse to present Exhibit A–a story first published in CAPTAIN MARVEL ADVENTURES #73 entitled “Captain Marvel Meets Billy Batson.” There are other stories in the 1940s and 1950s that illustrate the relationship between the Captain and Billy, but none of them that I’ve come across lays things out quite so clearly as this.
Okay, here’s the premise of this story in a nutshell: Zeus has a sore shoulder and keeps missing the mark when hurling the SHAZAM lightning earthward in response to Billy or Captain Marvel’s utterance of the magic word. Here, the lightning strikes a nearby Captain Marvel fan, who is transformed into Captain Marvel–but this is the same Captain Marvel that we know. It’s not the boy in an adult body or any such thing. This is the same Captain Marvel who shares an existence with Billy, and whom he routinely summons.
Captain Marvel has to race to intercept the lightning bolt that restores the kid whose place he usurped. It’s a bit of a metaphysical question as to what would have happened if that bold struck somebody else. Is it possible to manifest two Captain Marvels? Would that other bystander have been transformed into a second Billy Batson? Fortunately, we don’t have to find out. Of note here, the displaced kid does not recall having been Captain Marvel the way Billy usually does–the magic transformation isn’t supposed to work the way it just did.
Here, Zeus just flat-out misses. Nothing much exciting happens as a result–except that Billy Batson punches out a gorilla!
And here, evil gunman Warts Slobbi is struck by the magic lightning and becomes Captain Marvel–and once again, it’s the Captain Marvel we know. He’s not at all influenced by Warts nor is he Warts in a more virile adult body. And after he’s done mobbing up Warts’ mob, he even restrains himself before calling on the lightning so that Warts will be helpless. Presumably, after this story wrapped up, Zeus put some ointment on that shoulder and it healed up nicely.
Now, some will point to Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel, both of whom are clearly themselves transformed into super-powered incarnations of themselves. And that’s so. But both of them were derived in their way from Captain Marvel, and so their transformations don’t necessarily work precisely as Billy’s does.
So, to sum up succinctly: Captain Marvel /= Billy Batson.