Welcome back from Thanksgiving break! I hope yours was as lovely as mine. I imagine that you might still be recovering from the same kind of food coma from which I emerged just yesterday, so I thought I’d ease us into the year’s home stretch with something of a Superhero Primer. You might have noticed, right before we all went away for the giving of thanks, that Jude Law corralled the coveted male lead in Marvel’s 2019 comic book movie, Captain Marvel, in which he’ll be playing the title character’s mentor, Mar-Vell. Meanwhile, just a couple weeks earlier, Zachary Levi snagged the title role in New Line’s upcoming superhero flick Shazam!, whose main character is also known as, yes, Captain Marvel.
Seems like a lot of Marvels floating around, doesn’t it? Don’t worry. It gets even more complicated. First and foremost, let’s differentiate the various versions.
The first Captain Marvel we’ll see will be played by Oscar winner Brie Larson, in the Marvel Studios film scheduled for release 16 months from now. Carol Danvers was originally an Air Force Major whose genes were fused with those of a Kree alien, giving her unique powers that make her a superhero. Jude Law’s Mar-Vell is also a Kree alien with special powers of his own, and an earlier incarnation of the character was known as Captain Marvel. In fact, he was the first Marvel version, only made possible by a lawsuit that temporarily ended the publication of the original comic book Captain Marvel.
Which brings us to Shazam!, a film that hits theaters just one month later. Now, even though DC Comics and Warner Bros. have essentially dropped the Captain Marvel aspect of Shazam’s name, that was his official title when he first appeared in 1940 in the Fawcett Comics publication Whiz Comics #2. The character operated under that nom de plume until 1953, when Fawcett ceased publication following a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by DC Comics, the publisher of Superman, of whom Captain Marvel was a pretty obvious facsimile.
So, once there were no trademark issues, Marvel Comics saw an opportunity and seized it, introducing Mar-Vell in December 1967. Interestingly, DC eventually licensed the Fawcett characters in 1971, and began publishing Marvel stories again — though this time, they weren’t just about the Captain, but also Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel, among others. Shazam continued to be known as Captain Marvel for decades, until it became clear to DC brass that perhaps one of their most powerful heroes shouldn’t have the company’s fiercest competitor in his name. Hence, the shift towards the full-time moniker of Shazam.
Still with me? Okay. “Marvel” is a synonym for “wonder,” which is a word you may have heard quite a bit over the last few months, especially in connection with a certain Amazonian woman who hails from Themyscira. Which means that it is completely and totally understandable if you’re not only confused about who all of these people are, but also how they are being utilized in the grander scheme of shared worlds and universes. Honestly, if it weren’t for the fact that I have spent my entire life reading all these comics, following the origin stories of these superheroes and collecting the random factoids about them in the trivia treasure trove that is my brain, I’d have some questions about all this stuff too.
The thing is, as staunch a fan of the entire superhero oeuvre as I may be, even I am a tad overwhelmed by their ubiquity at the box office, and think that perhaps there’s another way into this whole thing. For starters, the fact that comic book movies are treated as a genre of their own is something of a mistake. The very best examples of cinematic superhero stories come when heroes are inserted into other established genres, like a spy thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), a western (Logan), a family drama (The Incredibles), a war movie (Wonder Woman), or a soul-searching melodrama (Iron Man), rather than when they’re just employed as straightforward tales of super heroics.
There’s also the fact that, unlike, say, a James Bond or Jack Ryan movie, these films tend to take their simple titles from the names of their superhero protagonists. Think Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, etc. And when there are exceptions, such as The Dark Knight and Man of Steel, the studios defer to well-known nicknames for the characters. Team-up films such as Justice League, Fantastic Four and Guardians of the Galaxy are a bit of a different bag because they involve a group dynamic, though the latter two films each reveal the collective’s name (and thus, the film’s title) in about as clumsy a manner as possible late in their respective third acts — you know, just in case the audience has no idea who they’ve been watching for the past two hours. Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, would have worked just as well had that phrase never actually been uttered in the course of the movie, but then again, Marvel likes to hammer audiences over the head sometimes, Mjölnir-style.
I imagine that part of the reason why studios feel the need to dumb down their comic book movie titles is because of a lack of confidence in the audience, which they often pander to, even though audiences are typically smarter than studios give them credit for. Which is why I would think that Marvel could find a better title than Captain Marvel for its first female-led superhero movie, just like Wonder Woman 2, due two years hence, could have a far more interesting name on the bijou, provided Warner Bros. has the guts to go in that direction. Come May, we’ll see the third Avengers movie, which is subtitled Infinity War. I mean, why even bother putting Avengers in the title? You think that with all the marketing, advertising, publicity and promotion that Marvel will do in the lead-up to that film’s release, people somehow won’t be aware that it’s an Avengers flick?
The same could be said, pretty much, for just about any other comic book movie on the slate. No one is ever going to not know when a movie’s main character is a superhero, so why not get a little inventive? Aquaman is the ruler of Atlantis. You’re going to tell me Atlantis isn’t a sexier title than Aquaman? Or, in a wink to a cult 70s TV show, The Man from Atlantis? The same could be said for Captain Marvel, which sounds like a fun flick with terrific talent attached (including directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck), but has one heck of a boring title. Give us something more interesting instead, something that plays into the central conceit of a young woman learning how to handle her brand new, alien-granted gifts.
Something like Flight School would be perfect, and would finally start us down the road toward normalizing the entire genus. Which is pretty much exactly the kind of thing the superhero movies need, if you think about it.