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.

Tim Burton’s Batman Gets a LEGO Batmobile

LEGO
LEGO

When Batman was released in 1989, few expected Michael Keaton could convincingly portray the Dark Knight. Keaton, however, proved critics wrong, and the film was a smash hit—due in large part to the production design overseen by director Tim Burton.

Now that film’s distinctive Batmobile is getting the LEGO treatment. The brick business announced today that their LEGO DC Batman 1989 Batmobile set will be on shelves shortly to celebrate both the film’s 30th anniversary and the 80th anniversary of Batman, who debuted in Detective Comics #27 back in 1939.

The LEGO DC Batman 1989 Batmobile is pictured
LEGO

The LEGO DC Batman 1989 Batmobile is pictured
LEGO

The LEGO DC Batman 1989 Batmobile minifigures are pictured
LEGO

The set is comprised of 3306 pieces and stretches to 23 inches long and 4 inches tall when assembled. The driver’s cockpit slides open and two machine guns can pop out to oppose Gotham’s worst evildoers when heavy ammunition is required. The set also comes with three minifigures: Batman, the Joker, and Vicki Vale. When it’s finished, builders can display it on a rotating stand.

The Batmobile retails for $249.99 and is scheduled for release on November 29, Black Friday. You can find it online at the LEGO Shop or in LEGO stores. If you purchase before December 5, you can get a miniature version as a free gift while supplies last.

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41 Easter Eggs You Might Have Missed In HBO's Watchmen

Regina King stars in HBO's Watchmen.
Regina King stars in HBO's Watchmen.
Mark Hill/HBO

*Warning: Spoilers for all aired episodes of HBO's Watchmen ahead.

Rather than being a straight adaptation of the famed graphic novel, HBO’s Watchmen explores what the world looks like 30-plus years after the events of the comics, which took place in 1985. That story ended (err, spoilers?) with the Cold War at an end due to the efforts of former masked vigilante Ozymandias, a.k.a. Adrian Veidt, who engineered a fake alien attack to bring the rival powers to a state of peace.

But the world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, as evidenced by the dead bodies that keep piling up in Watchmen-the-show. And just because HBO’s Watchmen takes place decades after the graphic novel doesn’t mean we don’t get a lot of references to the very things Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon wrote about.

1. The Comedian’s Button

The Comedian's button as seen in Zack Snyder's 'Watchmen' (2009).
The Comedian's button as seen in Zack Snyder's Watchmen (2009).
Warner Bros.

One of Watchmen’s most famous motifs is the yellow smiley face, based on the button that the Comedian—whose death begins the graphic novel—was wearing when he died. The button is echoed in the shape Angela Abar (Regina King) makes out of eggs when she’s cooking in episode 1.

2. The Comedian’s Blood

At the end of episode 1, there's another reference to the Comedian's death. The drop of blood on Judd Crawford’s fallen badge exactly matches the drop of blood on the Comedian’s button. A drop of blood can also be seen in one of the egg yolks.

3. The 51st State

In Watchmen’s pilot episode, Angela mentions that she’s from the state of Vietnam. The Vietnam War gets relatively sizable placement in Watchmen-the-comic, where the superpowered Dr. Manhatttan—working for Uncle Sam—is able to definitively win the war for the United States. Subsequently, it becomes the 51st state.

4. Tricky Dick

Episodes 1 and 2 venture into Nixonville, a trailer park that serves as a hotbed of Seventh Kavalry members. The place is ornamented with a life-sized statue of Richard Nixon. In the comics, the United States’s victory in Vietnam meant Nixon’s continued popularity. He got the 22nd Amendment (capping a president’s service at two terms) repealed and remained president at least through the end of 1985. A scene in the pilot shows that Nixon’s face is on Mount Rushmore.

5. The Sundance Kid

In the comics, it’s stated that Robert Redford might soon be running for president, taking Ronald Reagan’s place as the Watchmen universe’s actor-turned-POTUS. In HBO’s Watchmen, set in 2019, it’s established that Redford has indeed been president for multiple decades.

6. Adrian Veidt, Dead?

Jeremy Irons in HBO's 'Watchmen'
Jeremy Irons in HBO's Watchmen.
Colin Hutton/HBO

At the end of the Watchmen graphic novel, former masked vigilante Adrian Veidt has succeeded in his plan to preempt World War III by, er, attacking New York City with a giant squid that everyone assumes is from another dimension. The U.S. and the USSR subsequently calm it down with all the Cold War stuff, as an extra-dimensional attack is kind of a bigger deal. However, Rorschach’s journal detailing his investigation and subsequent discovery of Veidt’s shadiness has been sent to the conspiracy-minded, right-wing paper The New Frontiersman, leaving the door open for the possibility—which is confirmed in the show—that some people may come to believe the squid attack was engineered. All that may be why Veidt (likely, but not confirmed, to be Jeremy Irons’s character) has faked his own death and gone into hiding, as hinted at by the newspaper headline seen briefly in the show’s pilot.

7. New Frontiersman and Nova Express

We see the New Frontiersman in episode 2, where it’s peddling conspiracies (true ones) about the squid rain. Also being sold by the news vendor early in the episode is the Nova Express, another newspaper from Watchmen. It’s the New Frontiersman’s ideological opposite and more respected counterpart.

8. A Familiar Salesman

The newspaper salesman in episode 2 is dressed awfully like the newspaper salesman from Watchmen, an oft-seen side character who’s a fan of conspiracy theories and gabbing (two things he shares with his HBO counterpart) and was killed in Veidt’s squid attack.

9. Electric Cars

Electric cars exist in our world, but they’re not inexpensive enough that the farmer/cop killer (and electric car driver) from the Watchmen pilot is likely to be able to afford one. In the graphic novel, that’s explained: Dr. Manhattan can synthesize the lithium required to produce the necessary batteries, meaning that even in 1985 electric cars are in high use in the Watchmen universe.

10. The Dr. Manhattan Cancer Connection

Speaking of lithium: In the pilot episode, the Seventh Kalvary is revealed to have some sort of sinister plan in motion involving old watch batteries. These particular watch batteries were banned prior to the time the show takes place because they’re made of “synthetic lithium,” which is thought to give people cancer. In the graphic novel, part of Adrian Veidt’s plan is making people think that proximity to Dr. Manhattan gives people cancer; clearly, that’s not a fear that entirely went away. Watches are a recurring motif in the graphic novel and show alike.

11. Manhattan on Mars

Don Johnson as Judd Crawford in HBO's 'Watchmen'
Don Johnson as Judd Crawford in HBO's Watchmen.
Mark Hill/HBO

When Judd Crawford informs the wife of the murdered cop of her husband’s death in the pilot, on the TV in her house there’s a livestream of Dr. Manhattan playing around on Mars, where he’s presumably been since the end of the comics. (The elaborate sandcastle he’s building resembles both Veidt’s manor and the structure being built out of magnetic toys by Topher Abar in episode 2.)

12. Airships

Another bit of technology made possible by Dr. Manhattan is airships, which can be seen serving as a sort of airborne billboard for the upcoming show American Hero Story: Minutemen. The Tulsa police department makes use of a different sort of airship that looks remarkably similar to that used by Nite Owl in the comics.

13. Owl Goggles

The police department’s airship isn’t the only bit of Nite Owl-inspired tech from the HBO show. The goggles Angela uses in episode 2 are also remarkably similar to the ones the second Nite Owl uses, though his don’t have X-ray capabilities. (But hey, it was the '80s.)

14. American Hero Story: Minutemen

In addition to being a riff on Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story franchise (not part of the Watchmen universe, at least as far as we know), American Hero Story: Minutemen references the “Minutemen,” the first group of masked vigilantes. They were in operation throughout the 1940s before disbanding. In the pilot, we see a commercial for that same show. Several characters watch it in episode 2.

15. Hooded Justice

One of the founding members of the Minutemen was Hooded Justice, who in the world of Watchmen opted to retire instead of reveal his true identity to the House Un-American Activities Committee. His outfit—a giant cloak and hood paired with a noose—is similar to the outfit worn by Bass Reeves in the silent film from the first scene of HBO’s Watchmen. (Reeves switches out the noose for a lasso.) We see more of Hooded Justice in the bit of American Hero Story we see in episode 2; there, it goes into the theory that Hooded Justice was a circus strongman named Rolf Müller. In the prequel spinoff Before Watchmen, this theory is explained to be incorrect.

16. Dollar Bill

Another member of the Minutemen was Dollar Bill, notable for being the only superhero in the employ of a private organization. (National Bank, in his case.) A National Bank poster featuring Dollar Bill can be seen in the Seventh Kalvary cattle ranch base attacked by the Tulsa police in the pilot.

17. The Moth

In episode 2, we get a reference to Minuteman The Moth, one of the few original masked superheroes still alive during the Watchmen comic. (We don’t see him, but it’s referenced several times that he’s in an asylum somewhere.) In HBO’s Watchmen, journalists who get around on motorized wings are called “Moths.”

18. Face/Mask

In the pilot episode, Judd Crawford tells cop Looking Glass to “go ahead, pull your face”—meaning his mask—“down.” The mask has a similar silhouette to Rorschach’s mask, which he also refers to as his “face.” During the scene where Looking Glass interrogates the Seventh Kalvary member during the Pod scene, reflections make his mask look even more like Rorschach’s.

19. Squids

When Angela goes to her son Topher’s career day, you can see a poster in the classroom explaining the “Anatomy of a Squid.” That’s a callback to the Veidt-engineered “alien” squid attack, which most people in the world of HBO’s Watchmen clearly still believe in. In the show, there’s also the occasional “squid rain,” presumably engineered by the government in order to keep up the ruse.

20. “The Future is Bright”

Early in the pilot episode, you can see a man holding a sign saying “The Future is Bright.” That’s the inverted version of the sign Rorschach carries around Manhattan when not wearing his mask. That one reads “The End is Nigh.”

21. Countdown

Regina King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in HBO's 'Watchmen'
Regina King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in HBO's Watchmen.
Mark Hill/HBO

Another fearful-turned-optimistic image can be seen in episode 2, where Angela and Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) watch a clock as it counts down the minutes to Christmas. The clock is an exact replica of the Doomsday Clock from the comics, gradually tracking humankind’s journey toward nuclear annihilation. A clock with the same design is seen on Madison Square Garden after the squid attack, covered in blood and surrounded by corpses. The same clock face can be seen in the background in the episode 2 scene where Adrian Veidt’s servants perform his play. Veidt’s pocket watch and the timer from the episode 2 scene in Angela’s bakery where she interrogates Will for the second time have a similar design. All clocks read a few minutes to midnight.

22. The Watchmaker’s Son

The aforementioned play, written by Veidt, depicts the origin story of Dr. Manhattan. In the Gila Flats Test Base in the 1950s, a scientist named Jon Ostermen goes into the Intrinsic Field Subtractor to retrieve the watch he repaired for his girlfriend, Janey Slater. The Subtractor is turned on, and Osterman becomes Dr. Manhattan. The name of the play is The Watchmaker’s Son, and Dr. Manhattan’s father was a watchmaker. The play ends with Osterman saying “Nothing ends. Nothing ever ends,” which is one word away from Dr. Manhattan’s final words in Watchmen.

23. Poison Pill

When the Tulsa cops go after the Seventh Kalvary, one of them manages to kill himself with a poison pill before Angela can take him in. This echoes a scene from the Watchmen comics, where Adrian Veidt’s wannabe assassin kills himself in the same method. (It’s later revealed that Veidt both hired the assassin and force-fed him the pill in order to convince Rorschach that the Comedian’s killer is someone with a grudge against masked heroes.)

24. From Russia with Love

Regina King and Andrew Howard in HBO's 'Watchmen'
Regina King as Angela Abar and Andrew Howard as Red Scare in HBO's Watchmen.
Mark Hill/HBO

In the Watchmen comic, soon after Adrian’s attack on Manhattan—which ends the Cold War—New York starts to love all thing Russian, as evidenced by a couple of posters and storefronts (“Burgers ’n’ Borscht”). This dovetails nicely with the alter ego of one of Angela’s fellow cops, who wears a bright red and yellow tracksuit, has a Russian accent, says he’s a Communist, and goes by the nickname Red Scare.

25. “Who Watches the Watchmen?”

The Tulsa police department’s motto is “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?,” Latin for “Who watches the Watchmen?” In the comics, that’s a slogan used by the superhero-hating public, which riots after the police go on strike to to get the vigilantes outlawed.

26. Have a Drink

Judd Crawford’s office at police HQ, as seen in the pilot, has two Easter Eggs. One is a mug in the shape of an owl, a clear nod to the two superheroes known as Nite Owl. (One from the Minutemen, one from the Watchmen.)

27. Under the Hood

The other Easter egg courtesy of Crawford: A copy of Under the Hood, a memoir written by Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl. Chapters of his book were included in the text of Watchmen.

28. 1985

Regina King stars in 'Watchmen'
Regina King in HBO's Watchmen.
Mark Hill/HBO

Angela’s passcode for her lair is “1985,” the year in which the Watchmen comics take place.

29. Nostalgia

On Adrian Veidt’s desk, there’s a glass doodad that looks awfully similar to a bottle of Nostalgia perfume, one of the many products made by Adrian Veidt’s corporation.

30. The Pale Horse

In the first and second episode, Adrian Veidt rides up to his country manor on a white horse. The phrase Pale Horse is quite prominent near the end of Watchmen. A band with that same name is playing at Madison Square Garden the night of the squid attack. Everyone who was listening to them dies.

31. Ancient Obsession

The name of Veidt’s horse is Bucephalus, taken from the name of Alexander the Great’s horse. In the comics, Veidt is obsessed with Alexander the Great, going so far as to replicate his journey through the Mediterranean and Northeast Africa. Veidt’s obsession with Alexander the Great is again seen a bit later in the episode, when the play he wrote includes the line “as impenetrable as the Gordian knot itself.” The impossible-to-untangle Gordian knot, which Alexander the Great famously cut through with a sword, is used by Veidt as a metaphor for his own plan to stop the Cold War by faking an extradimensional attack.

32. “Unforgettable”

During the pilot, as Veidt chats with his servants, a cover of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” can be briefly heard. That song plays a role in the comics; its lyrics are juxtaposed with a scene where the second Nite Owl and the second Silk Spectre get physical in the former’s ship.

33. To-may-to, To-mah-to

Jeremy Irons in HBO's 'Watchmen'
Jeremy Irons in HBO's Watchmen.
Colin Hutton/HBO

At Adrian Veidt’s estate, tomatoes grow on trees. An explanation: Veidt’s interest in genetic engineering, also evidenced in his fleet of clone servants. (In the comics, Veidt hasn’t gotten to humans yet, but he does have a genetically engineered Lynx named Bubastis.)

34. Senator Joe Keene

Late in the Watchmen pilot, as Judd Crawford drives off to meet his grim fate, we hear someone on the radio talking about ex-senator Joe Keene (“a real cowboy, unlike our current Sundancer-in-Chief”) and his son, Joe Junior (also a Senator). The latter appears in person in the second episode and will reportedly continue as a supporting character throughout the season. The first Senator Keene introduced the Keene Act, which made being a masked vigilante illegal.

35. More Nite Owl, Anyone?

The final scene of Watchmen’s pilot reveals that Judd Crawford has been killed by an elderly man who was seen as a child escaping the Tulsa Race Massacre at the beginning of the episode. You might need subtitles on to notice it, but as Angela discovers her boss’s body, an owl is hooting in the background.

36. Psychic Powers

In Watchmen’s second episode, Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.) jokes that he killed Judd Crawford using “psychic powers.” It’s not true, but it’s also not impossible. In the world of Watchmen, psychic powers are actually real. Adrian Veidt used them (or, rather, the stolen brain of someone with them) to pull off his squid plot.

37. Black and Yellow

A still from HBO's 'Watchmen'
A still from HBO's Watchmen.
Mark Hill/HBO

The Tulsa police department’s color scheme—black uniforms, canary yellow masks, and batons—matches the color scheme of Watchmen’s cover, where the yellow is from the Comedian’s aforementioned smiley face button.

38. Manhattan Powers

In episode 2, Will name-checks three of Dr. Manhattan’s powers from the comics: He can grow, he can make copies of himself, and he can change the color of his skin.

39. Happy Halloween

In one particularly gutting scene from the graphic novel, the first Nite Owl—by now an old man and completely minding his business—is murdered by people who confuse him for his successor. His body is found by a trio of trick-or-treaters: a ghost, a pirate, and a devil. There are also a trio of trick-or-treaters in episode two: Cal and two of his and Angela’s kids. They are a ghost, a pirate, and (wait for it) an owl.

40. Plenty o’ Pirates

There might be a lot of owl stuff in Watchmen so far, but let’s not ignore the pirates. There’s the aforementioned Halloween costume. In the background of that scene, you can see what appears to be a LEGO sculpture of a pirate ship being attacked by a giant squid. (Of course.) One of the Tulsa detectives is named “Pirate Jenny.” There’s a connection to the graphic novel: One of Watchmen’s subplots, excised from the 2009 movie, involves a pirate ship called the Black Freighter. In one of the in-universe essays that accompanies each issue of Watchmen, the popularity of pirate comics is explored. It turns out that one of the writers was hired by Veidt to help with the whole squid thing.

41. Silhouette Lovers

Early in episode 2, Angela drives by a painted silhouette of two lovers kissing. This is the same silhouette as one given prominent placement in the comics’ pages. One of the Minutemen was also named the Silhouette, but we don’t know much about her.

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