Rudy Panucci On Pop Culture

With One Magic Word

The PopCulteer
April 12, 2019

I’m not going to see Shazam.

I don’t care if it’s a good movie, or even a great movie. I can’t bring myself to go see it. I won’t watch it on home video, and I’ll probably never break down and watch it even when it hits cable in a few years.

You see, I’ve been a fan of The Original Captain Marvel since I found myself in a weird old newsstand on Chestnut Street in South Charleston, West Virginia, when I was ten years old.

I had a dollar in my pocket, and wanted to buy some comic books. It was unusual for me to have a spare dollar back then, and even more unusual for my parents to let me go into a store by myself while they waited in the car. I think we had just visited some relatives, and for some reason my two older siblings did not make the trip. It was me, Mom and Dad and my baby sister.  I walked in and saw the biggest comic book I’d ever seen in my short life. It was the Shazam Limited Collector’s Edition that you see at the head of this post.  It was huge, over thirteen inches tall and over ten inches wide. It cost a whole dollar, all by itself. I’d never heard of the character before, but I had to have that book.

In order to do that I had to go back to the car and bum an extra nickel from my Dad to cover the sales tax. It was worth it. That day I discovered Captain Marvel, and didn’t even realize that I was reading stories that had originally been published between twenty and thirty years earlier. I had been reading comics since before I could read. I learned to read from comic books. But before this, I had been reading hand-me-down comics that my brother had, or long runs of books that he’d borrowed from a friend with a massive collection.

However, this was MY comic book. I began collecting comics, some would say obsessively, thanks to Captain Marvel. The characters and adventures captured my imagination, and I had a new favorite superhero. Over 45 years later, Captain Marvel is still my favorite superhero. I still have my original comics and collections like the one at left, which I got for Christmas over forty years ago.

And this was the original Captain Marvel, not the current character using that name in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s a whole book or two waiting to be written about that situation, but in short, the original Captain Marvel family of comics ceased publication in 1954, and to settle a long-running lawsuit with DC Comics, the Captain’s original publisher, Fawcett, agreed to never publish Captain Marvel again without permission from DC. During the nearly twenty years that Captain Marvel was in publishing limbo, the trademark expired, and Marvel Comics snapped it up because it wouldn’t be good for them to have the name “Marvel” being used on another company’s comic book (which was briefly the case with yet another character using that name).

The end result of that, aside from Marvel playing hot potato with the name by using it on several different characters just to retain the trademark, is that when DC Comics struck a deal with Fawcett to publish new comics, they had to come up with a different title, and it was decided to call it “Shazam,” which is the magic word that Billy Batson uses to turn into Captain Marvel, and is also the name of the ancient wizard who gave him his powers. At least it was until DC decided to mess it all up with a horrid reboot in 2012. At one point, in the 1970s, bouyed by the heightened visibility of the Shazam TV show, Captain Marvel was as popular as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman in terms of merchandise licensed by DC Comics.  If the merchandise had to have a logo, they used “Shazam,” but everybody knew it was really Captain Marvel.

It was okay, though. Anybody with half a brain could tell that “Shazam” was not the name of the guy in the red suit with the lightning bolt on his chest.  That was obviously Captain Marvel. People didn’t think Superman was called “Action” or that Batman was called “Detective.” Even on the hit Saturday morning TV series version of the comic book everybody knew he was called “Captain Marvel.” Only morons and infants called him “Shazam.” It was the height of unsophistication to call Captain Marvel that. I mean, if he was called “Shazam,” then he couldn’t say his own name without changing back and forth between Billy Batson and Captain Marvel.

Just ask Captain Marvel Jr. how annoying that is.

If you’ve seen the movie, you can probably start to figure out some of my reasons for not wanting to see it.

It’s not just the name, though. The movie is a fairly faithful adaptation of the 2012 reboot of the character, as written by Geoff Johns. Johns is said to have a great affection for these characters, but it does not show in his work. His reboot took every core concept of what made Captain Marvel the top-selling supehero of the 1940s, and flushed them all down the toilet.

In the original comics, Billy Batson is an orphan, maybe ten years old, who’s been kicked out on the street by an evil uncle, who also stole his inheritance. Despite this, Billy remained pure of heart, and never succumbed to dark feelings. He is the long-awaited force of good that the ancient wizard, Shazam, had been anticipating. 5000 years earlier, Shazam had bestowed his powers on an Egyptian man, Teth Adam, who was corrupted by power and tried to take over the world before being banished from the planet by the wizard.  Billy was the first person who was incorruptible, pure, smart, optimisitc, brave and worthy enough to possess the powers of Shazam.

In the reboot, Billy is fifteen-year-old jerk who floats from foster home to foster home, causing trouble, and is basically given his powers at random by a “wizard” who looks like a crazy homeless person. He has no redeeming qualities and is in no way deserving of the powers.

So, not only is the new version of Billy a vile person, he’s also not terribly bright. And the new wizard is a moron, too.

Worse yet, in this new incarnation Billy retains his entire personality when he turns into “Shazam” (man, it even hurts to type that). This was never the case in the orignal comics, and it violates the core concept of the character. One of Captain Marvel’s powers (the very first one, in fact) is the wisdom of Solomon. The new Shazam does not have the wisdom of Solomon. He doesn’t even have the wisdom of Andy Dick. The new Shazam is a goofball, a giant dumbass.

In the original comics, it’s pretty clear that, if Billy and Captain Marvel are the same person, at the very least Captain Marvel is a mature adult version of Billy, with a vast amount of intelligence. Billy is also presented as mature for his age. In the new comics the character has been lobotomized for the sake of cheap comic relief by people who have no clue what made the original comic books stand head and shoulders above everything else being published at the time.

The charm of the original comics was that Captain Marvel was portrayed as the straight man in absurd and satirical situations. Many of the original stories are outright hilarious, but it’s not because of Captain Marvel. It’s because of how he deals with absurd things, like talking tigers, evil intergalactic worms that try to conquer the world, even the Earth itself, when it gets pissed off and tries to exterminate humanity. That’s all gone in the new comics, and the movie sticks pretty closely to the new comics, at least judging from the trailers.

The other major problem I have is that, in the original comics, Billy and The Captain have morals and ethics. There’s none of that in the new version. In the new comics, the first thing Captain Marvel does with his powers is rob an ATM, and then he goes to buy beer. The intelligence and kindness and humanity have been erased from the character completely.

As an old-school comic book nerd, I have always bitched loudly about how Hollywood screws up superheroes when they translate them to the big screen. In 1978, when Superman The Movie came out, I loved Christopher Reeve, but absolutely hated what they did to Krypton and Lex Luthor. I don’t care how much he says he loves the comics, Richard Donner had no clue about what made Superman work. When Tim Burton did Batman, he got close enough for honors, but still had to tinker with a core concept by having The Joker be the person who killed Batman’s parents. The Marvel movies seem to hew much more closely to the source material, but since I haven’t really seen one since Iron Man (which was great), I can’t really judge. I was always a DC guy. Eventually I’ll watch the Marvel movies, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy them.

As soon as I heard the director of Shazam say that it was “‘Big,’ but with superpowers” I knew not to expect anything close to my favorite superhero. If anything, Shazam is a mean-spirited parody of Captain Marvel. It’s heartbreaking to know that future generations will see him this way, and not realize how great the original comics are.  I’m sad about that, but I’m resigned to it.

That’s why I won’t see it. I’m too emotionally invested in the original version of Captain Marvel to possibly enjoy this incarnation. The silver lining is that maybe the movie will do well enough that DC will reprint more of the pre-1984 comics, particularly the ones from the 1940s and 50s. Those are the real gems. DC proved with their Convergence and Thunderworld versions of Shazam that they can still do the character justice. It’s shame that, with the movie being a hit, they probably won’t ever do new comics that treat Captain Marvel with the respect he deserves.

I would like to extend a special thank you and some links to some great articles on the topic from my friend, Carl Shinyama. Carl has covered this subject extensivly in a series of articles at Quora, and you can find links to some of the them HERE. Carl’s articles allowed me to directly reference how horrible the 2012 reboot of Shazam was without actually having to go look at the comics. Follow the link in his name to find his daily “Captain Marvel Project,” which is filled with great information on the best superhero ever.

In case you’re wondering, I couldn’t bring myself to illustrate this post with any images of the movie or the new comics. Except for the convergence cover, all the images are publications from the 1970s.

AIR Notes

You can listen to our sister interent station, The AIR, at the website or on this embedded player…

Just a brief mention for Friday. Radio Free Charleston International and Sydney’s Big Electric Cat are in reruns this week. RFC International is taking the week off because yours truly, who hosts that show, had a doctor’s appointment and other deadlines, and didn’t get the chance to do a new episode.

Sydney’s Big Electric Cat, as well as our other programs supplied by Haversham Recording Institute in London, will be on a reduced schedule, and will have new shows every other week for the foreseeable future. Sydney’s Big Electric Cat, Prognosis and Psychedelic Shack are labors of love, and the folks at Haversham are dealing with a greatly increased workload due to them providing international coverage of the on-again/off-again Brexit shenanigans, so they had to cut back. Still, it’ll be great to have the shows every other week, and in the off weeks, we’ll bring you classic episodes, like we’re doing this week.

All our other shows should continue to bring you fresh episodes every week…until we have to go out of town or something.

And that is this week’s PopCulteer.


  1. Joe Sewell

    Well put all around. I don’t plan on seeing the movie, either, for very similar reasons to your own.

    Jist one little nit to pick, though: anecdotal evidence, at the least, suggests that Bob Kane had intended, at some point, to reveal that the man who became the Joker was indeed the Waynes’ murderer.

    But that’s beside the point. I especially like what you said about morals and ethics. In today’s society they are considered as monstrous as Ibac or King Kull, but Billy AND Cap had morals! Even if one were to update the costume with the glowing bolt on the chest, the wearer needs to be wise and upstanding. Anything else is not The Original Captain Marvel!

  2. Thomas Wheeler

    I agree with everything you’ve said in your article, Rudy. And I usually LIKE Geoff Johns. But not this time.

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