History of Shazam

Whether or you loved it or hated it or had no strong feelings about it one way or the other, the first trailer for Warner Bros.’ Shazam certainly got everyone’s attention at San Diego Comic-Con. The film, starring Zachary Levi as the title character, came out swinging when it comes to proving the DC films are shedding their grimdark past. Colorful characters, comedy, fun, laughter? All these elements were highlighted to hammer home that not all DC heroes inhabit a world that fell into a sepia filter.

But while the trailer was heavy on personality, it was light on knowledge. Just who are these guys? Why is a creepy old man giving ultimate cosmic power to a snotty teenager? And where the heck is Dwayne Johnson and, better question, who is Black Adam? Well, strap in folks, because this explainer is gonna get weird.

Shazam Trailer Breakdown

Who is Shazam?

Sweet mercy, where do I even begin? If we start at the very beginning, Shazam, AKA Billy Batson, was created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck in 1940 for a small-time publisher known as Fawcett Publications. The comic industry and quick and dirty at the time, a wild west of ideas being copied and outright stolen. Fawcett wanted a superhero on par with National Comics’ – which would later become DC Comics – most popular character. Just some dude named Superman. Maybe you’ve heard of him? Thus, Captain Thunder was born! But by the second issue, Fawcett wanted more panache…so Captain Marvel was born! No, not that one. The one that shouts “Shazam!” to activate his magic powers. Are you confused yet? Because wait, there’s more!

Captain Marvel ran from 1940 to 1953 in some capacity at Fawcett Publications. During those years, Fawcett wrangled with National Comics, who sued them for copyright infringement because Billy Batson’s alter ego looked an awful lot like Superman. For some weird reason. The trial in 1951 absolved Fawcett of criminal activity, but the company still shuttered two years later after an appeal by National Comics found that some of Fawcett’s storylines were in violation of copyright. Lo and behold, they forgot to renew their copyright and Captain Marvel’s name fell into the public domain, where it was scooped up by DC Comics’ new competitor, Marvel Comics. There’s no proof Marvel was cackling while they did this, but one can make their own assumptions.

This really put a bee in DC Comics’ bonnet when they bought the rights to Fawcett’s Captain Marvel in 1972. Now, they had a character they couldn’t even use. So finally…finally…after 32 years, the character we see in the Shazam trailer was born. And eventually, Captain Marvel was dropped as a name altogether, which his magical catchphrase becoming his moniker. 

Shazam Trailer Breakdown

Okay, But Who is Billy Batson and What Are His Powers?

This time, just for fun, let’s start at the end. In the most recent iteration of Billy Batson, as seen in the pages of DC comics, he is in a foster care situation with his (now non-biological) sister Mary and his friend Freddie. Billy is granted powers by an Ancient Wizard who had scoured tens of thousands of years of human history looking for a “pure human” to whom he can bequeath his abilities. Instead, he runs short on time and has to settle for a snarky child. Okay, it’s more like Billy convinces the Wizard that there’s no such thing as a completely pure human because Earth is hot garbage and the Wizard realizes he needs only to find the potential pure goodness in humanity. Thus Shazam is born!

Of course, the finer points have evolved and shifted over the decades. During a reboot in 1986, DC Comics made a conscious choice to remove the split-personality aspect from Shazam. During his initial run at Fawcett, Billy was subsumed by Captain Marvel when he shouted “Shazam!” They were separate personalities. However, DC wanted to keep Shazam’s upbeat, sunny personality from the Silver Age, so they opted to simply have Billy participate in the superhero version of living out the plot of Big every time he transforms.

Shazam’s powers are granted by the following deities: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. You’ll notice at least two of those guys aren’t gods, but the activation word is Shazam! and they had to fit the acronym, dammit. While that line-up represents the most likely candidates for the film adaptation, within the comics, the old gods are dead. Thus, Shazam had to strike a deal with six new gods in order to maintain his Champion powers. His current sponsors are S’ivaa, H’ronmeer, Anapel, Zonuz, Yuga Khan, Ate, and Mamaragan. With their powers combined (whomever the current “they” are), Shazam has access to a bevy of superpowers. Much like how each fairy granted Sleeping Beauty a boon based on their personality, the gods grant powers in their wheelhouse.

From Solomon comes the power of superhuman intellect and knowledge, Hercules grants super-strength, Atlas bestows the gift of near-invulnerability and increased stamina, Zeus shows off by giving Billy dominion over lighting (along with near-immortality and magic spells), Achilles grants willpower (talk about phoning in a gift), and Mercury offers superhuman speed.

Shazam Trailer Breakdown

Wait, Why is This Wizard Giving Ultimate Power to a Child?

I begin this section with the caveat that comics are insane and it’s best to just roll with it. That being said…

Once upon a time, six gods whose names have been lost to the sands of time looked down upon the Earth and decided to lift up a Champion from the writhing masses. They chose a boy named Vlarem. But thousands of years of channeling god-power through mortal flesh began to weaken Vlarem. So he chose for his successor a son of the Pharaoh Rameses II, but due to the trickery of the ancient Egyptian gods, it went all wonky. From that failure, Black Adam was created. More on that in a tic.

Anyway, Vlarem, now known as the Wizard, kept on searching until he found Billy. Now on the verge of death, Vlarem didn’t have much choice, so he infused Billy with the power of the gods and wished him good luck. The end. Except, much like Jedi Masters, the Wizard would return in the form of a non-Force ghost to occasionally give Shazam assistance or remove his powers in a fit of pique.

Black Adam movie

Who is Black Adam?

Short answer: a pissed off ancient Egyptian demi-god. Longer answer: it’s complicated.

Okay, so originally Vlarem started to get tired of being a Champion of the gods about 4,000 years after he took up the mantle. It didn’t help that the gods were already forgotten and it was a thankless task. So Vlarem looked to retire and pass on his powers to a new Champion. He chose the (fictional) son of Pharaoh Ramses II named…Adam. Just go with it. An adult man with a family, Adam lived in the (fictional) country of Kahndaq, which bordered Egypt. However, during the transfer of power, Vlarem’s daughter Blaze made a deal with the god Set to exchange the powers of the six forgotten gods with the power of six Egyptian gods for whatever reason.

So, now called Teth-Adam, AKA Mighty Adam, the new Champion protected the Pharaoh and Egypt for centuries. But when his duties kept him from home, his family was murdered. Thus began Adam’s long, slow decline into sympathetic villainy. Meanwhile, since his daughter did him dirty, Vlarem still needed to get rid of his magic powers before he died and they were extinguished with him. But now Vlarem also had an evil Teth-Adam problem. Or a Black Adam problem, as he was now known to reflect his dark tendencies. Using a magical scarab amulet, Vlarem trapped Black Adam’s soul and powers within and buried it in a tomb. It is the escape of Black Adam from his prison that spurs Vlarem to pass his powers on to Billy Batson, as the world is out of time and needs protection from the problem Vlarem created.

To add an even more tangled web, the amulet was discovered by Billy’s Egyptologist parents on an archaeological dig. When it turns out their assistant Theo Adam is a descendant of Black Adam, all hell breaks loose. The assistant becomes obsessed with the amulet, eventually killing Billy’s parents and absconding with it like he’s Gollum. The metaphor is apt as, unlike the merger of the Shazam and Billy personalities int the DC reboot, Adam and his descendant Theo remained two separate people sharing a body until Adam eventually became the dominant personality. This is is probably the best possible outcome: Adam is merely a hardliner for justice in a way that’d make Batman blush, while Theo was the purely villainous influence.

However, before all that happens, Theo recognizes Billy as the son of his ex-boss and taunts the child with details of his parents’ murder. After a meeting like that, it’s no wonder it took a while for Captain Marvel to see Black Adam as anything more than a monster.

It remains to be seen if Black Adam will have any kind of role in the movie, but Dwayne Johnson is already set to play him in a spin-off film.

Who Else Do You I Need to Know?

Mary Marvel: Originally the twin sister of Billy Batson, but now his foster sister in the current canon. As Mary has had her memory wiped by Black Adam in previous incarnations when she witnesses the death of her parents, it’s entirely possible that she is Billy’s long-lost twin. Because magic deity powers are genetic somehow, Mary is also granted the power of the six gods simply due to her discovering Billy’s secret.

Freddy Freeman: Billy’s best friend, Freddy was permanently injured in an attack by Captain Nazi (yes, seriously) that also killed Freddy’s grandfather. Shazam asks the Wizard to grant Freddy powers because I mean, hasn’t he been through enough? Apparently, the Wizard agreed, because Freddy became Captain Marvel. Jr. However, due to magic being like wishing on a Monkey’s Paw, Freddy had to change his name to “CM3” (as in “Captain Marvel 3”) as his activation/deactivation phrase was “Captain Marvel” and there’s nothing like announcing yourself to the room only to have your powers instantly turn off.

The Seven Deadly Sins: Literally the anthropomorphic personifications of the Sins. After being trapped in the Rock of Eternity by the Vlarem for millennia, the Seven were freed by Black Adam to be his minions in his search for the Wizard’s heir. The logic being that since the Wizard was dead, Adam would exact his revenge on the new Champion. As the Seven were terrified that Adam could just as easily imprison them again, they agreed to his plan.

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