The name "Captain Marvel" is unique among comic book superheroes in that it has been shared by nine different characters spread across three publishers.
The original hero called Captain Marvel, who currently goes by the name Shazam, was one of the most popular superheroes of the Golden Age of the 1940s. Introduced as young Billy Batson, a boy reporter for WHIZ Radio, he became the superheroic Captain Marvel once he uttered the magic word "Shazam," the name of the wizard who granted him his powers. From 1940 to 1950, Captain Marvel was the comic book industry's biggest hit, with spin-off titles galore. He was a certifiable cash cow for publisher Fawcett Comics.
But National Publications, known today as DC Comics, saw Captain Marvel as a knockoff of its own Superman and sued Fawcett. Eventually DC won, and Fawcett was forced to retire publishing Captain Marvel, leaving the name completely unused. In 1966, once the name Captain Marvel fell into public domain, a minor publisher named MF Enterprises created their own Captain Marvel—one that almost no one remembers today.
This Captain Marvel wasn't only a knockoff of the '40s Cap; he ripped off Superman too! This Captain was an alien android powered by an M-emblem medallion on his chest, who had been sent to Earth by his creators to escape the atomic destruction of their planet. Apparently Superman didn't even have dibs on his own origin story.
In another instance of ripping off Superman, he took on the secret identity of a journalist named Roger Winkle. Borrowing from Batman, he had a young ward named Billy Baxton. (The original Captain Marvel's real name, let us remind you, was Billy Batson. We know, it was pretty shameless.) This Captain Marvel even managed to rip off Archie Comics, as he lived in the small idyllic town of Riverdale... uh, we mean Riverview, USA.
The android Captain Marvel's powers were among the worst in comics history. He would yell out the world "Split!" and his limbs would come apart, and then project themselves at his enemies, leaving the good Captain just a torso with a head. It was as terrifying looking on paper as it sounds.
This version only lasted five issues, from 1966 to '67, the likely reason being that Marvel Comics was in the middle of their most fertile creative period and wanted the name Captain Marvel badly. Legend has it they paid off MF, which was tiny publisher, for the rights to the name, after which they secured the trademark. Although unconfirmed, the timing certainly holds up, as in late 1967, they introduced Mar-Vell, A Kree warrior who protected the Earth. He would soon gain his own title, which lasted throughout the entire decade of the 1970s.
Meanwhile, DC Comics acquired the rights to produce new material featuring Fawcett's original Captain Marvel, which was ironic seeing as how they once sued that character right off the printed page. But because Marvel had their own legally trademarked Captain Marvel, they could not print a comic with "Captain Marvel" as the title, nor would they likely want to. So all comics featuring their Captain Marvel were now called Shazam! and his heroic name could only be used inside the comics themselves. To sum up, at this time, there were two official heroes named Captain Marvel—one owned by Marvel and one by DC. This wacky scenario would last four whole decades.
While Billy Batson remained as DC's Captain Marvel during all this time, Marvel's Captain went through several iterations of heroes using the name. Mar-Vell lasted from 1967 through 1982; then there was Monica Rambeau, who was introduced as Captain Marvel in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 and would go by the handle until the mid '90s (she would go on to use names including Photon, Pulsar, and Spectrum).
Immediately afterward was Mar-Vell's son Genis-Vell—who, after being introduced as Legacy in 1993, became Captain Marvel in Captain Marvel Vol. 3 in 1995—followed by his sister Phyla-Vell, who came along in 2003's Captain Marvel Vol. 5. Then there was another Kree named Noh-Varr, who became Captain Marvel in 2009's Dark Avengers #1. There was even a Skrull named Khn’nr who was brainwashed into believing he was Mar-Vell, and he was Captain Marvel for a brief period of time between 2007's Civil War: The Return and 2008's Captain Marvel series.
Eventually, the former Ms. Marvel, Mar-Vell's former love interest and protégé and longstanding member of the Avengers, finally became the Captain Marvel in 2012. Fans had been campaigning for this for years.
Also in 2012, DC was in the middle of the massive New 52 reboot. Their own Captain Marvel got a reboot as a part of that, thanks to creator Geoff Johns. The first thing he did was get rid of the name Captain Marvel and rename him Shazam officially. Because the comic had to be called Shazam! for legal reasons, most people referred to the character as such already, and had for decades. Getting rid of the Captain Marvel name in an official capacity just seemed like the smart thing to do.
In the final analysis, there have been nine Captain Marvels altogether over the years, with the great number of them coming from Marvel Comics. But even Stan Lee himself could have never envisioned a scenario where arguably the two most famous bearers of that title enjoyed their big screen debuts within a month of each other. Only in Hollywood.
Images: Marvel Comics / Marvel Studios / DC Comics / Warner Bros.