Since the introduction of the Big Red cheese in 1939, there have been a number of live action Shazam projects. Tom Tyler and Frank Coghlan, Jr. first brought the characters of Captain Marvel and Billy Batson to life in the 1941 Republic film serial, and Jackson Bostwick and John Davey, along with Michael Gray as their Billy, all became something of a Saturday morning staple between 1975 and 1977 in Filmation’s live action “Shazam!” series. Despite early legal troubles, the hero has a rich history, and there have been persistent rumors over the years of a live action “Shazam” film. Now, with a movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson apparently in development, we take a look at who could have played the Big Red Cheese and his newsboy alter ego if they’d been brought to the big screen at an earlier point in history.
Due to a complex series of legal events between Fawcett Publications and DC Comics, the Captain Marvel had no (official) comics presence in the ’50s and ’60s, so for the sake of historical accuracy we skipped those decades. But what if the gods smiled on the good Captain and graced fans with more of Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s most famous and enduring creation? The Wisdom of Solomon shows us what could have been.
The Golden Age of Fawcett
Darryl Hickman as Billy Batson
Fred MacMurray as Captain Marvel
Before we get into who could have played Captain Marvel in a 1940s feature, let’s give credit to Tom Tyler and Frank Coghlan, Jr. who played Captain Marvel and Billy Batson respectively in 1941’s twelve-chapter Republic Pictures film serial, “Adventures of Captain Marvel.” Tyler played a larger than life Captain and set the superheroic standard for all those that followed in the genre.
But what if a film studio produced a live action feature of Captain Marvel in the Golden Age of superheroes? According to Beck himself, the character’s look was inspired by actor Fred McMurray. The Captain’s half-closed eyes, his strong jaw line and easy smile were all MacMurray signatures. Most people know MacMurray for his role as the stern but fair father on TV’s “My Three Sons,” but he had a long film career long before he lit his trademark pipe on television. MacMurray proved he could do drama in the Raymond Chandler-scripted, Billy Wilder-directed “Double Indemnity” in 1944, and he was a convincing leading man in 1945’s “Murder He Says” and “Captain Eddie.” During the ’40s, MacMurray averaged four features a year and was just as comfortable playing a tough guy as he was singing and dancing.A true Hollywood renaissance man, the man who inspired Captain Marvel’s appearance would have also been the perfect one to bring the hero to life.
As for Billy Batson, we’re going to cast Darryl Hickman. Best known as Davey Gillis in “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” a 1959-1960 TV show that still enjoys cult appeal — and inspired “Scooby Doo’s” Mystery Inc. gang! Hickman had a long career in Hollywood before he played one of the Gillis boys, and his finest performances were as a young child. In 1940, Hickman played Winfield in John Ford’s 1940 adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath,” and many roles followed for Hickman, who set the standard for young actors in Hollywood. He even co-starred with MacMurray in “Captain Eddie.” Both actors were nuanced performers who could have found the heart of both Billy and the Captain.
The DC Revival
Peter Ostrum as Billy Batson
Bill Murray as Captain Marvel
The post-“Star Wars” era was so ripe for more genre entertainment, it’s a bit surprising comics weren’t turned to following the first installment of George Lucas’s industry changing saga. Yes, “Superman: The Movie” was right around the corner, but aside from the better-off-forgotten “Supergirl,” that was it for big screen superheroics. If Hollywood looked towards the most popular hero of World War II, it could have fed the public’s appetite for superheroes in the vein of the late-60s “Batman” television series. Camp and light comedy were the order of the day, so one would expect that a “Shazam” film from that decade would have been colored by the pop art sensibilities inspired by the Batmania craze, which was still running rampant thanks to the magic of syndicated television.
DC’s ’70s “Shazam!” reintroduction picked right up from the Golden Age, with non-threatening villains, kooky characters and talking tigers all part of the world of Captain Marvel. This world could have been just right for parody and who better to create a sense of satire in a superhero film than Bill Murray? At a gangly 5’10, Murray could have cut a memorable looking Captain Marvel, but it could have been his dead pan comedy that would have allowed him to nail the subtle irony needed to make a very self aware “Shazam” film in the similar vein to what Adam West did as Batman. In the late ’70s, Murray was about to break huge on the big screen with “Stripes,” “Caddyshack” and “Ghostbusters” all right around the corner. Just imagine what might have been had the legendary funny man begun his trek to stardom with that one magic word.
For Billy Batson, we have to go with Peter Ostrum, the young actor who played Charlie Bucket in alongside Gene Wilder in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Ostrum just nailed the restrained, wide eyed vulnerability of the street orphan so well in “Willy Wonka,” that he was really the only choice we can conceive of from that era of young actors. Heck, Jack Albertson (Charlie’s Grandpa Joe) could have been fun as Uncle Dudley, and Wilder would have made an amazing Doctor Sivana! Oh, what could have been…
The post-“Crisis on Infinite Earths” Revival
Ricky Schroeder as Billy Batson
Mel Gibson as Captain Marvel
The one major change that Roy and Dann Thomas made with their post-“Crisis” Shazam revival was having Captain Marvel be an extension of Billy instead of a separate adult entity. Imagine a young Mel Gibson as a wide-eyed twelve-year-old trapped in the super-powerful body of a demigod — imagine “Big,” but with lots more punching and lightning strikes. Gibson was a nuanced actor, even in his early days, and his good looks and charm would have lit up the screen as Captain Marvel. Coming off two “Mad Max” films, Gibson could have established his humor cred as the light and airy Captain Marvel. Who knows how it might have affected Hollywood’s superhero approach if a “Shazam” film, the least grim and gritty hero of them all, had beat Tim Burton’s “Batman” to the box office? It may very well have have changed the way the public viewed superheroes in the ’80s, especially with the easy charisma and star power of a young Gibson involved.
And let’s not forget the Captain’s younger alter-ego. If you didn’t grow up in the ’80s, you may not realize just how popular Ricky Schroder was. The newsstands were filled with “Tiger Beat” or “Dynamite” magazine’s with Schroder’s cherubic face on the cover. He had the perfect wide eyed innocence and screen presence for Billy, and would have almost certainly guaranteed interest from a younger audience, even if the make-up department would have had to invest in some black hair dye.
The Power of Shazam!” era
Fred Savage as Billy Batson
Brendan Fraser as Captain Marvel
For Captain Marvel, the ’90s were defined by Jerry Ordway’s “Power of Shazam!” series, a return to the classic C.C. Beck era with a modern sense of pacing and character. Fred Savage, having exhibited his charm on the late-’80s/early ’90s hit “The Wonder Years,” would have been perfect to bring Ordway’s take on Billy Batson to life.
For the Big Red Cheese, we look towards Brendan Fraser. The actor’s star was rising at this point, and Fraser exhibited the prefect combination of being able to pull off comedy while also being an impressive physical specimen, able to fill out the red and gold nicely. Fraser also had a gentleness any Captain Marvel would need, and could have sold the fact he was actually a twelve-year old-boy to perfection. If it had beaten “Blade” to theaters, a Fraser/Savage Shazam feature could have kicked off the superhero boom early.
The Modern Era
Frankie Muniz as Billy Batson
Gerard Butler as Shazam!
Gerard Butler proved he can do larger than life with his turn as King Leonidas in “300.” Now imagine Butler’s intense physical presence and square jaw — but with the mind of a twelve-year-old. By the 2000s, when the superhero film craze was in full swing, and one exploiting Butler’s post-“300” momentum could have been big. The contrast of Butler’s intensity with the gentle world of Captain Marvel would have resulted in some comedic gold, but a “Shazam” film of the new millennium would undoubtedly have had an undertone of darkness, something Butler could have pulled off to perfection.
Frankie Muniz was at the top of his game in this era, with “Malcolm in the Middle” a bonafide hit on TV and the “Agent Cody Banks” films charming kids at multiplexes. As displayed by “Malcolm,” Muniz had a great sense of comedy, and even looked like a drawing of a modern day Billy. The contrast of the boy next door appeal of Muniz and the intensity of Butler could have made “Shazam” a great part of the opening salvos of the superhero film renaissance.