As a comic book property that will turn 80 years old this December, Shazam! has been adapted into a variety of other forms of media since the hero's debut in 1939. But while he's appeared in numerous forms over the decades, perhaps the weirdest, loosest adaptation of the adventures of the superhero was Filmation's live-action Shazam! television series.
Airing on CBS from September 1974 to October 1976 for a total of 28 half-hour episodes, the series was paired with Filmation's original superhero character Isis and her respective live-action series, The Secrets of Isis as The Shazam!/Isis Hour. Lasting three seasons, the series is the greatest example of low-budget 1970s superhero television along with 1975's Wonder Woman and 1977's The Amazing Spider-Man.
The gloriously cheesy intro showed teenager Billy Batson receiving his powers from an animated pantheon of classical gods and ancient figures (with the animated Hercules voiced by former TV Batman star Adam West!) -- and able to transform into the mighty Captain Marvel, portrayed by Jackson Bostwick and later John Davey, by speaking the magic word, "Shazam." Along with his mentor-figure (appropriately named... "Mentor"), Billy travels the country in a 1973 Dodge Open Road motorhome looking for injustices to solve and wrongs to right by wielding the powers of the gods.
Predating the 1978 The Incredible Hulk live-action series, Shazam! also followed a drifter, albeit an ostensibly teenage one (Billy Batson actor Michael Gray was well into his 20s when the series premiered) better suited for the Saturday morning crowd, which is when the series aired. Despite the on-the-road nature of the premise, Billy and Mentor stuck mainly to California in their heroic crusade, using the incredible abilities of Earth's Mightiest Mortal to perform such spectacular feats as saving horses, stopping teenagers from recklessly joyriding, and putting a halt to high schoolers from cheating at tests.
Not unlike the following decade's animated G.I. Joe series, every episode ended with a moral clearly stated for the show's young audiences, underscoring the purpose of each low-budget adventure. After being paired with Isis for the Saturday morning programming block in its second and third seasons, Captain Marvel and Isis would occasionally cross over on each other's series, with Billy appearing on The Secrets of Isis for three episodes, and Isis' alter ego Andrea Thomas appearing on three episodes of Shazam!.
Both series would go on to to become cult favorites, and while Filmation would own the rights to Isis, DC Comics would eventually rework the character for the DC Universe in the 2006 weekly series 52. This version would retain her connections to the Shazam property and go on to become the wife of Black Adam, while the New 52 incarnation of the character would have her responsible for the Black Adam's resurrection. And just as the original television series inspired the creation of a corresponding DC Comics character, the publishing line in turn influenced a version of the character, reinvented as Zari Adrianna Tomaz and brought to life by actress Tala Ashe, on The CW's Legends of Tomorrow.
Very much a product of its time, Shazam! and its sister series The Secrets of Isis exemplify low-budget, live-action superhero television programming in its purest form. The Shazam! television series never aspired to be bombastic, blockbuster storytelling but Saturday morning cartoon PSAs that had come to life complete with its own iconic superhero spokesman. Something that may be overlooked by the series' age and cult status is that it did provide audiences with the first-ever live-action superhero crossover with its tie-in appearances by Captain Marvel and Isis on each others' series unless one counts pulp heroes Green Hornet and Kato's appearances on a 1967 episode of Batman.
Made on a shoestring budget and for younger audiences, many elements of the series don't hold up under close scrutiny. But it tried, and just as Bill Bixby's Hulk would put eventually put his immense strength towards tackling seemingly mundane issues, Bostwick and Davey's Captain Marvel would do the same, but without the isolation and self-loathing haunting Bruce Banner would exhibit just a few years later.
For viewers looking to watch the series for the first time, or longtime fans looking to revisit the halcyon adventures of Billy Batson in the 70s, Shazam! is available on DVD and to stream on DC Universe.
Directed by David F. Sandberg, Shazam! stars Asher Angel as Billy Batson, Zachary Levi as Shazam, Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, Djimon Hounsou as the ancient wizard Shazam, Grace Fulton as Mary Bromfield, Jack Dylan Grazer as Frederick “Freddy” Freeman, Ian Chen as Eugene Choi, Jovan Armand as Pedro Peña, Faithe Herman as Darla Dudley, Cooper Andrews as Victor Vásquez and Marta Milans as Rosa Vásquez. The film hits theaters April 5.