Hero Complex - movies, comics, pop culture - Los Angeles Times

‘Shazam!’ Remembering when superheroes weren’t quite so cool

Michael Gray as Billy Batson, left, with Jackson Bostwick, who played Captain Marvel in the original incarnation of the "Shazam!" television series, appearing as Batson's superhero alter ego for the first 17 episodes of the series (1974-75). (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Michael Gray as Billy Batson, left, with Jackson Bostwick, who played Captain Marvel in the original incarnation of the "Shazam!" television series, appearing as Batson's superhero alter ego for the first 17 episodes of the series (1974-75). (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Michael Gray as Billy Batson with Jackson Bostwick, who played Captain Marvel in the original incarnation of the "Shazam!" television series, appearing as Batson's superhero alter ego for the first 17 episodes of the series (1974-75). (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Michael Gray as Billy Batson with Les Tremayne who played Mentor, Batson's guide and companion (and driver of the RV) in "Shazam!" He would regularly explain the morals of any given situation to Billy. (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Cathy Lee Crosby with Ricardo Mantalban (note the all-white suit) in "Wonder Woman." (Warner Archive Collection)

PERSPECTIVE

When the CW’s breakout hit series “Arrow” returns with new episodes on April 24, viewers can expect more soapy drama mixed with dark action thrills involving Stephen Amell as the handsome playboy-turned-vigilante Oliver Queen. Though the series makes plenty of concessions for non-comic book readers (an emphasis on Queen’s dating life, for instance), there’s still plenty of comic book history on display. Characters and concepts from Green Arrow’s 70 years of history pop up, but grounded in a gritty, realistic style (a la Christopher Nolan’s take on the Batman universe).

The success of “Arrow” and its accessible take on comic canon is a reminder of how far we’ve come with superheroes on television from the days when TV producers seemed to try as hard as they could to make superheroes non-super. Consider, if you will, “Shazam!”

In 1939, Bill Parker and C.C. Beck created Captain Marvel: an imposing caped superhero graced with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. Whenever fresh-faced teenage newsboy Billy Batson yelled “shazam!” he’d transform into Captain Marvel, to fight mad scientists, evil robots and super-intelligent alien worms.

Then in 1974, CBS began airing the Filmation series “Shazam!” about a shaggy-haired dude in his mid-20s who traveled around in an RV with an old man, helping young people learn to resist peer pressure. Every now and then, the ’70s TV Billy (Michael Gray) would shout, “shazam!” and be replaced by a costumed beach bum with disheveled hair. (Jackson Bostwick played Captain Marvel in the original incarnation of the “Shazam!” television series, appearing as Billy Batson’s superhero alter ego for the first 17 episodes of the series; the role was then taken over by John Davey.)

So it went with superheroes on television in the ’70s—a time when incredible feats of imagination were rendered as flat and preachy as an after-school special.

The irony is this: These days, a superhero comic is considered a hit if it sells in the mid-five-figures, while major motion pictures about Batman and The Avengers—movies largely faithful to the tone and storytelling of the original comics—become record-breaking blockbusters. Yet in the ’70s, when a superhero comic that sold less than six figures was in danger of cancellation, the stars of those books typically only made it to TV heavily adulterated.

Why was this? To some extent, the dreariness of superhero TV shows in the ’70s was a case of the technology of the times being unequal to the task. On the comic book page, superheroes could fly to other galaxies and punch aliens from one side of a planet to another. That was harder to do in live-action in 1974, with no computer-aided effects to rely on. Even the costumes were hard to get right. In the ’70s “Shazam!” series, Captain Marvel looks like he’s wearing a polyester tracksuit with a matador’s cape thrown around the shoulders.

But there also seemed to be a fundamental distrust of superheroes back then, at least from the people in charge of making movies and television. Consider the campy ’60s “Batman” series, which treated the visual conventions of comics as a pop-art joke. Then there’s the early years of “Super Friends,” a cartoon version of DC’s Justice League of America that skipped all the inter-dimensional travel and cosmic super-villains of the ’70s “JLA” comics and instead just had Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman fighting pollution with the help of two teenage kids and their dog.

Because Warner Bros. owns DC, many of the major attempts to translate superheroes to television in the ’70s have made it to DVD, often via the Warner Archive service. The titles range from the excruciatingly dire, such as the 1979 wacky comedy “Legends of The Super Heroes,” to the merely mediocre, such as the 1974 TV movie version of “Wonder Woman.” All are fascinating for students of pop culture who want to chart how far certain genres have come.

PHOTOS: Wonder Woman through the years

Cathy Lee Crosby played title character in the 1974 TV movie “Wonder Woman.” In the film, the heroine has no superpowers, but rather is a world-traveling spy, inspired by the I Ching era of the comics. (Warner Bros.)

That Wonder Woman movie, for example—starring Cathy Lee Crosby, not Lynda Carter—is based more on the openly feminist “new look” Wonder Woman of the late ’60s, and while it’s essentially a bland secret agent adventure show with a more colorful heroine at the center, it’s notable as a case where the comics’ efforts to be modern and down-to-earth dovetailed with television’s preference for non-super superheroes.

As for “Shazam!” its kitsch value remains remarkably high. The show ran for three seasons—though only for 28 episodes, because the Saturday morning television audience back then apparently didn’t mind watching the same shows over and over—and it never changed its basic formula of having Billy and his elderly mentor drive up and down the California coast, trying to be a positive influence on young people.

The actual Captain Marvel action on the show was kept to a minimum, usually withheld until the last five minutes or so of any given episode. The rest of the half-hour was given over to simple morality tales. (One moral the show missed: Don’t get into RVs with odd-looking strangers, kids.)

The transformation of live-action superhero movies and TV shows to their current awesomeness was a slow process, helped along by the success of the 1978 “Superman” movie and the 1989 “Batman” movie, as well as by the maturation of superhero comics in the Frank Miller/Alan Moore-dominated ’80s. But just as it’s important to appreciate how far comics have come as a literary medium—with masters like Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes and the Hernandez brothers producing real works of art—it’s important for superhero fans to look back every now and then and see how much better they’re served by Hollywood now.

A few years back, Fantagraphics’ “Comics Journal Library” series published a book of old interviews with the popular comics writers of the ’70s and ’80s, and in those conversations, the likes of Dennis O’Neil, Steve Gerber and Marv Wolfman couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around the idea of graphic novels, or superhero comics of any real sophistication. These were some of the smartest writers in the business at the time, acclaimed for bringing social relevance and character depth to what were then considered stories for children, and even they put a ceiling on how good their art form could be.

It would’ve been unrealistic to expect some TV producer to have more vision for superheroes than the creator of “Howard The Duck” did.

Still, the sight of Captain Marvel awkwardly flying to a junkyard to teach a group of teens a lesson about joyriding is so sad, and so far removed from even the two-dimensional corniness of Parker and Beck, that it’s hard to believe this genre would someday evolve into Hollywood’s most reliable money-maker.

— Noel Murray

Noel Murray is an Eisner-nominated critic who writes about comics, television, music and film for The A.V. Club. He also covers home video for The Los Angeles Times.

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