Shazam’s Original Appearance Was Based on This Classic Actor


The Big Picture

  • Captain Marvel, later known as Shazam, was inspired by the Golden Era film star Fred MacMurray, giving him a relatable and humorous character.
  • Shazam made his comic debut as Captain Marvel in the 1940s and quickly became a fan-favorite due to his unique backstory and powers drawn from mythology.
  • The
    movie provided a refreshing, light-hearted approach to the superhero genre, with Zachary Levi channeling Fred MacMurray’s playful innocence.

DC is responsible for some of the most memorable protagonists in comic book history and arguably shaped what the modern “superhero” character looks like. Storytellers’ obsession with mythic heroes can be traced back through classic characters such as Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Tarzan. However, the inspiration for the members of the Justice League dates back even further, as many of these characters can be compared to key figures in mythology. When compared to the other DC heroes, the hero known as “Captain Marvel,” later known as Shazam, has a somewhat different backstory; he is essentially a child’s fantasy of what a hero would look like. It turns out that this hero was actually a real person, as Shazam was modeled off of the Golden Era film star Fred MacMurray.


A newly fostered young boy in search of his mother instead finds unexpected super powers and soon gains a powerful enemy.

Release Date
March 29, 2019

David F. Sandberg


Henry Gayden , Darren Lemke , Bill Parker , C.C. Beck

Captain Marvel Was Inspired by Fred MacMurray

Although it took a film based on the Shazam! comics far longer to reach the big screen compared to other comic book heroes, the character made his comic debut only shortly after DC successfully introduced the characters of Batman and Superman in the late 1930s. Created by the artist C.C. Beck and comic book writer Bill Parker, Shazam first made his debut in an issue of Whiz Comics in 1940. While other DC heroes had powers that were inherent, Captain Marvel is the alter ego of the child Billy Batson. Upon speaking the phrase “Shazam!,” Billy has the power to turn into a towering superhero who has the ability to fly, possesses superhuman strength, and can run incredible distances without breaking a sweat.

The moniker “Shazam” draws from six significant figures within mythology. When donning his superhero alter ego, Billy has 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. While the mythological roots were key in identifying the character’s powers, Captain Marvel is a relatable character because he resembles a real person. When first bringing the character to life, the Fawcett Publications artists drew inspiration from the Hollywood actor Fred MacMurray’s distinguished appearance. Although MacMurray served as the primary basis for the character, other influences included the heroes played by Cary Grant.

Although the Captain Marvel name would eventually become the source of a dispute with Marvel Entertainment, Shazam quickly proved to be a fan-favorite character with young readers. While the powers of Superman or incredible wealth of Batman may have felt intangible, the notion of a young child obtaining superhuman abilities based on their strong sense of ethics and kindness was very attractive to youthful audiences. It didn’t take long for Fawcett Comics to capitalize on the characters’ popularity, as they created the 12-part black-and-white serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel in 1941. Once the rights to the Shazam character were acquired by DC Comics, the anti-hero Black Adam was brought back from his sole appearance in The Marvel Family to be his archnemesis.

Who Was Fred MacMurray?

Fred MacMurray and Polly Bergen on the phone
Image via Warner Bros.

Often regarded as one of the more underrated actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood, MacMurray was known for playing heroic characters with upstanding moral qualities. While it was his imposing physicality that likely shaped the influence of the Shazam character, MacMurray’s sense of humor was also one of his defining characteristics. Compared to the more serious, contemplative tone of some of the other DC comic book series at the time, the Shazam! comics were more humorous, and at times satirical of the genre. They continue to add a welcome “outsider’s perspective” on heroism that shows what being a hero looks like from a child’s point-of-view.

MacMurray first rose to prominence in the late 1930s with roles in Hands Across the Table, The Princess Comes Across, Swing High, Swing Low and True Confession. Although a majority of his projects were more melodramatic in tone, MacMurray ironically achieved greater popularity after the Shazam! stories became more prominent within American comic book culture. MacMurray was given the chance to act “against type” by playing the villainous insurance salesman Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, a film regarded as both one of Billy Wilder’s best works and one of the greatest neo-noir thrillers ever made.

Given that Shazam! comics were more squarely aimed at younger readers, it’s not entirely unsurprising that MacMurray began to star in more family-oriented films as his career progressed. 1947’s The Egg and I was a breakthrough movie that showed that his physicality could be perfectly utilized for a romantic comedy, as his chemistry with Claudette Colbert was widely praised. He would later star in such Disney classics as The Shaggy Dog, The Absent Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, and The Happiest Millionaire.


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Zachary Levi Channeled Fred MacMurray in the ‘Shazam!’ Movies

A Shazam! film was certainly a risk for DC Studios, as the notion of a child becoming a superhero seemed somewhat simplistic compared to the darker direction that many DC comic book films were headed. However, David F. Sandberg’s 2019 Shazam! provided the “back to basics” approach to the genre that the DC universe needed in the wake of the failures of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. It’s not hard to see the similarities between Zachary Levi’s performance and MacMurray. Both actors have a playful sense of innocence that gives their films a light sense of irreverence; the useless post-credits scene in Shazam! wasn’t even a distraction because the film was so much fun.

Although the first film was a surprise box office hit that signified a new direction for DC’s cinematic outings, its sequel Shazam! Fury of the Gods was a critical and commercial disappointment that effectively killed the franchise. Now that the DCEU has ended, and James Gunn is full steam ahead on the DCU, it seems unlikely that Levi will reprise his role in a third Shazam! film. Should the character eventually be recast for a new iteration, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the influence of MacMurray in the role.

Shazam! is available to stream on Max in the U.S.

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