I’ve taken a back seat on reviewing Shazam! for the site. I’ve waited until it’s been out there for a week and a half, basically to see what happens. I’ve reviewed the film for Starburst magazine and for the Midweek Drive radio/podcast, but for the site, I’ve held back. Now having seen the film twice, and digested both it and the response, it’s time to get to work.
Shazam! (Okay, I’m going to drop the exclamation mark now) is a comic book with a strange history, which I’ve covered extensively in Starburst, but in a nutshell, during the boom time of the forties, the now extinct Fawcett Comics introduced a character named Captain Marvel. DC, after years in court, proved that he was an imitation of Superman, in that the good captain had super strength and could fly, plus his arch enemy was Doctor Sivana, a bald-headed evil scientist. Publication stopped and Fawcett went bust. Years later, DC brought Captain Marvel back, having acquitted the rights, but by that time, Marvel Comics (down to the name of the character not being copyrighted) had introduced their OWN character of that name. I swear, sometimes the backstories to the comic book industry are more intriguing than the comics themselves.
Anyhow, for years there were two entirely separate and different superheroes with the same name, though lately, DC’s Captain Marvel seems to be referred to as just “Shazam”. Why Shazam? Well, the character is a hero with a remarkable difference. He’s a fourteen-year-old who, is given the power to become the world’s mightiest mortal by an ancient wizard named Shazam. All he needs do is utter the wizard’s name, and the transformation takes place with a bolt of lightning. In place of the kid, is a grown adult with super powers.
The first I ever saw of a Shazam comic was in the summer of 74, when they started popping up in the shops that opened in the tourist season. I immediately liked them; they were different from the normal format of the American imported comics, the stories were shorter and the artwork back then, by the strip’s original artist C.C.Beck, seemed to me not unlike Herge’s Tintin in stylised simplicity. Plus, the notion of transforming with a single word. What’s not to like? (Actually, when you think about it – an obvious flaw in renaming him Shazam is that all a villain has to do is ask him his name and POW! He’s a helpless fourteen-year-old again.)
When Shazam was announced as the next in the DC canon of films, I had my doubts. I liked the character, that’s not a problem. But he’s not a well-known, heavyweight like Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman so the mainstream audience won’t have a recognition factor to draw them in. Plus, the concept of the character, likeable as it and he are – is so absurdly goofy.
The trailer seems to play into these fears, and gave a strong impression that this was basically going to be Big with spandex and a cape. Only Tom Hanks was missing. This would’ve been a mistake, because Captain Marvel, although a goofball at times, isn’t a comedy character and showing him as such would’ve cheapened the whole thing – maybe the whole DC movie universe.
But it soon becomes apparent that isn’t the case. This might actually be one of the most important and inspiring of the DC films to date – and that list includes the epic and cinematically gorgeous Aquaman film, and the stunning Wonder Woman with its WWI setting.
Yes, it’s at first glance a throwaway bubble-gum movie about a disadvantaged kid who, despite being in the foster system after being abandoned by his mother, is still pure enough at heart to be chosen as the champion of right. Yes, there is of course an all-out battle against his nemesis Dr Sivana played by Mark Strong, who was rejected by Shazam because he was too easily swayed to temptation and is now imbued with the power of all seven deadly sins – but there’s more going on.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a serial runaway from several foster homes, and is reluctant to set down roots anywhere, always searching for his mother. He’s a street-smart kid who knows how to take care of himself, when he ends up at a group foster home as his last chance – the kid’s all out of options. Again, unwilling to settle voluntarily – it’s here that we see examples of fostering done effectively and properly. There aren’t many examples of this in films, they’re usually where the bad stuff happens, but this is a refreshing change, and this grounds our hero in reality.
When he turns to Captain Marvel (not that he’s called that in the film – actually, they don’t call him anything. A few names are tried out, Captain Sparklefingers for example) TV’s Chuck, Zachary Levi takes on the role and frankly, I can’t imagine anybody doing a better job in the role of an underprivileged child who finds himself in a superpowered body, aided and abetted by fellow orphan Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Frazer). The unrestrained child-like glee of discovering his new-found powers, the fact of being an adult and choosing as his first thing to do – buy beer. Encouraging armed robbers to shoot him in the face to see if he’s invulnerable or is it his suit – it all rings true.
Sadly, it was mainly these scenes that were used for the trailer, which gave the impression that the whole film would be like this. As the film progresses, Levi literally grows into the role. There’s a scene in Superman 2 (1980) where Clark Kent played by Christopher Reeve decides that it’s time to tell Lois (Margot Kidder) that HE is Superman. Before he says anything, he straightens up from his “Clark stoop” and takes his glasses off, expanding his chest as he straightens – he looks like his whole body just shrugged off the meek mannered reporter alter ego and literally grew to Superman in a couple of seconds. It’s practically my favourite moment of Reeve as Superman. When the chips are down, Levi dumps the child in a man’s body part of his performance and literally becomes a superhero who can be trusted to save the day. This represents a huge tonal shift in the film’s second half. But still through that, Levi still effortlessly goads Sivana as a fourteen-year-old would. The performance is subtly handled and is amazing to watch.
The film is set in the same universe as its predecessors, which gives me hope that we will see Shazam one day alongside Jason Momoa’s Aquaman. But before that, there’s a sequel that is nicely set up here in the first of two stings (incidentally, for those who don’t know – the little caterpillar we see talking through a loudspeaker is Mister Mind, an alien with ambitions of world domination. There’s also the long-awaited Black Adam film, starring Dwayne Johnson. Black Adam is referred to in this film as the first champion back in Ancient Egyptian times, but isn’t actually named.
I was curious to see how audiences would take to Shazam. I keep hearing about DC films being too dark, too dour and serious. And I keep hearing that the superhero bubble is about to burst. In response, I offer this;
For the second straight week, Shazam has dominated the cinema box office. It’s far more successful than I thought it would be, which is great news.
Aquaman had a strong vein of humour in its dialogue, dispelling the too dour charges. That notion is now gone for good with the brightly coloured, sometimes irreverent Shazam (though not in the same league as Deadpool).
Yes, the superhero bubble will burst. One day, it will go the way of the Western.
But not today.
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