SHAZAM! The Original Captain Marvel Lights Up the Big Screen

Wonder Woman and Aquaman have already demonstrated that movie adaptations of DC comic book characters could exist on the big screen without the palette of dark, funereal tones Zack Snyder has enforced on the new Superman/Batman iterations. SHAZAM! moves the franchise squarely into a realm of bright primary colors, and reminds us that superheroes can be – gasp – fun.

Make no mistake – this IS Captain Marvel

This is the part that has to be gotten out of the way first: The comic book superhero main character of SHAZAM! is Captain Marvel – the original Captain Marvel, before Marvel Comics got into the act. In fact the character predates Marvel Comics itself. He wasn’t originally a DC character either. DC sued rival publisher Fawcett Comics to have him shut down back in the day, under the novel legal theory that they owned the concept of a flying hero in tights and a cape. Despite years of litigation, some of which went against Fawcett, it didn’t work, though Fawcett was ultimately forced into bankruptcy. Ironically, decades later DC bought the rights to the character.  

Following the demise of Fawcett, Marvel Comics introduced their own character named “Captain Marvel” in the sixties. There have been several versions over the years. As DC and Marvel do not have an agreement over the legitimate use of the name, the name “Captain Marvel” is never used in SHAZAM!, presumably to avoid the same sort of cease-and-desist letters and Orders to Show Cause with which DC deluged Fawcett Comics back in the fifties.

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures 2019

But despite the absence of the name Captain Marvel, this is an updated reboot that tries hard to stay faithful to that character’s roots and original style, which was a far cry from its rivals over at DC. Their stars Superman and Batman played it pretty straight. In the comic book, one of Captain Marvel’s periodic associates was Mr. Tawky Tawney, a talking tiger who walked upright and wore suits. (The groaning Marvel fans can sit down now. After all, doesn’t Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy feature a talking raccoon…?)

Start with a plucky orphan…

SHAZAM!, directed by David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) from a screenplay by Henry Gayden, eschews the more fanciful elements and is built along familiar lines. We meet plucky young orphan Billy Batson, and audiences will be forgiven for sniffing for eau de Harry Potter, who has already run away from half a dozen foster homes. Billy, played with with equal parts charm and brashness by newcomer Asher Angel, is the lynchpin of the movie. He’s being sent to one last foster home as the movie opens, where he unwillingly joins a ready-made, ethnically diverse family of kids that’s a little like the Island of Misfit Toys. The producers have wisely cast Cooper Andrews (Jerry…!) of AMC’s The Walking Dead, an actor who projects sheer likeability, as the foster home head.

As in the original comic, Billy encounters a supernatural being named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), whose name is an acronym for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. The dying Shazam gives Billy the power to turn into a mystical champion by saying his name.

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures 2019

Zachary Levi’s performance critical

Where the new feature deviates from past adaptations is that although once he says “Shazam,” Billy Batson has a superhero’s body and costume, he still has the mentality of a 14 year old boy. That’s where Zachary Levi’s performance is so critical to the movie. If Levi’s dark-haired, square-jawed good looks have in the past seemed perhaps a bit generic, in fire engine red tights with a glowing lightning emblem on the chest, they are pop art iconic. But SHAZAM! is both a satirical pastiche of the by now well-established comic-book genre and simultaneously the genuine article. Levi, clearly, gets this, and projects a childlike amazement that reflects what the filmmakers hope will be the audience’s reaction. Young actor Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman, Billy’s foster home roommate shines bright as an updated version of the perennial superhero sidekick.

The somewhat unnerving opening of the movie is devoted to the origin of the villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, played as an adult by the redoubtable Mark Strong. Sivana, who has harnessed the power of the Seven Deadly Sins, and wants the power of Shazam as well, is menacing but familiar. Strong is a fine actor, but here he seems to have come direct from Central Casting. He has the brains to play Sivana low-key, which avoids a number of potential pitfalls, but there’s no way to avoid the fact that he’s still a stock villain.

Many of the more recent superhero epics have been dark and portentous, even pretentious. SHAZAM!, by comparison, is a light and delightfully unpretentious action comedy about a boy with a superhero’s body. Comparisons to Big are unavoidable, and SHAZAM! even acknowledges this with a sly wink and its own walk-on keyboard scene. Levi makes this work with a performance that’s knowingly guileless – no mean feat. Director Sandberg knows enough to include the indispensable set pieces of a superhero origin story, including the montage where the hero experiments with his abilities. SHAZAM!’s take on this is set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” pleasantly acknowledging the kitsch-classic, Queen-scored, 1980 Flash Gordon, in which Dino De Laurentiis tried, and notoriously failed, to cash in on the success of the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie.

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures 2019

It doesn’t hurt that the special effects are vastly superior to the increasingly Playstationy CGI relied upon by the omnipresent Marvel adaptations. Not that SHAZAM! doesn’t rely on CGI, because it does, particularly with its Seven Deadly Sins Squad of monsters, who might, by the way, be a little frightening for the youngest and most sheltered of viewers.

Younger audiences will certainly enjoy the wide-eyed, pervasive sense of adventure as well as the sometimes goofy humor, which is on the order of a cooler version of the Power Rangers. The hot button topic of bullying is dealt with, with comfortingly predictable results.

The usual fairy tale issues

SHAZAM!, it bears noting, also deals with issues of unwed pregnancy and child abandonment. Other than the fact that such issues exist in the real world and regularly inform TV plots, they’ve been staples of fairy tales and Disney movies from time immemorial. Still, the movie earns its PG-13 rating for those themes, comic book-style, over-the-top violence, and some adult language.  The young protagonists do take advantage of Captain Marvel’s adult appearance to buy beer, which they end up finding disgusting after one swig, avoiding a more controversial issue.

Audiences should be aware that á la Marvel,  there is one scene during the end credits and another after.SHAZAM! should further prove that DC comic book characters are on the map to stay, and that their best chance of success lies in doing it their way, rather than imitating Marvel. In any event,  this one’s an entertaining charmer in its own right.

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