Reviewed by Tim Robins
We all have a superhero inside of us — it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In 14-year-old Billy Batson’s case, all he needs to do is shout out one word to transform into the adult superhero Shazam. Still a kid at heart, Shazam revels in the new version of himself by doing what any other teen would do — have fun while testing out his newfound powers. But he’ll need to master them quickly before the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana can get his hands on Shazam’s magical abilities.
Shazam! is the superhero who dare not speak his name, partly because saying the magic word Shazam would turn him back to his child alter ego Billy Batson – but mainly because Disney/Marvel Comics now own intellectual property rights to the name ‘Captain Marvel’.
This predicament leads to some surprisingly good-natured fun around what is DC’s latest addition to their Extended Universe should be (suggestions include “Thunder Crack” and “Captain Sparkle Figures”).
First published in 1939, in Whiz Comics, The Original Captain Marvel (as DC were forced to subtitle the character in the 1970s) was once more popular than Superman – he was even the first to have his own live action film serial, Adventures of Captain Marvel, starring released in 12 episodes in 1941 by Republic Pictures.
Many attribute this popularity to the fact that its young protagonist, Billy Batson, only had to say the magic word “Shazam” to become a superhero, whereas to be Superman you had to have been jettisoned from an alien planet with a red sun. But this overlooks the other fact that Superman was billed as “The Man of Tomorrow”, with the suggestion that if you lifted enough chairs you to could gain the strength to outrun trains and jump buildings at a single bound.
Of more importance to the success of “Captain Marvel” success was that his stories were just a lot more fun than those of Superman. Back in the day, when the superhero genre was just finding its voice and its name, Captain Marvel’s creators (writer Bill Parker and artist C.C.Beck) drew less from science fiction pulp magazines and more from E C Segar’s Popeye.
At a time when Superman glumly punched out garden variety gangsters, Captain Marvel was a joyful fairytale, filled with absurdly entertaining characters such Dr Sivania and his family, Mr Tawney the talking Tiger and Mr Mind, an alien worm who communicated through a little radio hung around his neck.
Thankfully, Shazam!, the movie, wisely gestures to these early origins, although the plot riffs on writer Geoff Johns more recent and, you guessed it, ‘darker’ take on the character.
The film’s writers and director take some of the darker edges of the contemporary character to deliver a superhero take on the Big, as well as nods to the Harry Potter cinematic universe, including not only ‘Shazam’ (the Wizard who grants Batson his powers), personifications of the seven deadly sins and a chamber of floating doors, each door leading to alternative worlds. The script doesn’t exactly nod in these films’ direction as much as grabs you by the collar at makes sure that you are looking in exactly the right direction.
Much of the film’s success is due the central cast. Asher Angel is pitch perfect as the orphan Billy Batson, while Zachary Levi completely convinces as Batson’s magically-powered, adult alter-ego, named Captain Sparkle Figures by Jack Dylan Grazer’s Freddy, a fellow foster child. Grazer doesn’t exactly carry the movie, but he certainly must get the most screen time and carries off providing continuity to the ever-changing superhero.
It’s also great to see Mark Strong back as a super villain (this time, the evil Dr Sivana) after being sidelined as Sinestro by a mass of CGI smog in Green Lantern.
(As an aside, I saw Levy in Dave’s Comics, Brighton, UK enquiring about the popularity of Green Lantern shortly before that film’s release. He seemed blissfully unaware that, although the Green Lantern is central to the DC Universe, the film would turn out to be a pile of poo).
Shazam!’s plot follows Batson in his search for his birth mother, who vanished after losing sight him at a carnival (the kind of moment that is genuinely terrifying in real life). The script then follows a common trope in children’s literature – that of absent parents. Whether it be because the child protagonists are on holiday (the Famous Five), trapped on the other side of time barrier (Timeslip) or their parents have been killed (Superman and Batman) – the latter is something many children must occasionally long for, at least in their imaginations.
Billy’s quest to find his own parents has a particular resonance to me, as I was adopted as a baby and was reunited with my own birth parents at the start of the Millennia. Unfortunately, it is here that the film falls flat on its face thanks to a routine climax that involves that bane of superhero movies – the big CGI punch up, this time featuring blobby monsters.
The confrontation between “Captain Sparkle Figures” and Dr Sivana only delivers one decent joke and that is about the comic book convention of having super-characters hear each other while floating miles apart in the sky. (Hint: they can’t).
There are also some schoolboy scripting errors that hurriedly deliver much exposition.
I also felt more time was needed to relate the hero’s powers to mythology. Shazam is not simply the wizard’s name but an acronym of six “immortal elders”: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury). Unfortunately, it is young Freddy who gets to name his friend’s powers and, while his categories are funny, they are not remotely relevant to the character’s mythological core.
The Seven Deadly Sins that are part of the storyline also needed better delineation. It’s easy to guess that ‘Gluttony’ is the blobby demon with a stomach full of teeth but I have no idea how the rest of the CGI brigade of Gremlins cast offs personify their respective sins. The film might have been better off holding six in reserve and just going with ‘Greed’.
While the climax also revisits early scenes of the foster children and parents giving thanks for their family, this is mere scripting by numbers. At the risk of sounding sappy or, worse, suggesting box office failure, Shazam! needed to remove the climactic fight scene in favour of a more heartfelt resolution to Batson’s choice between a troubled, emotionally unavailable birth family and his acceptance of the foster home as family of his own.
At the same time, Sivania needed to see his emotional abuse at the hands of his father and older brother as something to transcend in a way other that simply shrugging it off and accepting that he was inherently sinful.
Stephen Spielberg would never have dropped that ball as badly as this film does, and neither should Disney.
Simply put, despite what the climax of Shazam! suggests, family means more than finding like-minded siblings who are willing to join with you to punch out a bad guy and his CGI mates.
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide. His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip. He reviewed comics and films in posts and podcasts for the Mindless Ones until he became a net diva and forgot to name check the rest of the team at a San Diego Comic Con panel. The Mindless Ones gave him the nickname ‘Tymbus’
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