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Shazam!

Posted April 6, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Let’s talk about Captain Marvel. Not the character played by Brie Larson in the recent Marvel film, we’ll get to her later. I’m sorry, but there’s no way this won’t get confusing. Please bear with me.

In February of 1940, Fawcett Comics first introduced the world to Billy Batson, a preteen orphan chosen by an ancient wizard to wield the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the lightning of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Thus when Billy says the magic word “Shazam!”, he transforms into the fully-grown superhero Captain Marvel. It’s a straightforward adolescent power fantasy, so goofy and transparent that it could only have been produced in the Golden Age of Comics.

Indeed, the character was so immensely popular that he outsold Superman at times. So of course National Comics (the precursor to DC Comics) filed a lawsuit in 1941, claiming that the two characters were similar enough for copyright infringement and the two companies spent years going back and forth in legal warfare. In the meantime, Fawcett tried to capitalize on their success by introducing Captain Marvel Jr, Mary Marvel, and a whole Marvel Family of superheroes. It didn’t work for very long.

(Side note: In 1941, Republic Pictures sought to produce a live-action Superman serial until — you guessed it! — copyright issues got in the way. Not to be deterred, Republic took their special effects in development and applied it toward a series of Captain Marvel pictures. After DC tried and failed to intervene, of course. Thus Captain Marvel has the distinction of being the very first superhero in history to get his own live-action film adaptation.)

After WWII, Fawcett’s comic book sales were sliding so terribly that they decided to stop publishing superhero comics altogether, thus rendering their ongoing legal feud with DC entirely moot. So they settled out of court in 1953, and Fawcett permanently retired the franchise. To make yet another long story short, Fawcett’s sales continued plummeting until the company was pretty much bankrupt in the 1970s. So they sold DC the rights to Captain Marvel… only for DC to find that they couldn’t use the character either.

See, a tiny little company called Atlas Comics rebranded themselves as Marvel Comics in 1961. Shortly thereafter, somebody (very likely Stan Lee and/or Gene Colan) figured out that they could make their own namesake Captain Marvel, now that neither DC nor Fawcett could use the name anymore. Thus they created numerous characters under the names “Captain Marvel” or “Ms. Marvel”, often switching the mantles from one character to another to keep the name in constant publication. That way, when DC finally decided to reintroduce the original Captain Marvel, their chief competitor could come back and say “Hey, we’ve been using that name for a decade without a peep from you that whole time, and it’s also the name of our company. It’s ours now.”

Thus DC Comics tried to integrate the original Captain Marvel franchise — with all of its characters and independent mythology — into the established DC Universe, after Captain Marvel had been out of print for 20 years, and they had to justify the character’s inclusion when they still had a perfectly good Superman flying around. Oh, and they couldn’t use the character’s name. This went about as well as you’d expect. There was a cheesy-ass TV show in the 1970s, and of course DC hit the reset button with Crisis on Infinite Earths and the New 52 initiative, but all of these efforts to try and reintroduce “Shazam” came off as a dopey discount knock-off of the Big Blue Boy Scout.

Yes, DC seriously renamed the character “Shazam”. Even though — by nature of his powers! — the character couldn’t introduce himself by name or even say his name out loud without switching between his two identities on the spot. The logistical nightmares just keep piling up with this character.

To recap, we’re talking about a superhero property almost as old as Superman himself, and even as popular as the Man of Steel back in the day. Moreover, we’re talking about a character specifically built around the power fantasy of a put-upon preteen boy who could transform into a handsome fully-grown superhero with a single magic word. It’s easy to picture some alternate universe where this character is every bit as beloved, influential, and universally known as Superman, Batman, or Captain America. Yet here we are with all of this convoluted debate over what to even call the guy, just because of a petty and ridiculous lawsuit that all but certainly would have ended very differently today. And if you think the origin story is so dated and absurd that no audience today would ever buy it, I’ve got two words: “Power Rangers”.

Speaking of the modern day, here we are at a time in which Zack Snyder is finally good and gone from the DCEU (Zack, I love you, but you should never have taken that gig.), the whole Justice League shared universe experiment has been more or less abandoned, and DC/WB is taking bold chances on movies that don’t have anything to do with Superman or Batman. This has brought them positive results so far, so now seems like a good time to finally — FINALLY — bring Shazam! out of the development hell where it’s been languishing for the past two decades. And the man chosen to get the job done was F. David Sandberg, his third movie after the forgettably decent Annabelle: Creation, and the laughably inept Lights Out. This did not inspire confidence.

(Side note: No, I’m not even getting started on Dwayne Johnson and his quixotic efforts to play recurring archnemesis Black Adam on the screen. Though he was obligingly given an exec producer credit here, and Black Adam is reportedly getting his own film in production at the start of next year, so fingers crossed!)

To be clear, I would have been satisfied enough if Shazam! had been merely decent. Wonder Woman was on par with a Phase I Marvel film, and Aquaman was a convoluted mess clearly assembled by committee, but I’ll be damned if those movies weren’t a good time. They got the job done. Shazam!, on the other hand, totally crushed it.

I commend the filmmakers for their bravery in adapting the origin story for this character without ever once shying away from how goofy and juvenile it is. This is a movie about a foster child (Billy Batson, played here by Asher Angel) getting scooped up out of nowhere by a wizard (played by Djimon Hounsou) and gifted with a magic word that spontaneously transforms him into an adult with superpowers (Shazam, played by Zachary Levi). While the movie tosses around a whole ton of lampshade jokes, it makes absolutely no apology for the premise.

If anything, the filmmakers lean hard into the premise. So much of this movie is all about the fantasy of a 14-year-old boy gifted with all the freedoms of being an adult. Comparisons to Big have already been made, and with very good reason, but there’s an important twist: Billy can go from being an adult to a child and back again whenever he wants, and so he gets to have the best of both worlds. This makes for a lot of great jokes and some ingeniously clever scenes.

There are simply too many sight gags to keep track of, and all of them are hilarious. There’s even a brief bit with a piano floorboard that was clearly a very deliberate homage. That said, a lot of the sight gags were done to tie back into the greater DC cinematic universe, which begs the question of what exactly DC/WB plan on doing next. We still don’t know much of anything about the Batman movie that Matt Reeves is directing, except that Ben Affleck won’t be Batman anymore, and it’s anyone’s guess when or if Henry Cavill will come back as Superman. Yet Shazam! very firmly establishes that Batman and Superman are huge, HUGE personalities in this setting, so just how the hell do DC/WB plan on tying all of this together without repeating or compounding their previous mistakes? I digress.

In addition to the fantasy of being a grown up, the fantasy of being a superhero is central to the plot and the appeal of this movie. Here we have a kid who gets all these superpowers dropped into his lap with no instruction manual. So you can imagine what a vicarious thrill it is when… *sigh* Shazam discovers or masters some new ability. But when given the first opportunity, of course this naive kid uses his abilities to show off so he can make money and win social media popularity. You might expect this to go into some variation of “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”, but the movie takes a slightly different and frankly ingenious angle.

Even more than Peter Parker — who at least had two blood relatives to look after and raise him — Billy Batson is truly a nobody. He was abandoned as a child and grew up in the foster system, without a home or a family or any friends. His adoptive brother/sidekick (Freddy, played by Jack Dylan Grazer) has it even worse — on top of being a foster kid, he can’t walk without a crutch. These kids have spent their entire lives feeling totally invisible and powerless, so of course they’re going to play with these superpowers for all they’re worth. Even to an unhealthy and frankly stupid degree.

That said, the fact remains that only one of the two actually has these powers: the one who doesn’t need a crutch. So there’s Freddy, mouthing off and playing jokes at every opportunity, all while idolizing the superheroes that are coming to life in the world all around him, and then somebody else two feet away from him gets superpowers. You can imagine how tough that is for Freddy, which goes a long way toward explaining some of his dumber decisions in the movie and powers an especially wonderful shouting match.

Envy is a prominent theme of the movie, especially where our villain is concerned. To make a very long story short, Mark Strong plays an extremely loose adaptation of recurring comic book villain Dr. Sivana. In this version, our villain was selected as a child and ultimately rejected as a candidate to receive all the powers of Shazam. He was, however, made champion of the demons that our wizard was sworn to protect the world from.

The demons are… well, they’re demons, so they don’t really need much motivation to seek out more power and destroy the world. Sivana, on the other hand, is driven by a lifetime of cruelty at the hands of his family. Through his entire life, Sivana was told he would never be good enough or strong enough, and the one time he’s given the chance to become something greater, it’s torn away from him. So now — as with Freddie and God knows how many more people in this setting — Sivana is faced with the question of why Billy Batson was worthy while Thaddeus Sivana wasn’t. We clearly see for ourselves that the wizard sent out a tracking spell, seeking out and calling a myriad of candidates from all over space and time, yet it was Billy Batson — and only Billy Batson — out of everyone in all the world who was chosen to receive these powers.

What is it that makes this kid so special? What makes him worthy to have and to keep these powers? Well, that’s for Billy to find out, and to prove to the rest of the world. After all — to paraphrase another cinematic superhero — if you’re nothing without your powers, you shouldn’t have any powers at all.

There’s one last important theme to bring up, and that of course is family. Given that the concept of the Marvel Family has always been a cornerstone of the franchise, and given Billy Batson’s recurring status as a foster kid, of course the concept of family was going to be a huge part of this picture. But the movie dovetails the personal angle with the powered angle in a truly inspired way.

The filmmakers explicitly raise the question of what good can ever come from power that can’t or won’t be shared. In most superhero movies, this would be interpreted as sharing powers with the world in the sense of using powers toward helping people and inspiring others. But this movie goes a step further, putting forward the notion that too much power in the hands of one person can be dangerous and unstable. Therefore, the best way to use power and to keep it reliable is to share it with others.

The tone to this movie is phenomenal. Another online critic (I’m so sorry I can’t remember which one) described the movie as ’80s-era Amblin with a dash of Guillermo del Toro, and uh… yeah, that pretty well nailed it. No way am I going to top that. The whole movie has a delightful sense of wonder, an endlessly inventive sense of humor, and a powerful dose of heart, all blended together into a fantasy guaranteed to be fun for all ages.

But at the same time, the omnipresent levity meant that the filmmakers could go really, really dark so it all balanced out to PG-13. The monsters in this movie look appropriately hellish, designed and animated in such a way that I was honestly afraid of them. Granted, the demons are supposed to be modeled after the Seven Deadly Sins in a way that I couldn’t even remotely see, but maybe that’s just me.

The cast is incredible across the board. Asher Angel turns in a starmaking performance while Zachary Levi looks to be having the time of his goddamn life running the emotional gamut through every scene. Jack Dylan Grazer does remarkably well, effortlessly playing a relentless smartass without ever wearing out his welcome. Grace Fulton has a wonderful stage presence, ditto for Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, and Faithe Herman, all of whom elevate the foster siblings beyond disposable one-note sidepieces. Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews are both flat fucking incredible support players as warm and loving foster parents without overselling the roles for an instant. Mark Strong brings a ton of new and wonderful layers to his established villain schtick.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Michelle Borth, Adam Brody, Ross Butler, D.J. Cotrona, and Meagan Good. I don’t dare spoil any more about their cameo appearances than I have to, but it’s a bona fide showstopper when they turn up. I’m admittedly disappointed that Borth’s character didn’t have more to do, but there will assuredly be time enough to fix that in the sequels.

Easily the weak link in the cast is a woefully misplaced Djimon Hounsou. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a wonderful actor and he’s got the perfect voice for the part. But every time I saw him onscreen wearing that superhero outfit and his face buried under all that fake gray hair, I wanted to burst out laughing. Hounsou is trying so hard to sell this, but all the hopeless overacting only made it look more hopelessly ridiculous. Casting him to play the wizard was a huge mistake.

Oh, and as long as we’re on the subject of nitpicks, there’s a running gag about how nobody can agree on what to call Shazam. So many possible names are thrown out, I’m pretty sure not a one of them is ever used twice. It was okay for this one movie, but this is something the filmmakers very badly need to figure out if and when they move ahead with sequels.

The music… eh. Benjamin Wallfisch turned in a perfectly decent superhero score, but the main theme was only good enough to be serviceable without ever graduating into anything iconic. I like the costume design, and the production design had a Christmas setting that very nicely played into the themes of family and greed in subtle ways. The action scenes were a great deal of fun, and the CGI looked good throughout.

The best compliment I can pay to Shazam! is that it serves as a beautiful celebration of superhero fiction, and an elegant reminder of why we need superheroes. We need these reminders to appreciate what we have and to protect what’s good and special about this world. We need to believe that we can reach greater heights against all opposition, and we need to remember that there are more good people of pure heart than we may realize. And of course, we all have to stay in touch with the inner child that still believes in magic, sees the world with a sense of wonder, and believes that good will ultimately triumph.

This is unquestionably the best movie DC/WB has released this decade. Between the unapologetic sense of fun, the sincerely heartfelt themes, and the deathly serious stakes, this picture nails the tone we all wish they had targeted from Man of Steel onward. This is absolutely not one to miss.