DC’s ‘Shazam!’ is simply ‘marvel’-ous
“Shazam!” (Rated T)
Cast: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mark Strong
Genre: Action / Adventure / Comedy
Dwight’s Rating: 3 Stars
If you liked last month’s “Captain Marvel” – as did I – then you’ll likely love this month’s “Captain Marvel”.
That’s not me trying to be cheeky, and suggesting that these comic book super hero movies are all the same – although that does indeed seem like something I would say. But that’s not the point this time, I swear.
Rather, that’s because Shazam – as in, the new DC Films/Warner Bros. release “Shazam!” – is the original Captain Marvel, and thus, Captain Marvel is Shazam.
The behind-the-scenes drama involving the name is itself worthy of a motion picture. Here’s a simplified summary: Fawcett Publications hopped onto the comic book craze of the 1930s, and created a character eerily similar to Superman, which was from a rival company called National Comics.
By the mid 1940s, Fawcett’s character Captain Marvel (for Marvelous) soon eclipsed Superman in popularity, becoming the top-selling comic book during World War II.
National sued Fawcett, and the back-and-forth legal action resulted in initial wins for Fawcett, with successive appeals in favor of National. Fawcett settled out of court, paying hundred of thousands to National. This, along with the advent of television, and the declining popularity of super hero comic book characters in the 1950s, resulted in poor Fawcett going out of business. The company eventually sold the rights to its characters to National, which would change its name to Detective Comics (DC), as detective and western-themed comic books became more popular than the super heroes.
While all this was going on, Marvel Comics swooped in and seized the abandoned copyrights for Captain Marvel, and started its own unrelated, but also long and twisted history, of numerous heroes named “Captain Marvel”.
DC eventually decided to revive Captain Marvel, following renewed interest in super heroes in the late 1960s. But with chief rival Marvel now holding the copyright, it was decided the new name for the character would be the magic word he used to transform into Captain Marvel. And thus we have Shazam!
It’s fascinating stuff. Until that tale hits the big screen, thankfully, “Shazam!” should be enough to keep you entertained. And while Marvel’s “Captain Marvel” was nice and pleasant, “Shazam!” has the goods to really stand out.
In fact, “Shazam!” is the best film involving a DC Comics character in years (yes, to me, even better than “Wonder Woman”). And it’s good enough to erase the bad taste of last year’s “Aquaman” (well, perhaps I’ll need to watch “Shazam!” at least twice to fully erase the memory of that disaster).
The film posits that we all have a superhero inside of us, and that 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.
So, again, while I’m not intending to imply that all these movies are similar, there’s definitely a familiar feel here. It’s light-hearted in the vein of Spider-Man, particularly last year’s wonderful “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”, or any of the Spider-Man origin stories in which teenage Peter Parker discovers his powers and abilities.
With the magic and witchcraft elements, and with the principal characters being teenagers and pre-teens and even younger children, there’s also a Harry Potter vibe. And to describe the whole production as “Big” (the 1988 Tom Hanks fantasy) with super powers would be quite accurate.
Despite that familiar feel, though, “Shazam!” impresses as a highly competent all-rounder: visually, technically, writing, directing, performance. Particularly with the latter, Zachary Levi (TV’s “Chuck”) as the grown Shazam is especially strong, along with young scene-stealer Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman, Billy Batson’s foster brother.
The playful interactions between all the characters – even with bad guy Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) – are great fun. And there are some important themes about acceptance, bullying, adoption and realizing potential. But it’s never handled in a sappy “Afterschool Special” manner.
Although some of the language may be a little salty for young kids, and some of the monsters may be a little scary, “Shazam!” should be okay for most preteens; they will have heard much worse at school or in the car on the drive to school. (ahem!).
It’s hard to find faults in any one area, besides, perhaps, some mildly infuriating fight scenes, especially at the end. With practically unlimited powers, you just wish Shazam would stop holding back, allowing these battles to drag on.
Speaking of dragging things on – as with ALL these super hero movies now, there are additional scenes during the credits. This one’s got two: one in the middle and one at the very end. It takes so long that it feels like you’ve watched a whole other movie.
Regardless, “Shazam!” is a great family adventure – fun, funny and satisfying, and almost uplifting. It looks like there will be more, and if they’re like this initial outing, that would be “marvelous”. No matter what they call them.
Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email email@example.com and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.