Director: David F. Sandberg
Writer: Henry Gayden
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou
The “Marvel vs. DC” debate among the modern nerd crowd has been getting a bit less certain in recent years. For some time, it was pretty much the gospel truth that Marvel had won and won hard in the culture war, and that is still largely true now. With that said, it can honestly be argued that our friends at DC and Warner Bros are starting to find their bearings in the battle for blockbuster bragging rights.
Last year’s Aquaman was an aesthetically satisfying underwater reversal of Marvel’s Black Panther that managed to crack a billion at the box office with audiences eager for more. Wonder Woman rocked the world in its own right without Gal Gadot inadvertently generating any of the social controversies that Brie Larson did in the wake of Captain Marvel’s release. It’s that last point that seems to turn the tables here. How ironic and cheeky it is that a character like “Shazam” should make his film debut around the same time…
Violence/Scary Images: Lots of superhero violence (much with a slapstick tone). The villain unleashes the “seven deadly sins” monsters out of his eye; they kill people in a variety of ways. Some characters disintegrate (one screams in terror as it happens); others are shot with guns, slammed against buildings, walls, concrete, etc. A character is shown being thrown out of a window; another’s head is bitten off. Lots of chases and pursuits, with big fights between Sivana and Shazam and later a climactic battle with more characters. Property damage; car crash. School bullies push Freddy to the ground, and Billy punches the bullies. Parents yell at and disparage children.
Language/Crude Humor: Language isn’t constant but includes “a–,” “s–t,” “hell,” “sucks balls,” “douchebags,” “butt,” “nuts,” “you suck,” “oh my God,” and “Jesus Christ” (as exclamations). In an on-air interview, a character curses a lot, but the words are always bleeped out. Middle-finger gesture.
Sexual Content: Shazam and Freddy go into a strip club twice (the interior is never depicted), once by themselves briefly and once with the entire sibling gang (the oldest sister is shown covering the eyes of the youngest sister, but the boys look pleased and dazed). The scenes are comedic in tone. In one case, Freddy asks Shazam whether he “saw any boobs”. Some innuendo, i.e.: Wizard: “Lay your hands on my staff.” Billy: “Gross!”
Drug/Alcohol Use: Shazam, accompanied by Freddy, buys beer at a convenience store; they try it later but immediately spit it out and go back for soft drinks and junk food.
Spiritual Content: Depictions of fantasy magic. Personifications of the “Seven Deadly Sins” play a major role.
Other Negative Themes: Some mean-spirited pranks are played, sometimes as an act of revenge. Parental negligence.
Positive Content: Several positive messages for kids. Shows the importance of having a strong foundation in family, whether it’s a biological one or a foster one (the movie’s example of a loving, caring foster home is a nice change from many representations). The main character might not have a lot of money, but he’s rich in unconditional love and support from his foster family. Meanwhile, the main antagonist’s wealthy family never supported their son. Clear themes of teamwork, courage, gratitude, responsibility to the greater good, redemption, and selflessness vs. selfishness.
Billy/Shazam’s story is one of redemption and maturity. He learns not to just focus on himself but to also think about others. He’s finally able to accept love and give it in return. Freddy provides a positive representation of a teen with a physical disability. The Vazquezes are kind foster parents who love and support their foster kids and expect them to respect and value one another.
When exactly was the last time that a major blockbuster superhero flick opened with the villain’s origin? The last one that comes to mind is Brian Singer’s X-Men from 2000. That movie, admittedly, hasn’t aged very well, but its place in the pantheon of superhero cinema cannot be ignored. A similarly impactful character in comics history that has largely been relegated to the margins of consideration in modern popular culture is Captain Marvel.
No, not that one. Not that one either. Look, there are no fewer than half a dozen characters in Marvel’s oeuvre with that moniker, but the one I’m thinking of is the one under DC’s ownership. The first character in comics to bear the title of Captain Marvel was created by writer Bill Parker and artist C. C. Beck back in 1939 under the publishing of the now-defunct Fawcett Comics studio. While few outside of the company of comics history aficionados has even heard of him until recently, it’s worth noting that this original Captain Marvel was the most popular superhero character of the 1940s, even outselling Superman for a time. Much to my surprise, he was also the first superhero to get a film released back in 1941. It’s fairly clear as to why he was such a hit.
Captain Marvel (real name Billy Batson) is a ten-year-old boy who was blessed by a wizard with the magical ability to transform into an adult-sized hero with a single word. Kids of the time were enraptured by the idea of a boy hero who was just as formidable as the grown-ups, if not more so in some cases, even though he didn’t look the part most of the time. As fate would have it, the folks at DC took issue with the fact that they were being outclassed by Fawcett Comics in sales, so a lawsuit was filed claiming that the character of Captain Marvel was similar enough to Superman to warrant a charge of copyright infringement.
This fallout ended with Fawcett discontinuing all Captain Marvel runs, eventually selling the rights to the whole franchise to DC and going defunct in 1980. For the longest while, DC hadn’t the slightest clue as to what to do with their newly acquired intellectual property, and considering that many would think it ill-gotten gains, that’s somewhat understandable. A further wrinkle in the timeline is that while our friends at DC were shuffling their feet about what to do with their adopted hero in a half-pint, their main rivals over at Marvel were trademarking characters by the name “Captain Marvel” before anyone important could get their socks on.
Because of this and many other reasons, DC is no longer allowed to refer the original Captain Marvel by his Christian name, reverting to labeling him “Shazam” instead. Forgive my nerd rage for a moment, but “Shazam” is the name of the wizard who gave him his power and the word he shouts to transform into Captain Marvel. That’s not his name, nor should it be. That’s like giving all of the Power Rangers the handle “Zordon” or something. So while the legality of the issue comes with its own barrel of snakes, most of us in polite company prefer to call him “Captain Marvel.” If I’m not mistaken, they’re still allowed to do so within the stories of the comics, at least, so long as they don’t use that name on the covers or in marketing (a running gag in this film is that no one knows what to call Billy’s alter ego. The closest we ever get to something respectable is “Captain Sparklefingers”).
But enough about that. We’ve got essentially TWO “Captain Marvel” movies to fight about this year, and I’m only going to talk about one of them since the other risks my getting raked across the coals of unsubstantiated fingers of judgment with the words “misogynist” and “sexist” scrawled on the knuckles jabbed in my face. And seeing as that’s going to most likely be the longest sentence I’ll write for this review, I’d better get started on the actual movie. A man’s mental energy can only go but so far.
David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! is a work of superhero cinema that seems to be a bit out of its time, but actually in a good way. I made a similar remark about last year’s Venom in that what may have been a “cool” idea a couple of decades ago may not be so equally resonant now. Shazam! is an idea that’s nearly a full century old and hasn’t been relevant in popular culture for over half that time. How satisfying it is that it’s not a cynical rejection but a direct and impartial embrace of how “uncool” a character like this Captain Marvel can be?
The general aesthetic approach to be found here largely feels like the best parts of those cheeky live-action Batman films from the 90s. Shazam! is colorful, full of energy, a bit corny but unironically so, self-aware without beating us about the head about how meta it can be (I’m looking at you Deadpool), eager to make us laugh, cheer, and appreciate it, and it works on all those levels. After the dire and funereal demonstrations of Zack Snyder’s outings with Man of Steel and the misbegotten Dawn of Justice, screenwriter Henry Gayden delivers here what is nothing less than a family friendly breath of fresh air. Well, it’s about as family friendly as many of the other popular and subversively naughty PG flicks of the 80s and 90s (think E.T., The Goonies, or The Karate Kid for reference).
While Billy Batson himself (Asher Angel) has been aged up a bit to a high school level, he remains an orphaned foster child from the wrong side of the tracks. Much of his attention is focused on looking for his estranged mother from whom he was separated as a toddler, but the film tonally doesn’t quite know how to handle something that heavy. In fact, all the “serious” work that the film is trying to do is where its shortcomings are most apparent.
As stated before, Batson gets the power to transform into Zachery Levi in a muscle suit from the wizard Shazam (not to be confused with the genie “Kazaam” played by Shaquille O’Neal) who is here portrayed by Djimon Hounsou in a funny-looking wig and a beard living as a strange hermit in a stone temple called “The Rock of Eternity”. He’s supposed to be the last of a host of guardians protecting the earth from the manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins, and he’s been interviewing potential champions to take his place for quite some time. The first one we see is a promising lad who gets turned down for not being “pure of heart”. Sadly, for one as wise as he, the wizard is unable to foresee how such a rejection may very well inadvertently produce the very adversary that he so dreads.
Said antagonist comes to us in the form of Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), who in his original incarnation is basically the progenitor to the bald, impish, evil genius criminal mastermind archetype that we all know. Sivana has a very undesirable number of experiences in his formative years, not the least of which being consistently blamed for the car accident that cost his emotionally abusive father the use of his legs. After being turned down by the wizard, Sivana commits his life to returning to the mystically hidden temple and awakening the Sins for his own aims.
However contrived and sloppy the method may be, a very effective villain is on offer here with an entourage of equally formidable cronies to do his dirty work. Okay, I might have been a bit too forgiving there. This is far from the first time that the seven deadly sins have been personified in fiction, but one would hope that with so many innovative representations done before, they’d put a bit more effort into it. What we have instead are standard dingy-grey ZBrush model CGI beasties that bear very little if any visual or functional relation to those cardinal vices.
An observant viewer might be able to parse out which monster is supposed to represent which sin through osmosis and superficial association, but the film does little to make the embodiment believable. There is a scene in which a ruthless business tycoon is devoured by Greed, and a later scene with something of a clever usage of the sin most possessive of Silvana, but aside from that, not much. Strange how Sloth manages to keep up with the rest of the group with no trouble, for example.
That’s largely irrelevant though. What’s truly of great import is Billy’s home and family life–however meager and humble it may be. Victor and Rosa Vazquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) may not be the coolest foster parents on the block but… Okay, no, they are pretty cool. Warm and endearing, they have managed to fill their quaint Philadelphia home with a diverse roster of children left behind by their former homes of varying charm and wit. While all of them get a moment in the spotlight (which may be a minor spoiler), it’s Billy’s mile-a-minute relationship with his motor mouth roomie Freddy Freeman that carries the brunt of the development. Freddy is a physically handicapped nerd with a die-hard love for the superhero ephemera that we take for granted but is all too real in his life. One can imagine how ecstatic he can be once Billy receives the wizard’s blessing, though a bit of surprisingly believable bitterness came with it as well in a later turn.
I found it amusing that once Zachery Levi takes command of playing a literal boy trapped in a grown man’s body, Billy is much more interested in living out his immature idea of what it means to be an adult rather than what it means to be a superhero. An early scene involves him making an attempt at purchasing beer, that thankfully turns on its head in an appropriately abrupt fashion. Another less amusing scene has Billy giving patronage to a gentleman’s club with him gushing over how “nice” everyone was, and Freddy harboring more “carnal” curiosities. Don’t worry, we don’t see anything.
Once they get their heads on straight and take seriously the emblazoned lightning bolt, red suit, and white cape, the two and a half boys go about discovering Billy’s new superpowers in zany Generation Z fashion. Viral videos are shot and posted to social media, pranks are played, powers are tested and discovered with hilarious results, and crimes and disasters are intercepted/caused with both would-be victims and attackers kind of taken aback but not really surprised that another caped do-gooder is milling about the neighborhood. This continues until through both bad luck and getting too big and noisy for the wrong people to not notice, the bad guy starts bearing his teeth, and thus heroism is in demand.
The DC Extended Universe came onto the stage with a near-operatic sense of itself, bringing a heavy-browed tonality of doom and despair with which many took issue. Ever since finding their footing with Wonder Woman, the shift towards more lighthearted and sincere popcorn fare has been noticeable. Honestly, neither pure gloom nor unbridled jocularity is ideal for just about any story, and I have the highest respect for those storytellers who manage to unite the two under the same roof. James Wan pulled this tonal accomplishment off with aplomb in last year’s Aquaman, and while Shazam! takes the fun factor to a greater degree, it works for what’s being done here.
What is arguably the greatest accomplishment of the DCEU’s latest feature is how much it pushes the limit in the amount of the source’s lore it manages to include. Yes, liberties have been taken with the character of Sivana, and I can imagine some purists taking some issue with the embodiment of a special reveal during one of the after-credits scenes (though I personally loved it), but the big surprise showstopper during the third act was something for which I was not prepared. Much like The LEGO Movie, Shazam! manages to take what many would consider to be some of its most crippling weaknesses and turns them into a strength.
Look, we’re all waiting with bated breath for the end of the month when what is not only the most hotly anticipated superhero flick since 2018 but probably the biggest movie event of the year is released. Regardless, it shouldn’t be an excuse to miss out on what is without question another success in Warner Bros.’ fledgling DCEU project. Shazam! works exactly where it’s supposed to and doesn’t work all that well where it doesn’t really need to. If you received a car for your sixteenth birthday, would you complain that the knobs on the radio are a little unresponsive? Of course not. Who uses those anymore anyway?
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