The appearance of a Shazam movie before a sequel to Man of Steel (2013), or solo film for
Batman or Flash, may confuse some; particularly non-comic reading normies, who would be confused as to why a superhero would have the same name as a music app. But Shazam,
formerly (the original) Captain Marvel, was created in 1939 as Fawcett Comic’s competition to Superman. Billy Batson, a young boy, transformed into an idealised version of himself when exclaiming the acronym of the source of his powers, outselling Superman’s Action Comics and slapping the Axis powers around alongside the star-spangled man with a plan himself, Captain America.
When Fawcett Comics went bankrupt, DC bought the licence to their characters, and
relaunched Earth’s mightiest mortal under the name SHAZAM! in the 1970s. All references to the name Captain Marvel were dropped in 2011 when DC’s man of the hour, Geoff Johns, relaunched SHAZAM! as a flagship title for their universe reboot: The New 52. Billy Batson became a fourteen-year-old boy in foster care, and had a crucial difference from the big blue boy-scout: he retained his teenage mind despite his superhero appearance.
This brief indulgence in comic history isn’t just to satisfy my own interest, but is also to
set the stage for a direct page-to-screen adaptation of the first volume of Johns’ New 52
SHAZAM! in the new movie. David Sandberg’s Shazam! is a love-letter to the character’s
classic and modern origins, with an exploration of the dynamics of a found-family, and
responsibilities that arise from traversing life’s adolescent period.
Asher Angel as Billy Batson evokes empathy, with his destructive and rebellious exterior contrasted with moments of emotional vulnerability. Zachary Levi embodies the childish curiosity of Batson perfectly as Shazam, and one of the film’s strongest points is his infatuation with his powers. The majority of the film’s comedy comes from an irony of Batson only acting his age as a superpowered adult. Think Tom Hank’s Big (1988); to which the film has a great reference the keen-eyed will catch. My only gripes come with the costume: whilst all the visuals are excellent, the lightning bolt and its electricity are gold, whilst Shazam’s lightning is blue. Although is coalesces both the pre-and-post New 52 aesthetics, I found myself griping over its inconsistency.
Batson is guided through his internalised issues with help from his foster family: all of them lifted straight from the pages of Johns’ comic. The film’s strongest performance is Jack Dylan Grazer’s Freddy Freeman, who, like Billy, hides his vulnerability with cynical humour. Freeman, though, is obsessed with superheroes, constantly sporting their t-shirts and backpacks, and even owning a Batfleck batarang.
A moment of silence for Affleck’s departure, please.
Billy’s other foster siblings are all well characterised, with the exception of an under- developed Pedro being characterised only by his interests rather than actions.
The film’s greatest strengths and weaknesses arguably lie with its villain: Mark Strong’s Doctor Thaddeus Sivana. Sivana is changed drastically from his comic-book counterpart. Although Strong adheres to his New 52 look and pursuit of magical knowledge (in some instances in a Snyder-style panel-by-panel recreation), the film grants him the powers of Black Adam. Black Adam, for the uninitiated, is Shazam’s arch-nemesis, and former champion of the Council of Wizards (who grant Billy his powers). Dwayne Johnson is contracted to play the Rock (sorry) of Eternity’s former protector in his own film, prior to fighting Levi (and possibly Cavill’s Superman) in a sequel. But attributing Adam’s powers to Sivana not only grants a similar effect as having Ronan be the empty-feeling stepping-stone to Thanos in the first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), but also leads to concerns about repetitive storytelling with indistinct villains in Shazam!’s inevitable sequel.
Aside from this, there are a plethora of other references to Shazam’s comic book history, very strange villains, and also director David Sandberg’s horror film origins. Sandberg, like James Wan in the runaway success Aquaman (2018), isn’t afraid to add some more harrowing elements into his film. One family actually took their kids out of the cinema during the infamously dubbed ‘boardroom scene’. That’s not nearly as bad as the family who took their children to see Deadpool (2016): them sprinting out was funnier than the film itself. Sandberg himself compared Shazam! tonally to Gremlins (1984), and with its Christmas setting it’s hard not to draw parallels.
Despite an over-saturation of comedy, generic third-act, spots of painfully cheesy dialogue (like, act 3 of Wonder Woman cheesy) and some low-budget wire-work during flight scenes, Shazam! is a fun one-time watch. Although changes to source material probably won’t affect the opinions of non-DC comic fans, it will be interesting to see how its sequel plays out. If nothing else, Shazam! can claim the title of the year’s best ‘Captain Marvel’ film.