--Gomer Pyle, 1960-1969, 1986
I enjoyed Captain Marvel, but my heart is with Shazam!
The spring of 2019 brought dual, dueling Captain Marvels to the screen, though only one of them can legally use that name on the marquee.1 This review doesn't focus on her.
Look, I enjoyed that entry into Marvel's ongoing, continuity-driven movie saga. It delivered about what I'd expect from a superhero movie, and fits nicely into the MCU's larger story. I look forward to more of Carol "Captain Marvel" Danvers and that ridiculous, scene-stealing cat. That the film frightened misogynistic trolls online with its feminist politics which, frankly, are about as radical as an After-school Special, was just an added bonus. But the Spring '19 entry into DC's fragmented, often beleaguered multiverse? It has the heart of its source material.
See, the original Captain Marvel, the star of Shazam!, has always been slightly goofy. In the 1940s comic, he hung with a talking tiger who wore business suits, and one of his arch-enemies was a tiny, brilliant alien worm with glasses. And his origin? A wizard transforms well-meaning, pure-hearted boy Billy Batson into an adult superhero who wears a ten-year-old's idea of a cool outfit. Pure wish fulfillment, the superhero stripped to its essence.
That doesn't mean his movie can't take some dark turns. Parts of Shazam! turn very dark for what is ostensibly a kid's movie.2 Dark as a fairy tale. You think kids don't understand that? But they also want the goofy, grinning guy with muscles and superpowers and a lightning bolt on his chest having fun and saving the day. This is a hero, who, to quote Jules Feiffer "could be imagined being a buddy rather than a hero, an overgrown boy who chased villains as if they were squirrels"3. Yes, I wish they had softened a few of the film's edges, because some of them feel unnecessary, but they're not fatal to the tone. Approach this movie with caution, but know that things will turn out all right.
In the comic, the wizard, Shazam, chose Billy because, despite the death of both parents, he endured, and represented the best in humanity. Fawcett Comics' Billy was a walking Citizenship Award.
The movie's Billy, at first, is kind of a dick, in the way early adolescent boys tend to be, especially when life has kicked them around. He has a good heart. He just has to find it. Along the way, he also finds his new family. The interpretation may be new, but it develops from the source material. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi give strong performances as Billy and his long-underwear alter-ego, Jack Dylan Grazer stands out as best friend/adopted brother Freddy Freeman, while Grace Fulton and Faithe Herman work well as adopted sisters Mary and Darla.
Of course, darkness has its champion, and it takes the form of the evil Dr. Sivana, played with real menace by Mark Strong. He's used science to corral magic, and given himself powers that rival Billy's.
Despite his very dark backstory, Sivana gets the single funniest supervillain monologue in the history of superhero films. For my money, Sivana has Mike Myers's Dr. Evil beat, because Sivana is no mere cartoon parody of evil. As presented here, he's actual cartoon evil. For a character in a family film, this guy engages in some disturbingly dark activities. Making him look like a total tool pays higher dividends. As for the monologue trope itself, it has been so entirely worn out that even children get the joke.
The film also features a twist, rooted in the character's history, that may be the most satisfying thing I've seen in a superhero movie in quite awhile. You know that, when things are looking darkest for our absurdly-dressed hero, he'll come up with something. Faced with a super-powered psychopathic genius and his seven sinfully disturbing associates, Billy Batson comes up with something spectacular. It's a D-Day moment. The battle hasn't been won yet, but we know and, in his dark, demented heart, our villain knows, that he's going to lose. The ten-year-old inside me wanted to punch the air and yell, "yeah!" but I didn't want to steal that moment from the actual ten-year-olds.
While Marvel's films have emphasized continuity, DC has played fast and loose and launched multiple media universes.4 Nevertheless, we are in some version of the DC-verse. Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman get name-dropped. We see their merch, and we know they're real in this movie's world. One of these luminaries even makes a cameo. It's kind of silly and totally unnecessary, but by that point, the movie can get away with pretty much anything.
It had me at "Shazam!"
Directed by David F. Sandberg
Written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke
Featuring characters created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck
Zachary Levi as Shazam
Asher Angel as Billy Batson
Mark Strong as Dr. Sivana
Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman
Adam Brody as Click for Spoiler
Djimon Hounsou as the Wizard
Faithe Herman as Darla Dudley
Grace Fulton as Mary Bromfield
Ian Chen as Eugene Choi
Jovan Armand as Pedro Peña
Michelle Borth as Click for Spoiler
Meagan Good as Click for Spoiler
Ross Butler as Click for Spoiler
D.J. Cotrona as Click for Spoiler
Marta Milans as Rosa Vasquez
Cooper Andrews as Victor Vasquez
Ethan Pugiotto as young Thaddeus Sivana
John Glover as Mr. Sivana
Landon Doak as Young Sid Sivana
Wayne Ward as Sid Sivana
David Kohlsmith as Young Billy
Caroline Palmer as Billy's Mom
Lotta Losten as Dr. Lynn Crosby
Lisa Truong as Ms. Kwan
Carson MacCormac as Brett Breyer
Evan Marsh as Burke Breyer
Steve Blum, Darin De Paul, Fred Tatasciore as voices of the Seven Deadly Sins
Lovina Yavari as Clerk
Brian Kaulback as Mall Santa
Bill R. Dean as Click for Spoiler
Someone Mysterious as Click for Spoiler
1. The history has been discussed here, but, shortish version:
Fawcett Comics ripped off DC's Superman in 1939 and created the World's Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel! A lengthy lawsuit and a slump in sales (after many years as one of comicdom's most successful creations) settled with Fawcett retiring their tights-wearing super-doer. In the 1960s, another company launched a short-lived Captain Marvel. This tipped off Marvel Comics to the availability of the name, and they gave us Captain Marvel, an alien named Mar-Vell who did not take off as expected. Along the way, one Carol Danvers appeared in his comic and eventually became Ms. Marvel. A couple of Captains Marvel came and went as Marvel kept the name, even as DC revived the original Big Red Cheese. The catch? They could call him "Captain Marvel," but only on the inside of the magazine. Typically, they titled his adventures with some reference to Shazam! the magic word that transformed Billy Batson.
Marvel's Ms. Marvel finally became Captain Marvel and, with the success of the movie, will likely keep the title. DC finally gave up and just refers to the character as "Shazam." The movie pokes some good-natured fun at the confusion over his name.
2. I have learned this film carries a PG-13 rating in the USA. It was PG here in the Great White North, save for in Quebec, where it carries a freakin' G rating. But really, this is a kid's movie scattered with shards of sharp edges.
3. Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes. New York: The Dial Press, 1965.
4. DC has always veered away from strict continuity and, indeed, in the Golden Age of Comics, ignored it utterly. By the time their heroes became serious about crossovers, they had two distinct lost continents of Atlantis and two separate pantheons of Classical gods with which they could interact. All of this happened before DC started juggling multiple universes. Marvel has always favored continuity. Both companies have found their greatest successes in non-comics media when they've tended towards their respective traditional approaches.