The never-ending battle to distance us all from Dawn of Justice continues as DC Comics proudly presents the mostly lighthearted Shazam!, based on a 1940s alleged Superman copycat that DC acquired in 1953 after they sued original publisher Fawcett Comics into oblivion. His original name was Captain Marvel, which DC kept using in multiple series and projects for the next few decades but made sure never to print on any covers lest their competition sue them, even though Fawcett’s Captain Marvel predated Marvel’s Captain Marvel by almost 28 years. Prior to this nomenclatural conflict, Fawcett’s Captain Marvel was conceived with the name Captain Thunder, but this was also the name of a non-superhero character in a series called Jungle Comics published by Fiction House, neither of which survived past the mid-’50s. Technically DC could call him Captain Thunder without repercussions today except no one wants that.
Comic Books: Overcomplicating What Should Be the Simplest Things Since 1939.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Comics fans will find the basic origin structure intact. Orphaned teen Billy Batson (Asher Angel from the Disney Channel’s Andi Mack) finds himself drawn alone into the wrong underground train tunnel where he walks past creepy statues of the Seven Deadly Sins and meets the mysterious wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). With nary a cry of “stranger danger!” young Billy listens to the elderly man’s sonorous shpiel and is then granted the power to transform into an adult with the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury, technically making him an interfaith champion.
All young Billy has to do is yell the wizard’s name and presto! A magical lightning bolt out of nowhere replaces him with Electric Superman, which would be a far more legal and less vexing name for him than Captain Marvel, which is never uttered once in this film, not even as a throwaway joke. (Screenwriters Darren Lemke and Henry Gayden compensate with plenty of other throwaway joke names.) Zachary Levi, once known far and wide as the star of TV’s Chuck, is now sporting the familiar red-white-and-yellow togs. He’s extra pumped-up, slightly less whiny, and, per the conventions of super-hero films, undergoing the necessary learning curve that will hopefully take him from rebellious teen jerk to selfless saver of lives.
Captain Billy faces two major obstacles: a bitter menace named Sivana (Mark Strong, villain from Kick-Ass, Stardust, Sherlock Holmes, and the Green Lantern sequel that must never come to pass) who can fly and punch at least as hard as Our Hero; and his new best friend Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, a.k.a. Eddie from Stephen King’s It), who aids him in the superpower discovery process, i-films him every step of the way, and turns him into an internet sensation because that’s exactly what two middle-school kids would do if they lucked into such a position today. Can big buff Billy survive a similarly endowed killer and his own swiftly overinflating ego?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The court-ordered end of Billy’s wandering leads him into a foster-kid group home whose residents include TV veterans Faithe Pearson (li’l Annie from NBC’s This Is Us) and Evan Huang from Fresh Off the Boat. John Glover appears in flashbacks as the angry father of a future super-villain, totally charted territory for Smallville‘s Lionel Luthor. Additional familiar faces drop in later, including Adam Brody (The O.C.), Meagan Good (Rian Johnson’s Brick), Michelle Borth (Hawaii Five-O), and D.J. Cotrona (G.I. Joe: Retaliation).
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
- Good is better than evil, duh
- Real heroes aren’t selfish cowards and aren’t all about getting famous, because with great power…
- Teenagers may not be well equipped to become instant heroes
- Looking for someone pure of heart to inherit your wizardly power is nigh impossible in a broken world where everyone’s a sinner and all minors are awful in some way
- Foster families and group homes can be loving, nurturing, even positive environments, unlike all those films and TV shows where they’re breeding grounds for monsters (looking sadly at you, The Wire)
- Family above all, though once again “found family” wins
- Deadbeat parents deeply suck
- Edna Mode wasn’t kidding about that “NO CAPES!” rule
…and then there are EXPLOSIONS because superhero fights can’t happen without them. For us part of the fun was seeing them trash parts of historic Philadelphia, where my wife and I have traveled twice, most recently on last summer’s road trip.
Nitpicking? Families with small children may want to think twice before assuming Shazam! is goodly all-ages fare. As staged by horror director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out; Annabelle: Creation), the early scenes setting up Sivana’s origin — a tale of family hatred, murder and monsters — are shockingly intense, grim evidence that DC’s film squad hasn’t entirely abandoned Zack Snyder’s influence. The rest of the film cheerily refutes those scenes’ harsh tone, but smaller kiddos may not make it through those scary first twenty minutes to get to the happy fun parts where the costar of Disney’s Tangled saves the day and makes them laugh and cheer.
Our Hero’s learning curve takes a large leap that I didn’t buy at first till I gave it some more thought. When Billy’s rise to stardom sees him basking in the public’s adulation and charging for street selfies like a convention guest, by that point we’ve only seen him secretly thwart a mugging; stop a liquor store robbery but exit before the police or media arrive, so he doesn’t have to explain how he caused more damage to the store than the robbers did; steal hundreds from an ATM that was surely equipped with a security camera; jump into the side of a high-rise building and cause thousands of dollars in structural damage; and trash a bully’s SUV, all helpfully filmed and posted for posterity and evidence. On this basis and with an embarrassingly short list of verifiable good deeds to his name (no showy Lois Lane helicopter rescue here), he becomes a media sensation. I kinda wanted to see Philly’s answer to J. Jonah Jameson rightly proclaiming him a threat and a menace, but then I remembered what year and country I’m living in.
With invaluable assistance from Freddy, who owns some fairly expensive recording equipment for a foster kid, Billy uses his Captain Avenger persona to try out one of the most potentially corruptible and detestable careers possible: he becomes a YouTuber. That makes a bit more sense as everyone’s near-instant hero worship goes, though it’s not exactly a good look for the starstruck citizens of Philly.
Billy’s magical lightning bolt effects vary a bit in intensity. In one key slo-mo moment, the thunderous bolt sends Sivana tumbling. In another gag, the bolt pierces a club’s rooftop and smoke clouds billow. Minutes earlier, that darn bolt strikes with laser precision and transforms him in the middle of a dense crowd without singeing any of the dozens of innocents surrounding him. Whatever the plot needs the bolt to be, it is, because magic.
And all this is in service of a superhero who remains technically nameless all movie long. Obviously he can’t tell his enemies or interviewers, “Call me Shazam!” because the bolt would give away his secret identity and possibly kill them, unless the plot decided his audience deserved no harm. Though I concede “Captain DC” might be a bit too on-the-nose, I’d love to see this quandary settled someday with sincerity, either on film or in print.
So what’s to like? Once Billy learns his important lessons, Zachary Levi makes a solid, sweet, funny, likable superhero, as I pretty much knew he would. His repetitive performance on Chuck drove me nuts after a few seasons, but he’s in a different place now…albeit not too different. As he did with the Buy More staff and Agents Walker and Casey, Levi here receives solid support, particularly Grazer’s snarky, hero-savvy Freddy and scene-stealing youngster Faithe Pearson, exuberant proxy for the kiddo viewers at home. The group-home setting in general sets Shazam! apart from other superhero films and lends it a unique, homey core in its human moments.
The superhero fight-and-fight-and-fight is fine for what it is — sometimes a little too generically Man of Steel, sometimes a bit too Goonies, but the macho mid-air dances bob and weave and crash and burn to the hero beats exactly as they should. By now Mark Strong can play evil in his sleep and still keep it newly rousing. He imbues his Sivana with all the requisite seething rage of a guy who never stopped holding a grudge for the dork who stole his dream job from him. He’s the Anti-Levi in more ways than one, and they’re perfect polar opposites.
Shazam! doesn’t reach the heights of Wonder Woman or Aquaman, but it’s not playing the same game. Once Sivana’s grimdark backstory is out of the way, Our Hero is happy to settle for basically piloting the Ant-Man of the DC Extended Universe — the frivolous digression between Serious Super-Heroics, capturing the joy of small-scale heroism and reminding fans that superheroes can find plenty of other good deeds to do when the fate of the entire universe isn’t at stake.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is usually happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene during the Shazam! end credits, along with a second offering at the very end after the final names have dropped. For those who fled the theater prematurely and who really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…during the end credits, we visit a defeated, distraught Sivana in his jail cell, scribbling mystical hieroglyphs on all the walls in a vain attempt to recreate his past successes. He despairs when his writing implement breaks, but is interrupted by a special guest: a tiny green caterpillar on the windowsill. Eagle-eyed viewers first sighted this pest on a previous trip to the wizard Shazam’s hidden chamber. He’s now equipped with a chest plate and microphone, and assuring Sivana that things are looking up because they’re about to team up and soon “the seven realms will be ours!”
Non-comics readers out there may not recognize this hyperintelligent bird food as Mister Mind, a longtime Captain Marvel foe who’s not as cute as he used to be back in the ’40s. Here his cameo is voiced by director Sandberg himself, but will surely be recast for the eventual sequel.
At the very very end of the film, we rejoin Billy and Freddy in their bedroom, where they’re still conducting tests to see which powers he does or doesn’t have. Billy-as-Levi holds a goldfish in a bowl and stares at it with Professor-X-like intensity…but nothing happens. They agree his list of superpowers officially does not include talking to fish. Billy thinks that’s a dumb power. Freddy insists commanding an army of literally billions of lifeforms could be awesome and points to the Aquaman shirt he’s wearing as a marketing reminder that Aquaman was super fun and is now available on home video.
Levi ponders fish-whispering for a second but concludes, “That’s not that cool!” One billion dollars’ worth of Jason Momoa fans might disagree.