The early superhero comics were largely written for younger audiences, but their heroes tended to be adults. One 1940s series found a creative way to connect with younger audiences without resorting to precocious teen adventurers – the original Captain Marvel.
Published by Fawcett Comics, the stories concern the teenaged Billy Batson, given the power to turn into an adult superhero by the ancient wizard Shazam. Billy would be imbued with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury when he said the wizard’s name and used these gifts to fight evil.
In its heyday, Captain Marvel was more popular that Superman, with the serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, still regarded as one of the finest ever made. However, constant legal action from DC/National Comics – which saw Captain Marvel as a Superman knock-off – eventually led to Fawcett settling and DC taking over the character.
DC did nothing with him until the 1970s, only to be threatened with legal action from Marvel, which had copyrighted the name for its own, very different, Captain Marvel. Since then DC has published the comics under the Shazam title, while the hero is still, usually, named Captain Marvel.
Finally, Captain Marvel has returned to the screen, under the name of Shazam!, cheekily competing with the recent Marvel Captain Marvel. That film was pretty typical Marvel fare, reasonably put together and setting the scene for later developments. Shazam!, on the other hand, continues the DC Extended Universe strategy of doing things differently – both from Marvel and even from the other DCEU movies.
The film opens in 1974, with the young Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto) being “abducted” by the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) and tested to see if he can become the wizard’s champion. Thaddeus
fails the test, almost seduced by the Seven Deadly Sins Monsters Shazam has imprisoned in his Rock of Eternity, and grows up bitter and obsessed with finding the wizard and taking his magic.
In the present day, teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is trying to find his birth mother. He was separated from her at a carnival and has bounced between foster homes ever since. After being picked up by police he’s sent to a group home run by the cheerful and caring Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans) Vasquez. There he meets Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled superhero obsessive and smart alec.
After defending Freddy from some bullies, Billy runs to the subway where he is transported to Shazam’s Rock of Eternity.
Shazam has been searching for a champion for decades but no one has been good enough, and now he is desperate, for Sivana (Mark Strong) has found his way back and stolen evil magic. Shazam forces Billy to take on his power and now Billy can become a superhero (Zachary Levi) just by saying the word.
Of course, things don’t go to plan. Billy is still a troubled-ish teenager, and he’s yet to learn that with great power comes great responsibility – or even what his powers are. And all the while Dr Sivana is scheming.
DC has kept up its taste for grand operatic tales, but has clicked that the Wagnerian-esque dramas of Batman and Superman do not necessarily fit all the other stories they intend to tell. Instead, they are honing in on the unique character of each of their heroes and being faithful to that.
As a result, Shazam! plays up the jokiness inherent in the idea of teenage boy becoming an adult superhero by saying a magic word. It doesn’t mock the setting, much like how Aquaman played up the epic high fantasy of its setting, but they know that playing it straight doesn’t mean not having fun with it.
And Shazam! is a fun film – even if not everything makes sense, and there are a few narrative holes. For the most part, questions wash away with the heart-warming finale that goes in a completely different direction to most super-stories, making it more like The Incredibles than The Dark Knight trilogy.
While not entirely family friendly, Shazam! is a joyous film about the power and importance of family, and how love of family not only overcomes selfishness but can transform us into heroes.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).