This week, we saw the big screen debut of one of the less famous heroes in the comic book pantheon…Captain Marvel.
Wait, what? Well, okay, the name of the movie is Shazam! (exclamation point included), and Shazam is also the name of the comic book character, although it’s only vaguely referred to as such in the movie. However, the original name of the character, before Marvel Comics even existed, was Captain Marvel.
Captain Marvel was the headline superhero of Fawcett Comics in the 1940s and at the time was even more popular than Superman. (Times sure have changed, haven’t they?) But DC Comics sued Fawcett over Captain Marvel being too similar to Superman, and the series was cancelled in 1953. DC later bought Fawcett and resurrected the character, but by then, Marvel Comics was around with their own Captain Marvel (who was also kind of a Superman knock-off), and they sued DC, forcing DC to change the title of the series to the word Billy Batson shouts to turn into Captain Marvel: “Shazam!” (The character’s name was changed too in 2011.)
I personally vaguely remembered Shazam as a short-lived 80s cartoon that I saw in reruns once in a while as a kid. But now, as part of DC’s push to compete with Marvel, he’s been updated for the big screen, and for once, they nailed it. Shazam! is easily as good as Wonder Woman, if not better.
My rating: 5 out of 5.
So, what’s going on, here? The ancient wizard Shazam is tasked with defending humanity from the Seven Deadly Sins (personified as creepy demons; there’s a surprising amount of Christian imagery here), but he is growing weak, so he begins seeking a single pure soul to imbue with his power. Predictably, he fails to do so for the next forty-five years. When one of his past rejects, Dr. Sivana, breaks in and steals the power of the Sins, he becomes desperate and is forced to choose the first person he can find.
He chooses Billy Batson, a fourteen-year-old boy who doesn’t even pretend to be a good person. Billy is thus given the power to transform into a mighty superhero by uttering the magic word, “Shazam!” Like any fourteen-year-old boy, he of course uses it to buy beer, get into a strip club, and gain legions of YouTube followers. Billy is forced to grow up, however, when Dr. Sivana shows up and tries to take his power, causing general mayhem, and super-powered battles ensue.
This is a brilliant story. Marvel is the franchise that’s known for superheroes with human flaws, but Billy would stand out even among that crowd, and this by no means detracts from the story, but rather humanizes him more. He is what a lot of people, especially teenagers, would be like with superpowers. He’s a troublemaker. He’s in denial about finding his mother again and never really wants to be wherever he gets stuck. He’s not malicious, but he’s only really in it for himself, and he doesn’t try to help people until something happens that pushes him into it.
Actually, he’s kind of like Spider-Man in that regard, now that I think about it. Except we don’t really see it with Spider-Man because he suffers instant Laser-Guided Karma on his first night out. With Billy, we see him goofing around not just until some random bad thing happens, but all the way up until the main villain seeks him out, and arguably beyond. And most people whose name isn’t Captain America would have at least some inclination to do that. This makes Billy Batson relatable in a way that even a lot of the Marvel heroes aren’t.
The other great thing about this movie is how, despite a slow, clueless start, Billy is actually very clever about how he uses his powers. (And his cleverness is established early on, even if you don’t make the connection at first.) Even his ability to change back into a kid is useful, he learns, and not just for running away. Contrast this with Dr. Sivana, who is no doubt intelligent, but tends more to brute force. And the way he defeats Sivana with teenage taunting works flawlessly with the rest of the story.
Wonder Woman was a really good movie, but one major flaw it had in my opinion was its mixed messages. In the end, there really was “one bad guy” she had to fight. I’m not sure how to get out of that. Maybe if she couldn’t kill Ares because he was just an idea that couldn’t be killed. Or maybe if she successfully killed Ares halfway through, and it didn’t help. How would that be for a subversion? But I think Shazam! avoids those problems. It’s just: troubled teenager gets powers, learns to use them responsibly, outsmarts the bad guy, and learns the importance of family. It’s a cleaner story, you might say. It’s certainly more lighthearted. It’s too close to call which one is better, but either way, I can highly recommend Shazam! as one of DC’s best movies.