Is Shazam! Marvelous?

Holy moley! I saw a cuddle pile of ferrets! Then I saw Shazam! at my first Alamo Drafthouse with the friend of the blog, The Wages of Cinema’s Jack Gattanella. SPOILERY collaboreview strikes like lightning below!

Djimon Hounsou is the link between 2019’s Captain Marvel films. (She-Ra & the Princesses of Power melds them together.) He was also King Merdude Ricoh in Aquaman & Papa Mid-Nite in Constantine because WB is committed to recycling. (Sadly Jude Law doesn’t play Mr. Tawky Tawny to make it a twofer.) Along with its alien designs, Mark Strong as Sinestro was the highlight of Green Lantern. (It may not be a particularly good movie, but I’m still baffled as to why it’s that despised. It’s not as if it’s Jonah Hex or Catwoman.) His Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana is already a better Lex Luthor than Eisenberg’s by default. (Jon Cyer is also surprisingly great as an official Lex on Supergirl.) Zachary Levi was the underused Fandral the Dashing in 2/3 Thor films. It even has surprise John Glover! He’s a DC all-star, having previously been the Riddler, Dr. Jason Woodrue, & Lionel Luthor.

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This is my entire pitch for a Victorian Shazam! Elseworlds. Hire me, DC!

The original cinematic superhero finally returned to the big screen. Levi is perfect as Shazam. He’s definitely not afraid to look like a big red cheese. (He ought to be a Babybel for Halloween.) Angel Asher is also compelling as his teenage true form.

This movie is one of the rare breed that’s pro foster care, unlike than the Harry Potter franchise. Rosa & Victor Vargas (Marta Milans & Cooper Andrews) are very compassionate foster parents. Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) is an endearing motormouth nerd. Faithe Herman is even more delightful as the loquacious Darla Dudley. Mary Bromfield  (Grace Fulton) also gets some good moments, although she’s no longer Billy’s long lost biological sister. Eugene Choi & Pedro Peña get less characterization.

Gary Frank’s New 52 Shazam suit translates well to live action.  (The director was given a snazzy ensemble made from the same fabric as Shazam’s costume.) His cartoonishly oversized muscle-suit perfectly conjures how a teenager would envision an adult superhero.  Sivana’s New 52 scar, magic marble eye, & regal bearing evoke Preacher’s Herr Starr. He does not dress in the traditional uniform of mad scientists or have the posture of a gremlin. His wardobe exists in the weird liminal zone between stylish & unremarkable, as if the color was drained from Lex’s All-Star Superman outfit.

Shazam has similar Hellenic powers to Wonder Woman except he has lightning & the wisdom of Solomon instead of Athena. (Did WB not use her classic “homunculus bestowed with powers of the Olympians” origin to make him more unique?) That one contrasts greatly with Billy Batson being an immature kid. Shazam is clearly not wise when he engages in wanton property destruction. Audiences hated rookie Superman inadvertently breaking stuff in Man of Steel whilst trying to end professional warrior General Zod’s rampage, so it’s even harder to root for Shazam when he’s irresponsibly testing out his powers. The movie directly calls out Billy for his  screw-ups. Luckily Levi & Asher Angel as charming enough that the lead isn’t despised for his shortcomings.

This draws mostly from the New 52 revamp to make Billy Batson a jerkface instead of wholesome & upstanding  like the classic version (to the chagrin of his fanbase). He becomes Shazam’s avatar by default instead of by being pure-hearted. Sivana already liberated The Sins, so he bypassed the temptation test. While it makes Billy’s venal personality more realistically ordinary, the story of a superhero learning responsibility is told well here. It’s a more inspirational fable to show that you don’t need to be inherently perfect to do good.

The Rock was cast as Black Adam years ago, but he doesn’t appear in the movie despite being a producer. (He’s is more unified with the all Egyptian lineup of Shu, Heru, Amon, Zehuti, Aton and Mehen.) The Wizard (whose staff looks just like one of Gandalf’s) alludes to him in his exposition showing the reason for his excruciatingly high standards for a champion. He’s kind of like Willy Wonka in the sense that he traumatizes children by telling them they’re aren’t worthy of his wonders. He’s responsible for putting multiple children like Sivana into therapy for crippling self esteem issues.

Mark Strong is always good, but it feels like we could’ve spent more time with him. (The imdb lists more Sivana family members I didn’t see, suggesting they were cast off to the cutting room floor.) To differentiate Dr. Sivana from Lex Luthor, he focuses on sorcery instead of super-science. I’m concerned making him an evil doppleganger for Shazam will make him too similar to the forthcoming Black Adam, but at least they put a really unique spin on it. He’s empowered by The Seven Deadly Enemies of Man housed in his magic eye. The more of them he unleashes, the weaker he gets. The Seven Deadly Sins are just gargoyles. They don’t have much in the way of personalities. powers, or colors to distinguish them.

Director David F. Sandberg keeps the tone of the film well balanced. (He joins Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, & James Wan in showing the versatility of directors formerly known for specializing in horror.) Equal parts escapism & cynicism yield a realistic setting. It feels like a family film ala Ant-Man & The Wasp, but the dangers aren’t sanitized. (I don’t doubt Dr. Sivanna would kill some kids.) The dichotomies are appropriate for a character who spans adult & kid worlds.It could’ve gone zanier with the mythos, but it’s a relif it’s not pretentiously grimdark. The Geoff Johns inspired story by Henry Gayden & David Lemke is solid throughout.

This movie takes advantage of DC having a shared universe. (It also continues the theme of non-Oedipal mommy issues.) Instead of having to introduce superhero tropes again, the narrative can play with them already being accepted albeit rare elements of its world. This makes Freddy’s superhero obsession something that actually comes in handy, unlike mine! We get Shaazm showboating while newscasters accurately point out he hadn’t really done anything heroic. It also allows for lots of appropriate Mattel product placement. (Meanwhile it’s the Thor mask looking like the classic comics instead of Chris Hemsworth that gave away those bank robbers, not their Hulk, in Spider-Man: Homecoming.) A replica batarang is also used to great effect.

This is the most explicitly comedic DC film with an exclamation mark in the title since the Teen Titans went to the movies. Not only did the trailers sagely avoid giving away all the jokes (or plot points), the gags that were funny then are still funny in the finished film! The humor feels organic, including a reference to Big. (Shazam! is like Big with superheroes. Captain Marvel was invented decades earlier, however, so Big’s the ripoff!)

Nobody holds an idiot ball. Sivana figures out Freddie is leverage against Shazam while foster kids deduce Billy is Shazam. Sivana tricks Billy into revealing the magic word with torture. Billy’s foster siblings figure out the weakness in Sivana’s power matrix, & Billy goads Envy into abandoning his host.

The climax’s big twist is Billy opting to share his power with his foster siblings to create a Justice League of his own. At first I felt the Marvel Shazamvel Family should’ve been saved for a sequel, but they do freshen up the formula. (As well done as it is, it’s hard to be impressed by two flying people punching each other anymore.) Mary does the least of all the kids when they get empowered. Adam Brody & Meagan Good are particularly well cast as Freddie’s & Darla’s aged-up selves.

Potential monikers for Billy’s superhero persona is a running gag. Captain Marvel isn’t one of those teased since the trademark of his original name was inadvertently forfeit to Marvel Comics. Billy can’t introduce himself as Shazam without depowering & outing his secret identity. (The comics’ new solution is he only transforms when he says the magic trademarked acronym with intent, which is underwhelming.) Even the credits refer to the empowered forms of his siblings as simply the “superhero” versions. The potential sequel has it work cut out for it coming up with a catchy name that hasn’t been taken. (Freddy doesn’t call himself Captain Marvel Jr. or CM3 as those are nonsensical & terrible.)

My biggest disappointment with the film was the lack of Mr. Tawky Tawny. It does, however, feature Mr. Mind! I started vibrating when I saw a caterpillar at The Rock of Eternity in the prologue. The stinger confirmed it was the real deal by proposing a team-up with Sivana. So you better ensure its box office gets a sequel greenlit! The director voices the founder of The Monster Society of Evil. There’s even a glimpse of the Crocodile Men of planet Punkus!

I’m glad we’re getting more DC movies that I don’t have to qualify as half-full. They’re beginning to fill these with the appropriate amount of metaphorical water. It’s not as shoot the moon bonkers as Aquaman, but a legitimutantly good superhero movie is Shazam! The sequel had better deliver a talking tiger in a green blazer though!

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Only Shazam & shortpacked Dr. Sivana have been made as 6″ figures with no BAF to worry about. There’s a smaller basic line for the rest of the Marvel Shazam Family & the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man but no Sivana. So once against you can’t get a complete set of characters in either scale.

Tangentially related: My custom Speedy received the seal of approval from Willa Holland’s mom, Darnell De Palma!

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Notice how I’ve recycled the “Captain Marvel” tag for this review as promised? I’m lazy & it’ll make things as unnecessarily confusing as comics intended. There’s a ton of media dropping in April; ain’t got nobody time to make new tags!

The lawsuit about Captain Marvel infringing upon Superman & its appeal is fascinating. It’s karmic that DC can’t use the Captain Marvel trademark after it (then National Comics Publications) litigated Fawcett Publications out of the superhero market. Afterwards it poached some of their creators to improve Superman. The Shazam concept would inspire scads of superheroes. By the time he got a TV show & was fully absorbed into DC Comics, Marvel Comics had firmly sunk its trademark talons into the Captain Marvel name.

Even the star & director of Captain Marvel Shazam! support Captain Marvel! Good on WB/DC for not being petty! (The timing of Netflix releasing Brie Larson’s Unicorn Store as counter-programming for Marvel diehards is a bit suspicious though.) Both of them are enjoyable yet vastly different so they don’t need to be pitted against each other.

Ought SHAZAM be spelled with all uppercase letters since it’s an acronym like MODOK? What is the official style guide on this? Originally the name was SHAZAMO (Super Hero Astounding Zillions of Attentive Mortals Obviously), a way better name, because it incorporated the power of Oggar who turned evil.

Ape Mastermind predates Gorilla Grodd by nine years!

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Next week I’ll return with more magic for an overview of  The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina season two!

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