Movie Review of ”SHAZAM!”

The road that most comic book superheroes take to reach the silver screen is usually straightforward.  The latest character to enter the ranks of the DC Extended Universe, “Shazam!” (*** OUT OF ****), emerges as a major exception to the rule.  Indeed, the Shazam character began life as none other than Captain Marvel!  Now, this revelation may surprise everybody who loves superhero movies.  After all, didn’t “Captain Marvel” appear recently as the newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Sure, she did, but the history of the character goes back further than you might imagine.  Initially, the original Captain Marvel had nothing to do with either Marvel or DC Comics.  Instead, Fawcett Comics created this character and ushered it into print in February 1940.

Captain Marvel’s popularity proved so prodigious that before long Fawcett’s superhero surpassed the sales of the then invincible champion of costume-clad crimefighters: DC Comics’ Superman. Not long afterward, however, DC sued Fawcett for copyright infringement, and Fawcett had to cease publishing “Captain Marvel.”

What a complicated trajectory for a superhero’s reawakening!  In the late 1970s, Marvel Comics acquired its own Captain Marvel, but he shared little in common with the original Captain Marvel.  Actually, Marvel’s first Captain Marvel was a man, before he became a woman.  Meanwhile, DC Comics appropriated the old Captain Marvel from Fawcett.

To avoid the prospect of yet another breach of copyright, DC changed Captain Marvel’s name, opting for the magic word “Shazam!” that fourteen-year old foster child Billy Batson–uttered before he could transform himself into this formidable adult superhero.  For the record, DC Comics bought the character from Fawcett in 1972 and then rebooted him in a 2011 graphic novel. Moreover, DC Comics kept Captain Marvel’s pristine scarlet red outfit with a jagged lightning bolt across his chest.

Interestingly, the first theatrical superhero chapter serial was Captain Marvel!  Indeed, “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” (1941) beat both “Batman” (1943) and “Superman” (1948) to the silver screen.

As an origin epic, “Shazam!” charts a new direction for DC superheroes.  Just as “Deadpool” stood the Marvel Cinematic Universe on its head, “Shazam” has done something similar for the DC Universe.  The extraordinary thing about this new entry is that he literally qualifies as a superhero without a clue.  Runaway juvenile Billy Batson (newcomer Asher Angel) ends up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with a new foster family, but this doesn’t dissuade him from pursuing his dream.

He wants desperately to find his long, lost mother (newcomer Caroline Palmer), and he does. Alas, she wants absolutely nothing to do with him!  Whereas Superman and Batman lost their parents respectively to a doomed planet and a homicidal maniac, Billy loses his mom because she no longer wants the responsibility of raising him.  Of course, it is traumatic to see your folks shot dead in front of you or learn afterward that your folks perished when your home planet blew up.

Imagine how devastating it must be to have your own mom disown you!  Billy turns out to be an ideal candidate to replace an ailing, ancient-looking Wizard (Djimon Hounsou of “Amistad”) who stipulates that his successor must be someone pure of heart.  No sooner has Billy uttered the magic word “Shazam” than he finds himself empowered beyond belief.  By the way, Shazam is an acronym for the six immortal elders: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. After he winds up in his new foster home, Billy hangs out with an obnoxious, crippled, foster kid, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer of “It”), whose vast knowledge of superheroes enables Shazam to catalog his powers.

“Lights Out” director David F. Sandberg and “Earth to Echo” scenarist Henry Gayden take an exhilarating, tongue-in-cheek approach to the material.  Shazam (Zachary Levi of “Thor: Ragnarok”) and Freddie are in a convenience store when two hooligans hold the cashier at gunpoint.  Freddy dares them to shoot the shenanigans out of Shazam with their firearms.  Struggling to appear casual, Shazam accommodates this suicidal challenge.

Happily, the bullets all bounce harmlessly off his spandex costume.  Afterward, Freddie urges them to blast away at Shazam’s face.  Similarly, the slugs rebound off his mug!  Ultimately, the short-sighted Shazam doesn’t exploit his vast potential to serve the best interests of society until the super-villainous Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong of “Green Lantern”), arrives to confront him.

Silvana covets Shazam’s powers, and he is prepared to do whatever is necessary to wrest those powers from him.  Shazam doesn’t know how to defend himself against somebody so consummately evil because at heart he is just a teenager!  Sivana quickly opens our hero’s naïve eyes. As an adversary without scruples, Dr. Sivana is the epitome of wickedness, and Mark Strong delivers a bravura performance bristling with menace.

Earlier, Sivana had a crack at those same super powers when he himself was a juvenile. Unfortunately for him, the Wizard found Sivana lacking any semblance of innocence.  Nevertheless, Sivana embarks on several examples of supreme savagery before he suffers his comeuppance.

Predictably, our immature hero comes to grips with his qualms and demolishes his antagonist when Sivana threatens the demographically diverse members of his foster family.  “Shazam!,” however, qualifies as more than just another standard superhero saga.  Zachary Levi’s sidesplitting performance as Billy Batson’s alter-ego Shazam works splendidly because Levi doesn’t try to be funny. Shazam behaves like a deer paralyzed by car headlights.

At first, he fears Sivana and flees in fright.  Eventually, Shazam realizes he cannot tolerate Sivana’s anarchy. Ultimately, Billy–who had sworn the other kids in his foster home to secrecy about his identity–shares his power with them. These suddenly mature kids with costumes and super powers not only thwart Sivana’s evil aims, but they also chastise two insufferable bullies at school.  More than anything else, “Shazam!” succeeds chiefly because of Levi’s endearing portrayal of a charming but clueless superhero. Sandberg and Gayden duplicate all the traditional superhero tropes, but they provide such spontaneity that what might have seemed stale is now fresh and funny. For more great movie reviews check out this link:

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