4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“His name is Captain Sparklefingers!” — Shazam!

In 1940, superheroes had become the biggest thing in comics, thanks mostly to the huge success National Periodical Publications (what is now DC) had with both Superman and Batman over the previous year or two. So we got lots more superheroes being created in the shadow of a world war in Europe: Timely Comics (what is now Marvel) gave us Captain America and the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch, National also gave us Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern and the Flash, and Fawcett Publications gave us a character originally known as Captain Thunder, later Captain Marvel, who later became a DC character and who these days is known as Shazam because Timely is now called Marvel. Oh, what a tangled web we weave…

Created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck, the plan was to have this new superhero star in a comic that would be called either Flash Comics or Thrill Comics (ashcans were created with both titles). After discovering that they couldn’t trademark either of those titles, or “Captain Thunder,” the hero had to have his name changed—first to “Captain Marvelous,” later shortened to Captain Marvel. He debuted in the second issue of Whiz Comics, and became a massive hit.

A homeless orphan newsboy named Billy Batson followed a strange old man into a subway and was given a gift from the gods: 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 speaks an acronym of those gods’ names—Shazam—he changes into an adult with all those powers. (For some reason, I had to double check to make sure I got all the attributes right, but if you asked me I can, without hesitation or need to research, what the acronym Shazoom! from Mad Magazine‘s parody Captain Marbles stood for: Strength; Health; Aptitude; Zeal; Ox, Power of; Ox, Power of Another; Money.)

The character became sufficiently popular that he inspired a bunch of secondary related characters—Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., Uncle Marvel, etc. Then in 1941, the same year Captain Marvel starred in his own movie serial, National sued Fawcett because they thought Captain Marvel was too similar to Superman. The litigation went on for years, and initially Fawcett won the lawsuit, but on appeal National won, and in 1953 (when the popularity of superheroes was seriously waning in any event), Fawcett ceased publication of all Captain Marvel comics and shut down their comics division.

A British publisher, L. Miller & Sons, was publishing Captain Marvel comics in Britain, and when the supply ran out after the lawsuit, they created a ripoff called Marvelman, which was published through 1963. (It was later revived by Alan Moore in the 1980s, and was renamed Miracleman, to avoid trademark issues with Marvel Comics, an issue that would be faced by Captain Marvel soon enough.)

When superheroes came back into vogue in the late 1950s and early 1960s with DC’s reviving of their heroes and Marvel taking the world by storm with their new heroes, Fawcett wanted to get back in the game, also—but while they controlled the rights to Captain Marvel, they were legally unable to publish anything with him.

In 1972, DC licensed the rights to all the Captain Marvel characters. However, because Marvel had a Captain Marvel character of their own, established four years earlier and at that point with his own monthly comic, they had the trademark on the name. So, while the character was still called Captain Marvel, the comic he appeared in couldn’t be called that, so it was titled Shazam!

In the mid-1980s, after the Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot of the DC universe, the character was changed to still having the personality of the young (pre-teen or teenage, depending on who was writing him) Billy Batson after transforming.

In 2011, for the “new 52” relaunch of DC’s books, the Marvel family was expanded beyond Freddie Freeman (Captain Marvel Jr.) and Mary Bromfield (Mary Marvel) to include Eugene Choi, Pedro Peña, and Darla Dudley, who all collectively became the Shazam Family (with Uncle Marvel and Talky Tawny the talking tiger both dropped). At this point, the character is called Shazam, partly to avoid confusion with Marvel’s Captain Marvel, partly because everyone thought that the character was called Shazam because that had been the title of his books for forty years.

New Line Cinema got the rights to do a Shazam! movie in the late 1990s, but it remained in development hell for years. (One of the people hired to write a screenplay was William Goldman, and I’d love to live in the alternate reality where that script was filmed.) In particular after the success of The Dark Knight and the commercial failure of Speed Racer in 2008, the movie fell into limbo.

After Man of Steel‘s release in 2013, Warner, in partnership with New Line, announced a new slate of films that included Shazam! along with its other DC properties. The movie went through a bunch of different notions, including Dwayne Johnson co-starring as Black Adam. Eventually, Johnson’s project was spun off into its own thing—a Black Adam film is currently scheduled for December 2021 release—with another of CM’s long-time villains, Doctor Sivana, as the bad guy. David F. Sandberg was tapped to direct off a script by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke.

The movie is cast with a bunch of superhero movie veterans. Zachary Levi (Fandral in Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok) was cast as Shazam, with Asher Angel as Billy Batson and David Kohlsmith as the four-year-old Billy. Mark Strong (having played another iconic DC villain, Sinestro, in Green Lantern, and who was also in the two Kingsman movies and Kick-Ass) plays Sivana, with Ethan Pugiotto playing Sivana as a kid. Djimon Honsou (previously in Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel—yes, really!—Constantine, and Aquaman) plays the wizard who gives Billy his powers. John Glover (Dr. Woodrue in Batman & Robin, and also another villain’s father, Lionel Luthor, on Smallville) plays Sivana’s father.

Jack Dylan Grazer plays Freddy Freeman, with Adam Brody as his adult alter-ego; Faithe Herman plays Darla Dudley, with Meagan Good as her adult version; Grace Fulton plays Mary Bromfield, with Michelle Borth as her adult counterpart; Ian Chen plays Eugene Choi, with Ross Butler as his powered adult self; and Jovan Armand plays Pedro Peña, with D.J. Cotrona as his older counterpart.

The rest of the cast includes Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews as Rosa and Victor Vasquez, who run the foster home where all the kids live; Caroline Palmer as Billy’s mother; Wayne Ward and Landon Doak as Sivana’s brother as a teenager and adult, respectively; Lotta Losten as a scientist working for Sivana; Carson MacCormac and Evan Marsh as two bullies at the kids’ school; and Andi Osho as social worker E.B. Glover, a tribute to Osho’s role in Sandberg’s first film, Lights Out. And back from Justice League is the character of Superman, played by Levi’s stunt double Ryan Hadley, as Henry Cavill was unavailable for the cameo.

A sequel is currently in development, with Sandberg, Gayden, and producer Peter Safran all set to come back, and presumably most of the cast of this movie intact.

 

“Dude, I don’t even know how to pee in this thing!”

Shazam!
Written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke
Directed by David F. Sandberg
Produced by Peter Safran
Original release date: April 5, 2019

Screenshot from Shazam!

Screenshot: New Line Cinema / Warner Bros Pictures

In 1974, the Sivana family is driving down a road. The elder Sivana is driving, while his teenaged older son sits in the front seat. In the back is Thaddeus, who is playing with a magic 8-ball. Suddenly, weird characters appear on the 8-ball, the people in the car disappear, the windows ice up, and Thad finds himself in a strange cavernous chamber, confronted by a wizard—this is the Rock of Eternity. Near him are seven statues, which represent the seven deadly sins. The sins tempt him to a glowing globe that will free them, and by succumbing to that temptation, the wizard deems him not worthy, and sends him back to the car. The wizard (who is the last of the seven wizards to survive) casts a spell to find someone worthy to be the new champion.

Sivana tries to get back to the Rock, but his flailing in the car about distracts his father, who eventually stops the car right in the middle of the road after skidding and, rather than get out of the middle of the road, pauses to berate his son. A truck hits them, paralyzing the father, with his brother saying it’s all Sivana’s fault.

In present-day Philadelphia, Billy Batson tricks two cops into a pawn shop that Billy broke into, and closes the gate, which stalls the cops long enough for him to use their car’s computer. He’s been trying to find his mother, but every Marilyn Batson he tries to find is a dead end.

He and his single mother got separated at a carnival. She gave him a compass she won at one of the game stands, and he dropped it and ran off to grab it. The cops searched, but never found his mother, and so he was put into foster care. He’s run away from dozens of other foster homes, but he’s put in with Rosa and Victor Vasquez—a couple who were both raised in foster care. He’s brought to meet his new siblings: Freddy Freeman, who is disabled; Mary Bromfield, who’s applying to Cal Tech; Eugene Choi, who spends all his time playing video games; Pedro Peña, who almost never speaks; and Darla Dudley, who hugs everyone and is very sweet, but also sometimes emotionally distressed.

Billy isn’t interested in getting close to any of them—even though the Vasquezes are, frankly, awesome—though Freddy shows him all his superhero paraphernalia, including an authenticated bullet that bounced off Superman’s chest and a replica batarang.

At school, Darla hugs him goodbye, and Billy says she doesn’t have to do that since she’s not his real sister, and that upsets her greatly. He apologizes weakly for saying that.

Sivana has spent his whole life trying to find his way back to the Rock. He’s bankrolled a study on mass hysteria, which collects people who had similar experiences to Sivana’s own: being brought to a chamber and offered great power if you can avoid temptation. All of their experiences match, including seeing strange symbols. When one actually has video of the symbols (on her digital clock), Sivana interrupts the doctor’s interview of the subject and asks to see the video. His own memory was missing one of the symbols.

He goes to his office, followed by the doctor, who objects to his inserting himself into the interview like that. But when he draws the symbol on a door in his office (which she hadn’t seen before), the door glows and when the doctor touches it, she’s disintegrated. Sivana opens the door and is back at the Rock of Eternity. He steals the globe, which allows the demonic personifications of the seven deadly sins to roam free. They embed themselves inside Sivana, which gives him powers.

Two bullies at school beat up Freddy, and Billy fights back on his behalf, and the bullies chase him to the subway. As the train pulls out—the bullies swearing vengeance from the platform after they just miss getting on—Billy sees strange symbols on the train’s display, and then the people disappear and the windows freeze.

He winds up at the Rock of Eternity. The wizard, who is very weak at this point, makes Billy his champion, not bothering to test him (not that there’s any temptation to hit him with now anyway). He says “Shazam” and is transformed into an adult in a bright red skintight outfit with a glowy yellow lightning bolt on it. The wizard’s last words are, “With your heart, unlock your greatest power.” This will probably be important later. Then the wizard collapses to dust, leaving his staff behind.

Returned to the subway, Billy tries to adjust to his new height and his apparent strength and possibly other powers. He manages to convince Freddy that he’s Billy—mostly by reminding him of a conversation they’d had earlier—and together they test to see what powers he has.

Sivana goes to his father’s company and interrupts a board meeting, using the seven deadly sins to kill his father, brother, and the rest of the board.

Billy and Freddy return home secretly, as they can’t really let anyone see Billy’s new form. However, Darla does see them. Billy wants to swear her to secrecy, but Darla is spectacularly bad at keeping secrets. When he explains what happened to him, Billy again says Shazam’s name, which changes him back (and also takes out the power in the house when the lightning strike hits). This relieves everyone, as that means he can be himself again. He also tells Darla that the best way for her to be a good sister is to not tell anyone Billy’s secret.

Realizing that as an adult he can buy alcohol now, Billy and Freddy go to a grocery store to buy beer. They foil a robbery along the way—with Billy discovering that he’s bullet proof—and also discover that they don’t actually like beer. They also go to a strip club (well, Billy does) and they also use Billy’s new ability to shoot lightning from his fingertips to steal money from an ATM.

Freddy had uploaded videos of him and Billy testing the latter’s powers online, and they’re hugely successful. Billy gets himself and Freddy out of school by posing as an adult taking them “home,” and then Billy charges people to take selfies with him. He also charges people’s phones.

However, when Freddy tells the bullies that the new hero in Philadelphia is his friend and he’ll come to lunch the next day, Billy gets disgusted and leaves school without Freddy. (The other kids are skeptical. One says that Superman will be there for dessert, right?)

Billy saves Mary from being hit by a truck. She doesn’t recognize him, of course, and is a little freaked out when he calls her by name. She’s gotten into Cal Tech, which Billy thinks is great, but she’s actually hesitating about leaving her family. Billy thinks that’s insane and tells her to look out for herself.

Later, during a photo op, Freddy and Billy are arguing, because Billy didn’t come to lunch, and Freddy is now a laughingstock. Billy accidentally blows out a tire on a bus with a lightning bolt, and barely manages to rescue it from falling from an overpass (he catches the bus when it falls, and it’s a miracle no one was killed). Freddy and Billy get into another argument—Billy thinks it’s cool that he saved the bus, but Freddy points out that he endangered the bus in the first place.

Sivana sees the footage of Billy and challenges him. Sivana has mostly the same powers, though he can fly. He brings Billy to the stratosphere and drops him, and only then does Billy manage to fly (thankfully). However, Sivana is also kicking his ass, and he keeps running away, eventually losing himself in a crowd in a mall and saying, “Shazam.”

However, Sivana sees the news footage of Billy and Freddy arguing at the same time that he sees Freddy looking around the mall trying to find Billy. So Sivana kidnaps him.

Billy goes home, where Mary, Eugene, and Pedro have all deduced that Billy is the hero—and Darla is relieved that they figured it out for themselves, so she’s still a good sister and can talk about it now.

Eugene reveals that he found Billy’s mother—she doesn’t use “Batson,” but instead the name she was born with, which is why Billy never found her. Batson was Billy’s father’s last name. Eugene provides an address, and Billy goes there.

However, it turns out that Marilyn had Billy when she was seventeen and wasn’t ready to be a mother. When she saw that Billy was in police custody at the carnival, she figured that he’d be better off and let him go into the system. She’s now living with someone else (who sounds pretty nasty and abusive), and tells Billy that this isn’t a good time for a reunion.

Devastated, Billy puts on a brave face and says he just wanted her to know he was doing okay. (He also shows her the compass, which he kept all this time, and she has no idea what it is.) He calls Freddy to apologize for being a dick—but Sivana answers. He wants the champion to come to his house or his siblings all die.

Billy goes home and agrees to give Sivana what he wants. Sivana creates a door to the Rock of Eternity and all seven deadly sins leave his body and take their corporeal forms. Freddy then throws his replica batarang at Sivana, who bleeds from it. The sins all come back into him, and a fight ensues, but Billy, after grabbing the wizard’s staff, which was still sitting there on the ground, manages to lead the kids out by concentrating on a particular place. (It winds up being the strip club, to the disgust of the other kids. Except Freddy.) Sivana follows, and they lead him to a carnival.

Remembering the wizard’s final words, Billy tells his siblings to all grab the staff and speak his name. After they all cry out, “BILLY!” he corrects them to say “Shazam,” and then they all become adults with powers also. They fight six of the deadly sins.

Billy notices that envy hasn’t come out to play, and Billy taunts him until he does. That leaves Sivana vulnerable, and Billy manages to extract the globe from Sivana and restore it to its rightful place, trapping the sins in their statue form once again.

The kids are all hailed as heroes, while Sivana is put in an asylum.

Freddy is surprised to see Billy, in Shazam form, come to have lunch with him, and they’re joined by Superman, thus impressing everyone at school.

Meanwhile, in the asylum, a small sentient worm assures Sivana that it’s not over yet, and there’s more work to be done.

 

“Oh, snap, you’re, like, a bad guy, right?”

Mark Strong in Shazam!

Screenshot: New Line Cinema / Warner Bros Pictures

On the one hand, this is a perfect Shazam! movie. It brings in elements from his entire history, including two of his three major villains in Dr. Sivana and, at the very end, Mr. Mind (that’s the worm that talks to Sivana in the asylum), with Black Adam set to come in his own movie, all the iterations of the Marvel family (with at least references to Talky Tawny in two mentions of a stuffed tiger prize at a carnival and with Darla having the same last name as Uncle Dudley, a.k.a. Uncle Marvel), his predilection for the interjection “Holy moley!” and an update to his origin that makes it less creepy. (I mean, seriously, an old man tells a homeless kid to join him in the subway to give him a present. It’s not an origin that has aged well…)

On the other hand, while I love that they leaned into the 1980s reboot where Billy retains his little-kid personality after transforming, I wish they’d done a better job of having Shazam actually have Billy’s personality.

Zachary Levi does a phenomenal job playing a teenager who finds himself thrust into an adult body. The problem is, the teenager he’s playing bears absolutely no resemblance to the teenager being played by Asher Angel for the rest of the movie. Angel’s Billy Batson is a bitter, closed-off, cynical kid who has a lot of emotional walls that need taking down. Levi’s Shazam sounds precisely nothing like the kid Angel is playing—in fact, he sounds more like Jack Dylan Grazer’s magnificently nerdy Freddy than he does Billy.

It’s a failure of scripting, directing, and acting, as the character voice for Shazam doesn’t match the character voice for Billy. Normally, when you’re doing a superhero—particularly one who has a secret identity of some sort—having the secret ID and the hero have different voices is a good thing. You don’t (necessarily) want Bruce Wayne to sound like Batman or Clark Kent to sound like Superman.

But Billy and Shazam are the same person, and he’s brand-new to it. While Shazam’s attempts to sound adult are hilariously labored, they don’t sound like Billy, who is actually pretty good at communicating with adults when he locks two cops in a pawn shop or talks with the social worker.

This disconnect spoils the movie some, but doesn’t ruin it, mostly because, while they don’t sound like the same person, both Levi and Angel are doing excellent work—especially Angel, who gives Billy a gravitas that makes his journey from selfish brat, to a kid who has has his cherished dream stomped on when he finally finds his mother and discovers that she’s an even more selfish brat than her son, to a hero who realizes his greatest strength isn’t the hope that he’ll find the woman who gave birth to him, but rather the family he’s found in the Vasquez home.

That home is the best part of the movie. Marta Milans and especially Cooper Andrews are both superb as Rosa and Victor, and the script and their performances create a lovely home. It’s not perfect, but they’re doing their best, and they’re charming and fun and supportive. The kids are all superb, but I have to give the biggest props to the supremely adorable Faithe Herman, who gives Darla serious depth beyond “moppet who hugs people,” as she’s very invested in being a good sister, and is obviously scared to death that people won’t love her, so she overcompensates by being cute as hell. And the rest of them are wonderful, too, though there are a bit too many of them to all really create enough of an impression—as an example, the movie doesn’t have the storytelling space to make Eugene or Pedro much more than stereotypes.

Mark Strong is also superb as ever. He embodies the theme of the movie, which is how you deal with your childhood traumas, and also how important family is—but it doesn’t have to be biological family. In fact, the biological families in this movie are awful. The Sivanas are total shits and Billy’s mother is a disaster. And in fact, the terrible families that they are saddled with are why Shazam is a terrible hero for most of the movie and why Sivana is such a nasty villain.

Not that the most powerful surrogate father the movie gives us is much better. The old wizard kidnaps children, promises them great power, then takes it away from them and tells them they’re not worthy because they—like any kid would—reach for a shiny thing. And when he does finally get a champion, it’s Billy, to whom he gives no instruction or guidance, just thrusts tremendous power into the hands of a cynical fourteen-year-old. What could possibly go wrong?

Director David F. Sanders, Angel, and Caroline Palmer do amazing work making the reunion with Billy’s mother land emotionally. It’s a tour de force by all concerned, especially Angel. Billy’s entire existence has been tied up in finding his mother, and when he does, it’s so crushingly disappointing, and it’s utterly heartbreaking.

But where Billy finds his strength isn’t in his ability to heft a bus, it’s the family he’s been given. And they defeat Sivana and the seven deadly sins as a team.

The movie is tremendous fun. The banter among the folks in the Vasquez house is delightful, Levi is obviously having a grand old time doing his Tom Hanks-in-Big-but-with-powers impersonation, Grazer is having even more fun as Freddy, there are tons of great lines, and the themes are very nicely and maturely done. This could’ve been a complete goof of a movie, but it actually deals with some very important themes amidst the hero action and CGI climax and overall silliness.

I just wish Levi and Angel worked a little more closely together on sounding like each other.

 

Next week, David Harbour takes over from Ron Perlman in a reboot of Hellboy.

Keith R.A. DeCandido has a story in the new anthology Across the Universe: Tales of Alternate Beatles, edited by Michael A. Ventrella & Randee Dawn, and which features a bunch of stories showing alternate versions of the Fab Four. His story “Used To Be” has them as adventurers in an epic fantasy setting. Check it out!

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