SHAZAM Is Goofy and Fun, but He’s No Captain Marvel

Shazam! (2019)
Directed by David F. Sandberg
Screenplay by Henry Gayden
Story by Henry Gaden and Darren Lemke
Based on characters created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck
Produced by Peter Safran and David Witz
Rated PG-13

Let me start by getting this out in the open up front: I grew up watching Captain Marvel on television, back when he was still called Captain Marvel and back when Jackson Bostwick played the character in the Filmation series on CBS Saturday mornings.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve even worked with Bostwick on a film called A Matter of Honor back when I did my first tour in college. This was way back in the day, and I still sometimes wonder at the circumstances that had me getting career advice from the Big Red Cheese himself. But that’s a story (and an interview) for another day.

I also have not read the New 52 version of Shazam! that came about when Geoff Johns decided to put Billy Batson’s 14-year-old personality inside the fully-grown body of Earth’s Mightiest Mortal. I thought it was an interesting take, but as in the movie, it completely ignores all aspects of the transformation that’s supposed to come about when young Billy invokes the name of the Wizard.

Now, having said all of that, I think Shazam! is a fun movie. Darker at times than the marketing made it out to be (that conference room scene is not for the little kids), and that’s OK. The CGI is pretty good. Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, and Jack Dylan Grazer all turn in respectable performances, and the supporting cast is pretty good.

But there’s something missing.

The problem I have with this version of the character is that it completely ignores the most important piece of the magic transformation when Billy becomes Captain Marvel: the wisdom of Solomon. It’s notable that out of the various personalities from whom Billy derives his powers — 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 — only Solomon is the historical figure among the group. And with the wisdom of Solomon and the courage of Achilles, you’d think Billy wouldn’t have a problem charging in to save the day.

But that isn’t this hero.

It’s Big in a cape. There’s even a wink to the Tom Hanks flick in the middle of an action set. And as I’m watching this version of the character, and fuming over the fact that nobody is calling him by his rightful name (long story involving legal battles), it hits me that DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. are going to take away the wrong lessons from the success of this film — assuming it’s successful, and it appears to be headed in that direction.

After the dude-bro humor of Aquaman, and now the goofy spoofy humor of Shazam!, it seems as if DC and WB have decided to swing the pendulum quite a bit in the opposite direction from the “dark and gritty” universe that began with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy.

Now, Mark Strong’s Sivana is thoroughly menacing and is a credible villain, not watered down, although the “ridiculed by Dad and big brother” bit went a bit overboard, for my taste. But once Sivana settles in and fully embraces that he’s the Bad Guy, Strong’s performance is top notch. He’s about the only actor in the picture who takes his role seriously. Everyone else knows they’re in a funny comic book movie with a guy in a padded suit.

The suit looks great, but it’s high-level cosplay great, not Earth’s Mightiest Mortal great.

And yet, while I can nitpick and find the things that bother me, overall it’s a fun movie. Maybe a bit darker than the advertising reveals, but still a fun movie. Deserving of a sequel? Maybe. They’ve certainly set it up for one, but the box office (and toy sales) will determine that one. I wouldn’t want Sandberg back to direct it, though. His sensibilities are just not the right fit for a serious movie like you would need to have if Black Adam comes into the picture.

And what does television’s original Captain Marvel think about the new version? Well, Jackson Bostwick hasn’t seen it yet, probably won’t until it’s out on home video, but…

“First of all, it’s no threat to me whatsoever. They don’t even call him Captain Marvel. I think what they’ve done is… they’ve missed the boat, but they’re gonna do well. It’ll make a ton of money. Just like Batman with Adam West. They did well, and Adam made a career out of it. I always like him on Family Guy playing the mayor.”

Bostwick says that what he’s seen and heard about the film so far leaves him unimpressed, and he compares the “modern” Marvel Family to the Power Rangers. “I’m not putting it down. As I say, it’s gonna do good. And I’m sure the kids, just like the kids watching Shazam in our age, or just like when I was growing up with The Lone Ranger, are gonna see it as their thing.”

However, it’s not how C. C. Beck saw the character, according to the man who first played him on television. “They’ve taken a classic, an iconic character, and they spoofed it.”

Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

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