“If a superhero can’t save his family, he’s not much of a hero after all.” Shazam! (2019)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The entirety of the superhero film genre deals with issues of identity and family and belonging. The best entries – Superman, Dick Tracy, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Versetransport us to escapist realms while metaphorically helping reconcile the harsh reality of our daily lives vs. our wish fulfillment fantasy to champion all underdogs and right all wrongs. This disconnect between the inner child who still feels all things are possible and the jaded adult who fears the best of life has passed one by keeps us spinning the wheel at the superhero box office in the hopes of finding our ultimate champion on the silver screen.

And Shazam! comes pretty damn close.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Based on the classic Fawcett Comics character Captain Marvel, Shazam was  acquired by DC Comics in a copyright dispute in the 1950s over the character’s (overstated) similarities to Superman. DC, ironically in turn, lost the rights to use the name (but not the character) “Captain Marvel” to Marvel Comics in the 1970s, and Marvel’s version of “Captain Marvel” had her cinematic debut one month ago. Consequently, DC’s “Captain Marvel” now goes by “Shazam,” which in actuality is the magic word young Billy Batson exclaims to become “The Big Red Cheese” Captain Marvel (but we can’t actually call him “Captain Marvel” any more). Clear as mud? Thanks a lot, intellectual property laws. (It’s all explained much better and in much more detail here.)

None of this matters one whit to your ultimate enjoyment of David F. Sandberg’s film treatment of Shazam (which was also a corny Saturday morning Filmation live action series in the 1970s and a Republic serial in the 1940s). For the casual film-goer, the more relevant comparison is to Tom Hanks’ classic comedy Big as a wish fulfillment fantasy of a little boy lost who assumes adulthood (and superpowers) will solve all his real-life problems (spoiler alert: they don’t). Shazam even offers an onscreen nod to Big’s FAO Schwartz super-sized floor piano keyboard duet.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Asher Angel (think young Zac Efron, but a bit less precious) plays foster kid Billy Batson, ever on the hunt for the birth mother he lost years ago at a winter carnival and who mysteriously never reclaimed her son. Batson bounces from group home to group home until he lands at the beautifully blended foster home of Rosa and Victor Vasquez (warm and earthy Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews). Overeager and lonely foster brother Freddy Freeman (It‘s Jack Dylan Grazer in a dynamite and heartbreaking turn) introduces Billy to the nerdy joys of super hero trivia, and, before we know it, flash-bam-boom!, Billy finds himself one subway stop away from the magical “Rock of Eternity,” imbued with magical abilities by an ancient wizard (an almost unrecognizable Djimon Hounsou).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

When Billy shouts “Shazam!” (acronym of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury and the respective abilities of each), the young boy transforms into 6’3″ Zachary Levi (Chuck, Tangled, She Loves Me) whose sitcom/musical comedy ethos paired with a physique that now seems to have muscles-on-top-of-muscles makes him the perfect choice for this whimsical hero.

The film is saddled, as are most comic book adaptations alas, with a “take over the world” megalomaniac antagonist. This time, Mark Strong plays Dr. Sivana, and, in his typical glowering skinny/tall-British-Stanley-Tucci-with-dodgy-dental-work-way, Strong meanders about the film, saying vaguely apocalyptic things and shooting energy bolts from his hands. He’s completely unnecessary.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Thematically, Strong’s primary contribution seems to be to further the film’s exploration of family lost and family gained. Sivana’s father is a Lex Luthor-esque SOB, played by the go-to actor for Lex-Luthor-esque SOBs John Glover (Gremlins 2, Smallville … where, in fact, he played Lex Luthor’s dad) whose brutal parenting style predictably turns his little lad into a grade-A psychopath.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Shazam! works best when the film turns its gaze toward the adorable band of misfits in Billy’s foster home. The child actors are loving, lovable, believable, and kind. The challenges Billy endures embracing his new home and relinquishing his dream of reuniting with his birth mother are poignant and accessible and juxtapose nicely with the comic farce of him learning to be a proper super hero. Levi is an utter delight playing a 14-year-old boy in an (overgrown) man’s body, attempting superheroics when all he really wants to do is gobble junk food and play video games. At one point, Batson in his superhero persona observes, “If a superhero can’t save his family, he’s not much of a hero after all.” Amen to that. Amen to that.

 

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Thanks to my boss Susan and coworker Megan for this! #wishfulfillment

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I have nothing to prove to you.” Captain Marvel

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel Studios’ latest offering Captain Marvel is a welcome addition to the cinematic superhero pantheon. The film is more quietly groundbreaking than, say, Wonder Woman or Black Panther because Oscar winner Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers simply belongs at the table, without apology or explanation. Perhaps we’ve turned a corner … at least where these movies are concerned. Now, if only the rest of the world would follow suit.

And if only Captain Marvel had been a bit more interesting.

As a film, Captain Marvel is entertaining and pleasant and altogether unremarkable. It feels like an extended episode of ABC’s Agents of SHIELD, replete with a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson as Agent Nick Fury and a similarly CGI’d Clark Gregg as Fury’s sidekick Phil Coulson. The film takes place waaaay back in 1995 (when did that year become retro? it still feels like yesterday), hence the Industrial Light and Magic cinematic plastic surgery on Jackson and Gregg. The effect isn’t as creepy as it once was (see: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-Men: The Last Stand …. ayiiiii!), although both of Jackson’s and Gregg’s faces do look a bit like shiny ice rinks, and Gregg resembles a dour Gene Kelly now more than ever.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck cram in a handful of too-cute-by-half visual references to icons of the era, like Blockbuster Video stores, pay phones, and NIN (Nine Inch Nails) tee-shirts. There’s Goose, an adorable cat who is actually an alien in disguise and who easily could have been a running joke in Men In Black. And the soundtrack is loaded with hits from the flannel and grunge era – Garbage! Hole! Elastica! Des’ree! TLC! Ya gotta be … chasin’ waterfaaaaallls.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Unlike Bumblebee, which invoked a bygone era to add color and context, Captain Marvel‘s filmmakers treat the setting as both novelty and afterthought. The 90s environs just feel kinda “meh.” Taking viewers back nearly 25 years seems designed chiefly as a means of allowing Marvel to retcon their universe and to correct one of their rare tone-deaf choices: that is, not featuring a strong woman lead until 21 (!) films into their Marvel Studios’ storied run.

All of that said, Captain Marvel does succeed in introducing a smart and interesting hero into the Marvel Universe. On this International Women’s Day weekend, it’s also canny marketing. As Larson’s Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel states plainly to her honey-colored alpha male mentor / anti-hero Yon-Rogg (an effectively smarmy/charming Jude Law), “I have nothing to prove to you” (right before blasting him into the side of a mountain in their climactic battle).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The supporting cast is populated with a galaxy of solid character players from Annette Bening as Danvers’ former (and current) boss (it makes sense when you see the flick) to Ben Mendelsohn as a disarmingly funny frog-like alien (with an inexplicable Australian accent) to  Lashana Lynch as Carol’s long-suffering bestie.

Captain Marvel is fun and forgettable, and it’s greatest legacy may be that it delivers its ass-kicking star with a shrug … like, why is this a big deal in 2019 to have a blockbuster comic book movie with a woman in the leading role?

“No need to whine, boy./Like a wind up toy, you stutter at my feet.” – Elastica, “Stutter.”

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Let this be a lesson to comic book nerds everywhere: Marvel Universe Live! at the Palace of Auburn Hills

The Hulk, looking like a big Muppet.

The Hulk, looking like a big Muppet

The Palace

The Palace

Let this be a lesson to comic book nerds everywhere: don’t buy tickets to some superhero extravaganza 18 months in advance on the promise of a state-of-the-art immersive experience in the four-color world of funny book lore.

The stage

The stage

‘Cause a year and a half later, that magical cape-and-spandex fever dream to be? It’s basically Spider-Man Ice Capades … without the ice.

That about sums up the arena-touring Marvel Universe Live! which we had the misfortune of taking in this afternoon at The Palace of Auburn Hills, alongside a lot of gobsmacked kids and their grimacing mothers and fathers.

Captain American arguing with Iron Man about who has the worst lines

Captain American arguing with Iron Man about who has the worst lines

Seriously, if we escape this experience unscathed from the stomach flu or an ear infection, it will be a minor miracle.

The show runs under two hours, including an interminable 25 minute intermission, designed chiefly for parents to empty their wallets at the carny-esque merchandise carts clogging nearly every aisle. It is a Disney enterprise after all.

Oh, what have we done ...

Oh, what have we done …

The plot, or what passes for one, is a hodgepodge of elements cribbed from a decade’s worth of Marvel movies (Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor) and a bit or two from the comics (those characters like X-Men or Spider-Man for whom Disney doesn’t necessarily hold the movie rights in Mickey’s four-fingered paw).

The Avengers, or a loose confederation of badly costumed heroes bearing a passing resemblance to said superhero team, are chasing down bits of that damned Tesseract (“Cosmic Cube”) – the boring MacGuffin that has dominated Disney/Marvel’s film output: a glowing device that gets chopped up in a million bits which, if brought back together, will let any number of bad-deed-doers take over the world, monologue an lot, and shake their scaly fists at the sky.

Motorcycles. Lots of motorcycles.

Motorcycles. Lots of motorcycles.

Woo boy.

The show is an enterprise intended for kids, so I should just stop being a jackass and note that, for any child under 10, it will be the. best. freaking. thing. they. have. ever. seen. (I was heartened to see as many girls as boys in the audience, possibly indicating a break in the Disney Princess stranglehold on post-millennial prepubescent gender identity? We can only hope.)

There are motorcycle and aerial stunts aplenty with enough pyrotechnics to make a vintage Van Halen fan weep. The dialogue (the program actually lists a team of writers on this thing, and surprisingly not 18 monkeys in a room of keyboards) is phoned in from somewhere left of the moon, as the poor souls playing these comic book icons are required to lip sync every line. And I thought Britney Spears had it bad … and that ain’t good.

Loki and his vacuum/fish bowls of death

Loki and his vacuum/fish bowls of death

The costumes are pretty hit or miss. Some folks, like big bad Asgardian Loki, are almost note-perfect, while others, like Wolverine, look like they were garbed in leftovers fished from the remainder bin at Halloween City.

Believe it or not, the show has its standout performers (though for all intents and purposes, the actors remain nameless/faceless entities).

Spider-Man is a hoot, assigned the zippiest quips (not saying much) and imbued with an acrobatic whimsy that comes as a welcome relief from all the paper-doll posturing on-stage. Captain America is a delight as well, with some great stunt work and a bit of the light comedy his eponymous films wring from Cap’s anachronistic circumstances.

Spider-Man hitching a ride from his buddy Green Goblin

Spider-Man hitching a ride from his buddy Green Goblin

The backdrop

The backdrop

For the true comic nerds in audience? For middle-aged people, like yours truly, who have no business going to a show like this, at least without the cover-story of dragging a niece or nephew or random neighbor kid grudgingly along?

Finale ... thank heavens

Finale … thank heavens

Well, for geeks like us, the joys are limited. You get to see some random fan-favorite characters like Captain Marvel, Black Cat, assorted AIM Agents (with those silly beekeeper outfits), and Madame Hydra in the flesh, and there are some nifty items in the merchandise booth (the program with commemorative comic book and a few of the shirts are keepers). Otherwise, just stay home, save your moolah, and revisit your old super-favorites the way we always have … by reading.

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Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.