And Shazam! comes pretty damn close.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.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). 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.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. 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.
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.