Written by Henry Gaden
Directed by David Sandberg
Orphan Billy Batson has been in and out of state care since he was five, always searching for the mother who vanished on him. He ends up with the Vazquez family, a couple who has made a home for five other foster children. One day, after fighting off bullies who were tormenting his brother Freddy, Billy ends up transported to the Rock of Eternity where an aged wizard bestows his great power on the youth. By uttering the wizard’s name, “Shazam!” Billy transforms into an adult aged superhero with powers derived from Earth’s magic. Meanwhile, Thaddeus Sivana is a wealthy man who once had his encounter with the wizard, but was tempted by the Seven Deadly Sins of Man and failed to prove his worth to wield this great power. Now, Sivana is intent on rending the power from Billy, dead or alive.
Shazam! (the hero formerly known as Captain Marvel) is my favorite superhero. He’s the perfect presentation of the wish fulfillment that has fueled the superhero comics industry since its inception in the 1930s: A child becomes an adult superhero with all the power they would need to fend off those who seek to harm them. In turn, the child can share this power with those he loves so, in turn, they become heroes like him, creating his own family along the way. It’s so archetypal that it’s baffling why there have been so many starts and stops and failed attempts to make Shazam! one of the most recognizable properties in comics media. He was outselling Superman by a considerable amount at the height of his popularity in the 1940s, helmed a movie serial, starred in his own 1970s Saturday morning live-action series, and has been a frequent guest star in almost every DC Universe cartoon series, from Justice League Unlimited to Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
My first introduction to Shazam! came through a coloring book based off the style guide illustrations of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. These iconic depictions of DC Comics top 1980s characters were ideally suited to introduce young readers to this comics universe. Shazam!’s original costume is so clean and vibrant, one of the great simple designs of the Golden Age and it is still influential today. In 1953, DC found Captain Marvel to be so similar to Superman a lawsuit was filed and the court’s agreed and his original publisher, Fawcett Comics ceased publication of the character. They eventually went under and ironically were bought out in 1972 by DC who immediately sought to integrate Cap and the Marvel Family into their comics. Earth-S was introduced, one of many parallel realities that make up the Multiverse. Superman and Cap did battle and eventually became pals, the character lingered in the background throughout the 1970s and into the 80s.
With the publication of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Multiverse was done away with and DC collapsed all these parallel worlds down into one singular, and often mindboggling complex reality. All the Golden Age of Cap were retconned, and he was rebooted as a child in the 1980s. During the Legends event, a sort of meta-storyline focused around branding, and Billy got a mini-series that gave a modern spin on his origins, like making Sivana his uncle. That entire effort appears to have been immediately forgotten, and character lingered as a supporting player in Justice League and popping up in the background of other events. The War of the Gods storyline in 1992 incorporated Billy Batson, and his alter ego, but any chance of an ongoing series floundered. It wouldn’t be until 1994’s Power of Shazam graphic novel that Cap would get a starring role again. This one-shot retold the origin once again, leaning heavily on the classic elements and feels like an anachronistic fairy tale.
The Power of Shazam ongoing series would run for five years and was one of the first comics I regularly collected while it was being published. Even when the series was canceled, Geoff Johns made an effort to incorporate Cap and his nemesis Black Adam (now revised to be an antihero) as part of his Justice Society series. In 2006, DC would make some questionable decisions around the Cap and the Shazam brand with The Trials of Shazam, an eight part mini-series. By the series’ end, Billy was now the wizard, and Freddy was the title hero, dropping the Captain Marvel moniker (Marvel Comics owned the rights to use the name in the title of any comics) and went only as Shazam. Mary Marvel would become corrupted in the god awful Countdown year-long series and end up as Black Mary, an era that would best be forgotten. In 2011, with the New 52 reboot of DC Comics, Shazam! was given a blank slate and the film acts as a relatively faithful adaptation of his most recent incarnation.
The film Shazam! does what a good superhero film should do: remembers that these movies should be primarily for children. Thus, it never takes itself too seriously but doesn’t become self-parody, winking its eye at the audience. The emotions and concerns of the children in the story are taken seriously, and super-heroing is handled with a light, deft touch. One of the most significant problems with Warner Brothers’ efforts to cash on the formula that Marvel started is that Warner has relied too heavily on mimicking the tone of the Christopher Nolan Batman films. Nolan’s co-writer David Goyer was brought on for the Man of Steel movies proving who was the contributor of the good parts of the Dark Knight films. These superheroes have been continually presented as bleak, lacking any sense of joy about being heroes, and ending up entirely inappropriate for the young audiences they are tailor-made for.
We’ve been told Warner was “course correcting” with movies like Wonder Woman and Justice League. I found the former serviceable but bland and the latter and complete tonal mess. Aquaman was a slight improvement but still too chip on its shoulder about the title character, never feeling proud to be a silly superhero film. Shazam! is a movie that embraces the goofiness of the whole premise and is entirely tonally appropriate for the character. The Shazam comics are stories about little kids fighting evil scientists and devils, traveling to worlds full of talking animals. Yes, there are modern elements infused into the core story, but the essence of the character that made him a fan favorite is present in every scene.
There’s no concern to inject gravitas into the story because it isn’t a tale of the world ending. It’s a very personal story about a young boy coming to terms with how he sees himself and his relationships with others. Billy wants his old family back but isn’t fully aware that he’s never going to have them again. Therefore, he needs to open and connect with the people around him. My one big complaint would be that I would have liked a little less superhero-villain punchy-punchy and some more time spent developing those foster sibling relationships. Billy and Freddy share most of the screentime, but I wanted more with Mary, Darla, the whole bunch.
Shazam! is not a perfect movie, but I am on record about my dislike for most superhero movies. I found Captain Marvel painfully boring, Ant-Man & The Wasp was tv movie bad, and Infinity War was fine but not a movie. The DC films are typically the worst, so it was nice that Shazam! felt like a movie made by people who genuinely loved this character. As I said, these should be movies for kids so the themes are decidedly on the nose so that children can understand them. Shazam! won’t be in my top movies of the year just because I enjoy films with a little more complexity to them, yet I appreciate this picture in the same way I loved Into the Spider-Verse, they respect their young audience enough to present them with a thoughtful and amusing story.