Thursday, April 4, 2019

With One Magic Word... SHAZAM!

One thing people forget about DC's Captain Marvel is just how big of a super-hero he was in the Golden Age of comics (arguably more popular than Superman for a time). Fast-forward several decades and the character's name has changed, although I give credit to Henry Gayden's screenplay in purposely obscuring what he should be called in clever way to get around using a name the character can never utter aloud to introduce himself, but the core of the character remains the same (even if he's a little rougher around the edges on-screen).

Our main character is orphaned teen Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who has been moved to a new foster home after running away yet again in a failed attempt to find his long-lost mother. The good-natured couple (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) who take him in already have a cast of kids under their care including Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) who will become Billy's closest friend and help him in exploring the powers gifted to Billy by the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou).

For the film's villain, the script dusts off evil scientist Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) who is rebranded more as a power-hungry industrialist who was initially considered (and rejected) by the wizard. In the years that followed, his life's endeavour has been to gain the power denied him. When Sivana is able to release the power of the wizard's enemies, it falls on Billy to transform into the champion (Zachary Levi as the adult version of the character at his full potential imbued with strength, speed, invulnerability, flight, and more) to save the world.

Most comic book heroes have their share of ridiculous comic history, and Captain Marvel (as I'm still want to call him) is no exception. The script does a good job of including as much of this as possible while still putting a modern spin on a character that's been around for most of a century. Billy's foster family gets quite a bit of screentime both helping to explore Billy's emotional state and helping him learn to trust and care for others. They will also play a large role in the film's final act (which I won't spoil here). Also included are the Seven Enemies of Man, imprisoned by the wizard in the Rock of Eternity who act as the catalyst to Sivana's big villain turn (and as a powerful threat which needs Captain Marvel to fight). Even Mr. Mind gets a cameo, although it seems like we'll have to wait for a possible sequel to see Tawky Tawny, Hoppy the Bunny, or any number of other odd characters that the comic franchise has spawned.

In terms of Billy himself, Angel and Levi work well together without ever appearing on-screen at the same time. Personally, I would have preferred Billy to be a little less of a street punk in the early scenes, but even at his most dickish he's still a good-natured kid (and far easier to accept than the awful New 52 version DC introduced a few years back). Longtime fans may also be slightly miffed about the film glossing over what the letters in Shazam stand for (one of them being the wisdom of a god, which we see very little of from our hero for the majority of the film). That said, Levi provides a tremendous amount of childlike joy to the role as the older version of Billy explores his powers, albeit initially for selfish reasons, and finds uses for his new adult-looking alter-ego.

SHAZAM! may not quite provide me with the most comic accurate version of the Big Red Cheese, but by centering much of the story on Billy and working through both his emotional issues and his struggles with his new powers (which offer some great training sequences) the film humanizes the character who at its core is pure wish fulfillment (a child's dream to be an adult, and get super-powers to boot!). And it's fun! Holy Moley, is there so much fun to be had! There are plenty of nods the film makes both to the character's history (and even one to another well-known film about a boy living as an adult). In the end, Billy is extremely easily to root for in a story that provides a few speed bumps on his way to becoming a hero, but nearly all of them entertaining. While I understand DC stating initially that the movie would take place outside of the shared universe, this is another character that along with Wonder Woman could offer the core of an interesting Justice League somewhere down the line.

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