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SHAZAM! Brings Magic Back to Comic Book Movies

Shazam! deserves all of its early praise.

Written by Gary Keffer
SHAZAM! Brings Magic Back to Comic Book Movies
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 28: Zachary Levi arrives at Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema's world premiere of 'SHAZAM!' at TCL Chinese Theatre on March 28, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Morgan Lieberman/FilmMagic)

We finally have a comic book movie that isn’t a reboot of a prior film and doesn’t require encyclopedia knowledge of an extended universe: Shazam! arrives in theaters on April 5 with the type of positive reviews typically reserved for A-list releases. The praise is warranted and well-deserved.

Across its running time of two hours and 12 minutes, screenwriter Henry Gayden and director David F. Sandberg unspool a film that plays like a rollercoaster from its opening scene to its mid-credit teaser. In the process, Shazam quickly gains standing amongst the greats of the DC canon.

For those unfamiliar with the character, the story is simple: Runaway teen Billy Batson acts selflessly, is magically transported while pursued by bullies, and meets a wizard who transfers his power to him, enabling him to become “Shazam.”

Where the film ups its game, however, is in the narrative details that elevate a simplistic story to a crowd-pleaser that embraces multiple generations. As with every superhero film, there is a loss of a parent and a quest for answers. Shazam! shows the audience what happened to both the hero and the villain so the compare/contrast between good and evil is established early. Villain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) is a bad guy with some serious issues surrounding his parental relationships.

Unlike most superhero films, Shazam! doesn’t dwell on the darker themes that defined the latest Batman series or attempt to connect Shakespearean themes seen in Black Panther. Instead, we see an escapist adventure with a lightning bolt of humor to balance the difficulties (and scares) the characters face on their journey.

With that responsibility, star Zachary Levi, likely best known for his role on NBC’s Chuck (2007 – 2012) and as the voice of Flynn Rider in Disney’s Tangled (2010), emerges as a star with the ability to become this generation’s Tom Hanks. Affable and self-effacing, but capable of conveying emotion and resolve, Levi breathes life into Shazam and creates a character not seen since Christopher Reeve wore a cape in Superman (1978): a superhero whose heart is as important as his super-powers.

The heart shown by Shazam is also shown by the creative team behind the lens. These guys know their pop culture history and aren’t afraid to show it. Some nods are obvious, such as the piano sequence nodding to Penny Marshall’s Big (1988). Others may not be as obvious to younger audiences: The convenience store robbery scene is similar in tone and timing to Judd Hirsch’s portrayal of Brad Hamilton in Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).

Between the laughs and action, there are some good jump-scares and intense sequences that made adults in the audience flinch. Director Sandberg knows how to make an audience react – his last project was the horror film Annabelle (2017). In Shazam!, the jumps are more of the funhouse variety – briefly scary and safely within the film’s PG-13 rating, but questionable for five- and six-year-old kids who will be brought along for the ride as a family viewing experience. If there’s fault to be found with the film, it’s that the few adult edges are a little too blunt and maybe a little too visceral for a film that offers a softer take on the modern superhero.

In striking the balance between levity and peril, Shazam! explores broader themes of family and abandonment, right and wrong, responsibility and choice in external dialogue and action. Because Billy is a runaway in foster care, the film can display a diversity of characters who become his family and a critical component to his success as a super-hero.  The audience is given a seat at the table to share those experiences rather than an internalized struggle common to current plot trends. When the dust settles on screen and the end credits roll, the audience leaves with something not offered by other films in the genre: a statement on the importance of family. It’s hard to find fault with a movie that soars by showing us the importance of staying grounded.

TITLE: Shazam!

STUDIO: New Line Cinema

RELEASE DATE: April 5, 2019

RATING: PG-13 (Intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material)

RUN TIME: 132 minutes

ROTTEN TOMATOES: >90%

SOUNDS LIKE NASHVILLE: ♪♪♪♪ (4 out of 5 – strikes all the right notes)

SIDEBAR

Shazam vs Superman: 3 Decades of Conflict

Shazam is an unlikely choice for a film because he’s not a modern icon. The character was created in 1939 by artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker and debuted as “Captain Marvel” in Whiz Comics No.2 published by Fawcett Comics in 1940. The name “SHAZAM” is actually an acronym for the “immortal elders” from whom Captain Marvel draws his power:

  • Solomon
  • Hercules
  • Atlas
  • Zeus
  • Achilles
  • Mercury

The Captain Marvel comic books were reportedly more popular than Superman in the 1940s, giving rise to complaints and action by DC Comics to protect the Man of Steel from rusting in the eyes of audiences who preferred Billy Batson’s adventures as Shazam. The popularity translated to the character being the first to transition to film in the 1941 Republic Pictures serial, “The Adventures of Captain Marvel.”

By the end of the 1940s, the similarities between the characters was too much for DC Comics, who pursued legal action against Fawcett Comics for copyright infringement. The result: Captain Marvel comics ceased publication in 1953. It wasn’t until 1972 that DC Comic licensed the characters from Fawcett Comics and reintroduced Captain Marvel to a new generation. To avoid litigation with Marvel Comics, the character became known as “Shazam.”

Since then, Shazam has found his way into adaptions beyond the page:

  • A live-action series produced by Filmation for CBS ran for 28 episodes across three seasons (1974 – 1976).
  • An animated series, again produced by Filmation, ran on NBC for 12 episodes across a single season (1981 – 1982).

Today, Captain Marvel/Shazam endures as an iconic character with his origins in the “Golden Age” of comic books. Acknowledging the comparisons to Superman, the 2019 film offers a couple of jokes that connect the characters and the DC expanded universe in a way that’s true to their characters.