Now, the history behind the name “Captain Marvel” is a long and pretty convoluted one.
Marvel’s current Captain Marvel (man, I wish there was a better way to phrase that) was originally Miss Marvel. The previous Captain Marvel was an alien (and several other characters have also been a Captain Marvel); the current Miss Marvel is a Pakistani-American high school girl from Jersey and has gone on to become one of Marvel’s most popular newer characters.
DC’s Captain Marvel’s history goes back to the ’30s — within a year of the debuts of both Superman and Batman and about 30 years before any of Marvel’s Captain Marvels (and, yeah, there really is no better way to phrase that) — originally published by Fawcett Comics, whose IP was ultimately acquired by DC.
DC’s Captain Marvel has been the source of ongoing confusion among readers due to the fact that his powers are activated by his civilian identity, a kid named Billy Batson yelling the word “SHAZAM”, standing for ‘The Wisdom of Solomon, the Strength of Hercules, the Stamina of Atlas, the Power of Zeus, the Courage of Achilles, and the Speed of Mercury” (just ignore that it’s a haphazard mix of the Greek and Roman names), and leading to the misconception that his name is “Shazam” (though it was the name of his comic book series back to the 70s).
The short version is that his name currently is essentially “Shazam”. Due to the ongoing confusion and various lawsuits concerning other characters with similar super-powers and/or names, DC rebranded the character himself as “Shazam” in 2011.
There’s a whole of lot twists and turns here. Though, incidentally, given how long the comic books industry has been around, there are plenty of other examples of similar legal wrangling that there at least this convoluted.
With all that out of the way, we can get started with the 2019 movie version of Shazam — or technically, “Shazam!”.
The short version is that I feel like this is the only movie in DC’s current movie universe that is an unqualified success.
I liked Man of Steel.
Wonder Woman was probably the best DC movie up to that point, but I have a few nagging issues with it.
I thought the theatrical version of Justice League was perfectly adequate, and, honestly, I really have no desire to see the Snyder version because there’s no way it’s that much better that it can justify being four hours long.
Aquaman was a very good movie with a fantastic lead — Jason Mamoa is just so cool.
Man, this whole post is just one lengthy digression after another…
Now, on to Shazam. For real this time, I promise.
Now, like I said way back at the beginning, Shazam’s basic gimmick is that Billy Batson a kid who can turn into a magic superhero. And the movie absolutely nails that part of the character. He does exactly what you’d expect a fourteen-year-old who can transform not only into an adult, but an adult who’s basically a magical version of Superman.
Billy-as-Shazam beats up the the kids that bully him and his foster siblings. He tries to impress girls and go viral on the Internet. He buys beer — and then promptly regrets it, because beer is gross when you’re really a kid in a giant, magic adult body.
Even though Shazam is indeed an origin story, it’s really a coming-of-a-age story, even more so than most other superhero origin stories. And that’s largely because it’s the story of a protagonist who is actually at the… age to be coming of age.
Billy isn’t just metaphorically growing up into a competent superhero, he’s growing up into a mature, responsible, compassionate adult.
Shazam is also a refreshing tonal change of pace from the recent spate of gritty, “mature”, “nuanced”, ‘no one is really a hero, because everyone is equally awful’ superhero movies and, honestly, fiction in general.
Basically: virtue is good and vice is bad, period. Shazam gets his powers bestowed on him from an ancient wizard and the powers themselves represent six paragons of virtue — at least theoretically, guys like Achilles aren’t really great role models in the source material; on the other hand, the six figures Shazam gets his powers from do at least represent virtue in the Ancient Greco-Roman sense of “surpassing personal excellence.”
The bad guys, meanwhile, are literally the Seven Deadly Sins. And to hammer the “these things are bad” idea home further, the demons embodying each of the sins are all depicted as hideous monsters.
Like I said, it’s refreshingly straightforward.
And, yeah, perhaps you could say it’s an overly naive and even childish way of understanding conflict and even the world in general, but I think that just means the morality of the film’s conflict fits with the rest of the movie. Remember, Shazam is a fourteen-year-old kid — of course he’s going to have a naive, childish worldview. He is a child.
His motive is essentially to prove his worth to his father and older brother who have constantly neglected and disrespected him. However, although he’s got a perfectly reasonable motive (I’m the unloved middle child of my family, I can relate), he’s going about it in absolutely the wrong way.
Summoning the seven most powerful demons in the cosmos is not the way to solve your problems, kids.
So, to conclude, Shazam isn’t necessarily the only good DC movie (it’s got at least Wonder Woman and Aquaman keeping it company), but it’s probably the only one that I actually had fun watching.
Not a shock, really, it’s firmly established in a Silver Age of Comics-eqsue lighthearted goofiness and absolutely hits the perfect tone for that premise.