You may be wondering what a Greatest Living Author watches when he’s not writing. Well, how about probably the most fun you’ll have watching a superhero movie until Superman finally fights a million Jimmy Olsens?
Superhero movies have a long and storied history: film serials featuring heroes from what are now DC and Marvel (they’re changed names several times over their history), a movie meant to be the pilot of a Superman show in 1951, a movie based on the Adam West Batman show (which gave us the “some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb” meme).
And that’s not even getting into the Japanese superhero genre that’s been well-established since the late 50s…
Now, what most people in my age bracket (as far as you’re concerned, I’m 25 and always will be…) think of as “superhero” movies probably began with the late 70s Superman, and the first superhero movie they actually watched is probably one of the 90s Batman movies.
Incidentally, my favourite of the 90s Batman-s is Batman Forever, by dint of being the one we actually had a VHS copy of at home. Which I must have watched a couple dozen. Hundred. Times.
At this point, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is far and away the best-known and most successful — I counted 10 of the top 50 highest-grossing movies on Wikipedia as being MCU movies.
Warner, conversely, as had a rough go of making a successful and/or well-regarded cinematic universe out of their DC properties. While the standalone Nolan Batman movies are still held in high regard (probably held as the best pre-MCU superhero movies), attempts at emulating the MCU have sort of fallen flat.
Man of Steel was successful but controversial with fans, Wonder Woman was pretty widely acclaimed — the sequel not so much, though I personally enjoyed it somewhere between “ironically” and “actually”, Aquaman probably got more positive feedback than negative (though Jason Momoa was generally acknowledged to be awesome), Batman v Superman was a mess (and about eight weeks too long, though Ben Affleck is legitimately one of my favourite Batmen), Justice League was basically “Avengers, but worse” and the Snyder Cut, though generally deemed superior, was too little too late to salvage again — and also eight weeks long.
Suicide Squad had the benefit of being only tangentially connected to the rest of the universe, but was still trying too hard to be wacky and off-the-wall and just ending up feeling too on the nose.
And now Warner is poised to reset the DC film universe…
Which brings me to the the only movie from this iteration of the DC film universe, 2019’s Shazam!.
Again, the exclamation point is part of the title, not me being excited…
But, first, more about the tangled legal history of comic book name rights than you ever wanted to know.
To start with, there’s a lot I need potentially need to contextualise here. Specifically, that the history behind the name “Captain Marvel” is a long and pretty convoluted one.
The elephant in the room is the fact that both Marvel and DC have heroes named Captain Marvel — and then things get pretty crazy from there. Especially because the Marvel Captain Marvel is probably the one with the higher profile thanks to being featured in the MCU.
And especially especially because the Marvel, um, Captain Marvel isn’t the one this post is about…
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.
Now, on to Shazam.
Fundamentally, Shazam’s gimmick at its most basic is that Billy Batson is 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 from 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.
On the other hand, the main human bad guy, a bald villainous character played by Mark Strong, who seems to have made a career playing bald villains, is sympathetic to a certain degree.
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.
The movie also manages to say some pretty meaningful things about family and heroism and add genuine emotional depth to the story despite being firmly established in a Silver Age of Comics-eqsue lighthearted goofiness and absolutely hits the perfect tone for that premise, while also managing to present the villains as a genuine threat and give the conflict serious stakes, but still in a way that fits the overall Silver Age style of the film.
So, to conclude, Shazam isn’t necessarily the only good movie from the current DC film universe (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. Which is probably all you want in a comic book movie.
Well, that and Superman fighting a million Jimmy Olsens…
More recommendations here.
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