When I started reading comics back in the 1970s, comic books were still generally lighthearted reading. You could tell the good guys from the bad guys and storylines were usually resolved in one or two issues. Darker topics might sneak through once in a while but it wasn’t until the 80s or 90s that we started to say goodbye to the old school style of stories and ushered in the darkness. Now, while I can appreciate the more adult nature of comics today, I miss the fun and laughter present in comics from the silver and golden age. Yes, I’m an old guy who likes comics, and I do appreciate everything Marvel and DC puts on the big screen these days, even though the comics have left me behind. Perhaps that’s why I really loved the new Shazam! movie so much. It honors the past while being just serious enough for the modern age.
Now, let’s start by setting the record straight. Shazam is the modern name for the original Captain Marvel as created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck for Fawcett Comics back in 1939. He first appeared in Whiz Comics #2 before moving on to Captain Marvel Adventures and The Marvel Family. He quickly became more popular than Superman and made his big screen debut in the 1941 chapter serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Ironically, thanks in part to a lawsuit with DC Comics over copyright infringement and sagging sales, Captain Marvel disappeared in the 1950s. DC would revive the character in the 1970s in print and on Saturday morning television before revising his origin in the 1980s, the first of many character revisions in the years that would follow. With Marvel Comics creating their own version of Captain Marvel in 1967, the DC version would soon become known simply as Shazam.
The one constant in all of the various origins to the character of Shazam is that young Billy Batson acquires his powers by saying the name of the wizard who gave him his powers…Shazam. The powers come from the gods of old. He has 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. Yes, he’s similar to Superman in some ways but very different in others. He has weaknesses, such as he has the body of an adult but still possesses the mind of a teenager whenever he changes form. This results in a much lighter and more humorous superhero, which is one of the strong points of this incredibly fun adaptation.
DC has learned from their mistakes with such films as Justice League. They’re injecting more humor into the stories to help balance the action and dark elements of the movies. Following on the huge successes of Wonder Woman (2017) and Aquaman (2018), Shazam! introduces us to young Billy Batson (Asher Angel) as he becomes Shazam (Zachary Levi), just in time to confront the evil Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong). Sivana was not pure enough to become Shazam when he was younger, so now he is channeling his anger in pursuit of the wizard who offered him the world and then took it all away. Enter the Seven Deadly Sins, a supernatural team of creatures hell bent on destroying all human life, and you have a classic tale of good vs. evil.
The movie succeeds on all levels, from a non-complicated plot to a great cast. Levi is so much fun as Shazam while Strong is perfect as the more contemporary version of Sivana. Batson’s “family” is perfect as well. Part of the family includes the adorable Faithe Herman as young Darla, while Grace Fulton stars as Mary and Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy, the popular characters present since the very beginning. And if foster father Victor looks familiar, you’ve probably seen Cooper Andrews on The Walking Dead as Jerry, King Ezekiel’s right hand man. And yes, that’s Djimon Hounsou (Korath in the Marvel cinematic universe) as the wizard Shazam.
If I have to mention one minor complaint with Shazam!, it would be that the climax of the film drags on just a little too much. Shaving five to seven minutes off the final act, along with some other minor edits, would have helped the film move along even more briskly. That said, the film still stands strong in the final act.
There’s a lot of humor present alongside the battles of heroes and villains, just like comic books of old. Perhaps that why I loved Shazam! so much. It entertained me and made me laugh without ever becoming too dark or too serious. Shazam is not a dark character and should never be presented as one. With a post credits teaser and positive early reviews, it’s likely to be another box office success for DC, ensuring a sequel in the future (I’m talking about you Mister Mind). So, if you like your heroes a little lighter or if you’re an old guy who likes comics, then I think you’ll find Shazam! just as fantastic as I did.