Hmm… more strip club scenes than I was expecting
by Thom Yee
One of the more peculiar things you may have noticed if you’ve paid much attention to Hollywood movies releases is how often two very similarly themed movies come out in the same year, often jammed right up next to each other so closely that you can’t help but take note. It happened with Armageddon and Deep Impact, both about giant meteors on a collision course with the Earth, when they each arrived in 1998; it happened again later that year when DreamWorks’ Antz released little more than a month ahead of Pixar’s A Bug’s Life; it happened with Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige in 2006, a movie that made everyone forget that The Illusionist was also a pretty good movie about magicians that year; and it happened in 2013 when the President was in danger and could only be saved by a snarky action man in both Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. And that’s not even mentioning Turner & Hooch and K-9 (dog/buddy cops) in 1989, Tombstone and Wyatt Earp (Wyatt Earp westerns) in 1994, Dante’s Peak and Inferno (volcano disasters) in 1997, Red Planet and Mission to Mars (missions to Mars) in 2000, or Capote and Infamous (Truman Capote biopics) in 2006. But even after all of these years of eerily similar movies coming out at basically the same time, I’m still kind of shocked that we got wo Captain Marvel movies this year and that they both came out within a month of each other. You might be thinking that there’s only one Captain Marvel movie though, and, in almost of the ways that matter, you’re right. Not technically though. Not if you’re a giant comicbook nerd. Like me.
You see, back in the 1940s, Fawcett Publications launched their own line of superhero comics after the success of Superman and Batman at DC Comics, and among the first of their heroes was Captain Marvel, a nearly invincible, caped, flying strong man with god-like powers. Captain Marvel proved to be the most popular of Fawcett’s superhero line and his popularity soon came to rival the heroes that inspired his creation, so much so that DC would eventually sue Fawcett for the character’s resemblance to Superman. The case was eventually settled out of court in 1953 and the result was that Fawcett stopped producing Captain Marvel Adventures and folded their entire superhero line altogether. The funny part of that story is that DC would later go on to acquire the rights to the character and began producing their own Captain Marvel comics in the early ‘70s. The really funny part of that story, though, is that, by that time, rival publisher Marvel Comics had already introduced their own hero named Captain Marvel and, thus, held the trademark and title rights to Captain Marvel, forcing DC to publish their Captain Marvel comics under an alternate title. And so it came to be that DC’s Captain Marvel comic and any future productions starring the original Captain Marvel could never go under that name and would henceforth be published with the title Shazam!
And what’s even funnier than all of that is that as much as Marvel held and still holds title rights to the name Captain Marvel, the character originally called Captain Marvel as published by Marvel Comics has been dead since 1982, the name passed along to several other Marvel heroes since then, including to Monica Rambeau (a name you might recognize by now) in the late ‘80s, to the original Marvel Captain Marvel’s son in the early to mid 2000s, and finally to Carol Danvers — the one character most of you actually think of as Captain Marvel — in 2012 when Marvel relaunched Carol as a stronger, more assertive, and more marketable hero in her own right (she had mostly been known as Ms. Marvel until that point). And maybe funniest of all, it was also in 2012 that DC, under their latest reboot of their Captain Marvel, finally decided to end years of confusion and just call him Shazam, like the title of the comics he appeared in. And so, of the two Captain Marvels we’ve met this year, one, Marvel’s, only started calling herself that recently after years of different code names, and the other, DC’s, only stopped calling himself that recently after being called Captain Marvel for most of his published life even though his comics always had to be called Shazam! It’s with all of that in mind that I’m telling you that, at least for us nerds, there are two Captain Marvel movies right now, and that it’s still kind of weird for me at least that, of all the comicbook characters in all of the world, the two Captain Marvels happened to both have movies come out right next to each other even though nothing linked the two characters together other than their superhero names.
I don’t know how much better off you are now that you know that, though. That is, if anything I’ve just written came across coherently at all. Honestly, you may even have been better off if you’d skipped this entire intro. But it’s too late for that now.
What’s it about?
For thousands of years, the wizard Shazam sat atop the Rock of Eternity, the source of all magic, defending our world from those who would do wrong by endowing a champion with his great powers: 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! Merely the utterance of the wizard’s name — SHAZAM! — would call forth this power to those deemed worthy! But none have proven worthy for some time, and when the villainous Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who himself had been deemed less than worthy as a youth, lets loose the power of the seven deadly sins of mankind, it’s up to Shazam’s last choice, an orphan boy named Billy Batson (Asher Angel/Zachary Levi), to stop him!
Pretty crazy, right?!
… Not like Man of Steel at all!
… Happy now?!
I’ve written pretty extensively in the past about the genuine sense of wonder I have about how deeply superheroes have penetrated the culture and how thoroughly they’ve captured the zeitgeist (in many ways it’s all we’ve been writing about here on GOO Reviews for the last six-and-a-half years), but I think when it comes to a movie like DC’s Shazam! it’s very clear that most of that built-up good will and acceptance of superheroes is far more a result of what Marvel’s done. In and of itself that’s not necessarily a bad thing — it’s also pretty shocking to me that normal people even know, can tell, and even care that there’s a difference between movies from Marvel and DC [we won’t talk about the Fox X-Men or Fantastic Four movies, those don’t belong in polite conversation] — but where Marvel seems almost incapable of making movies based on previously unknown character that don’t earn over a billion dollars and cause a shift in the culture these days, DC couldn’t even get a movie with Batman fighting Superman to the $900 million mark. I mean, obviously there’s the whole “Boo-hoo-only-$900-million?-You’re-breaking-my-heart!” of it all [sarcasm], but where Marvel’s Captain Marvel opened to $153 million back in March and has so far earned almost $1.1 billion worldwide, DC’s Shazam! only opened to $53 million in April and will be lucky to make it to $400 million. And… y’know, I’m really not supposed to tell you this here, not this early in the review at least … but Shazam!’s, like, way better!
On the other hand, Shazam! is a superhero movie produced on a much smaller budget than most, and supposedly the higher ups at Warner Bros. are happy with its performance, and I guess most of you guys didn’t know who [or what] Shazam was before this movie anyway, but still, $53 million… that’s like Ant-Man numbers (less, actually), and we all know Marvel only makes the Ant-Man movies as a tax write-off (I’m pretty sure I read that in Time Magazine). And for a character like Shazam, often billed as the World’s Mightiest Mortal in the comics, it just feels like his movie should make a bit more than a movie about an ant-sized man named Ant-Man who talks to and rides on ants. I don’t know, is that prejudiced? Is that not woke? Should I check my superhero privilege?
Is it any Good?
So here’s the thing about Shazam! A lot of reviews will tell you it’s like Big meets superheroes, and that’s pretty accurate in as far as it’s a kid-becomes-grown-up-but-is-still-a-kid-inside set up, but I don’t know how many people today who are interested in Shazam! have ever actually seen or will ever see Big. I certainly haven’t and don’t plan to, and I was even alive for part of the ‘80s. Saying Shazam! is like Big is shorthand for the idea of a kid in an adult body, but the most obvious comparison to make with Shazam! and what I think it most clearly is is DC’s Marvel movie. More than latter-day DC movies like Justice League or Aquaman’s straightforward stories and humorous tones at the expense of more weighty storytelling, Shazam! is DC’s biggest concession to what exactly it is that people like about Marvel movies. It’s quick and easy to understand, it’s of a certain comedic, airy tone, it’s aware of the silliness of its premise, and there’s no way you won’t like it at least a little bit.
I think what Shazam! felt most like to me as I watched it was Spider-Man: Homecoming, only it wasn’t a movie at all interested in mining the dilemma caused by dual identities. Once Billy gets his powers and turns into what appears to be a full-grown man, he pretty much skips out on his own life whenever he feels like it, a “luxury” afforded him because he’s a foster kid with no roots who’s skipped from home to home, and, believe it or not, that’s actually a pretty unique take on the superhero story as we’ve come to know it. Billy doesn’t bring any pre-conceived notions of what a hero is or what a hero owes to society; he barely knows anything about superheroes even though he lives in a world where they’re real. Instead, that knowledge is gradually doled out to him by his new foster brother, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), who’s obsessed with Superman and Batman and who helps Billy to figure out the extent of his new abilities. In terms of pure fun, these explorations of his powers are some of Shazam!’s strongest points and are surprisingly sharp in their meta awareness of what type of movie these characters are in, and the way Zachary Levi, as grown-up, superpowered Billy, is able to come across as still clearly a child inside and how well he gets along with Freddy is key to why these parts of the movie work.
We’ve seen stories before of heroes initially shirking their heroic responsibilities only to grow into the role as they realize that everything in the end is up to them, but the foundation of who Billy Batson is as a character is what makes this turn one of the better versions I’ve seen in superhero movies because it rings true so strongly once you understand Billy’s motivations as a foster kid. You initially meet him as a troublemaker, but the movie steers clear from the kid just being a d*ck. He remembers his parents and the moment they were separated so clearly that he’s spent as much of his life as he could not running from foster homes but running towards his parents, going from state to state trying to find them. It’s at these points that the movie’s thematic meaning comes through most clearly, and it’s a sort of motivation that I feel like most of us have had at one time, not necessarily with the specifics of finding a lost parent, but with that feeling that if you just correct that one mistake, no matter the consequences of what we do to get there, everything will be fine and it will all be worth it. I think we’ve all felt that about something we’ve pursued in our lives and it’s the kind of focus that can blind us to everything we’re missing along the way, and it’s how convincingly I felt Shazam! communicated that point that made the movie actually mean something important. And to further compare Shazam! to a Marvel movie I’ve already mentioned in this review, it’s what I thought they were going for in Ant-Man when Hank finally tells his daughter Hope the truth about what happened to her mother Janet, the kind of throughline that could have given Ant-Man a lot more emotional resonance, but instead they went with the whorey old “I was trying to protect you” crap that almost totally undid that scene for me. It’s to Shazam!‘s credit that they get this emotional beat so right whereas lesser superhero movies would get and have gotten it wrong.
What Shazam! is ultimately about is family, and as cliché as that might be and as much as that’s kind of what every movie is ultimately about, the setting of Shazam! within Billy’s new foster home is what allows the movie to feel a little more convincing and organic about that point than, say, the Fast & Furious movies that are so clearly about being big dumb action movies first and foremost. Billy’s foster parents come across as genuinely caring without being overbearing or unrealistic, his foster sister’s Mary and Darla have small but important roles to play as, individually, the eldest and youngest daughters of the family, and Billy’s relationship with Freddy and the type of person Freddy turns out to be all work very well to support this movie’s themes of togetherness and what families are supposed to be (although I won’t go into his other younger foster brothers as they are very shortchanged and almost unnecessary in this movie). What’s also great about this setup is how well it’s evil-mirrored by the movie’s villain, Thaddeus Sivana, whose family life was nothing but the type of selfishness and self-pursuit that, combined with Sivana having once been considered but ultimately denied the chance to be the wizard’s champion, made Sivana a reasonably compelling villain. Note I said “reasonably compelling” rather than using words like great or thrilling or understandable, however, because we don’t spend quite enough time with Sivana to get him there. He comes across as obsessed, which is good, but if they’d made him a little funnier or darkly humorous or at least given him just a little bit more to work with, he could have gotten there, but they don’t quite stick the landing with him. There is one scene as he confronts his father, though, that’s pretty great and clearly inspired by director David Sandberg’s past in horror movies. It’s the kind of scene I think many parents may actually fear their kids seeing in what’s otherwise a pretty safe movie, and while I’m not a parent and can’t tell you from a parent’s perspective not to worry about it, I will say that I (and probably you) saw way scarier scenes while growing up watching family-friendly movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I turned out o—well, I’ll at least say that it wasn’t seeing those movies that messed me up.
So that all sounds pretty great, especially once you add it all up, and for the most part it’s thematic resonance more than anything else that I’m looking for in any movie I see, but as much as I think Shazam! works well at all of the important stuff… I don’t know. There was just something missing. It almost felt like a lack of craft or full realization, which is weird, because the deeper meanings of the movie worked so well for me, and those are usually the hardest parts to get right, and I think all of the basic beats and scenes of a superhero movie are here too in Shazam!, but what I found myself possessed of most as I walked out of the theatre is a profound lack of need to talk or think much about the movie as I left it behind. It’s a hard feeling to fully grasp or convey, and in some ways it almost feels like I’m penalizing the movie on a technicality, because most everything I’m usually looking for is there in in Shazam!, but I just didn’t feel it the way I do when I’ve seen something truly remarkable. I don’t want to leave a final impression of this movie on a sour note, but, I guess, I just can’t recommend it as fully as I’d like to, and as much as I can talk about Shazam!’s virtues and how much its inner strengths add up to real, thoughtful storytelling, it would be disingenuous of me to give you the impression that I liked it a lot.
So should I see it?
At all the levels that matter most and at many of the levels that a movie needs to really work, Shazam! is a win of a superhero movie. It’s fun and easy to get into, it has some neat ideas and all of the superhero action it needs, and it puts in the extra work to actually mean something for those of us looking for an emotional hook. For me, though, it’s just not a triumph, and that’s mostly for reasons that I can’t fully articulate. It doesn’t have those qualities of a movie that leave you thinking about it for days after, it doesn’t have those moments or just those layers of detail that leave you, for lack of a better term, marveling at how just how good or how filled out or how thoughtful the best movies have.
I feel like Shazam! is a movie that wants to have and ultimately achieves a higher level of meaning over its base superhero trappings, but it just didn’t reach deeply enough into my mind for the deepest levels of contemplation. When I think of superhero movies at their highest level of flashy execution and remarkable depth, my mind usually drifts towards Avengers: Infinity War and how well that movie balanced an enormous amount of superheroic bombast with oddly, almost unnecessarily touching and sincere moments. For instance, the relationship with Gamora and Thanos, her adoptive father and the villain of the movie, genuinely left me thinking about how twisted the parent-child dynamic can be even with the best intentions. It’s not really fair to compare a lower budget superhero movie meant to introduce a relatively second-tier character like Shazam! against the penultimate culmination of 10 years of serialized storytelling that was Avengers: Infinity War, but while I feel that Shazam! is easily worth your time if you liked the trailers, I don’t know how much you’ll have to say about it after you’ve seen it.
Thom’s SHAZAM! final score
On the Edge
- This marks the second time Mark Strong has played a DC-universe supervillain/mirror duplicate of the hero after his Sinestro in Green Lantern.
- And speaking of recurring villainy, oh, John Glover, will you ever stop playing the rich, callous businessman father of evil DC genius supervillains?