Review: Shazam (2019 movie)

The original Captain Marvel was the star of a comic published by Fawcett Comics starting in the 1940. The premise was clever: A wizard bestowed on a young boy the power to turn into a Superman-like superhero by exclaiming the magic word “Shazam,” which was also the wizard’s name. So every red-blooded boy reading Captain Marvel could imagine himself turning into a superhero.

For a while Captain Marvel was the top-selling superhero comic, even beating Superman, until DC sued the character of existence for his obvious similarities to Superman. Later Marvel comics appropriated the name Captain Marvel for an entirely different superhero, and later still DC, which ended up buying the assets of its former competitor Fawcett comics, tried reviving the original Captain Marvel only to have Marvel sue them for use of the name as a matter of trademark law, and since Fawcett had let the name lapse, Marvel’s appropriation was deemed legitimate and DC was not allowed to keep selling a comic under that name.

If I’m not mistaken, DC actually does have the right to call the character Captain Marvel on the inside pages, just not on the cover, so they started publishing the comic under the name Shazam, which led a lot of younger readers to suppose that it was the name of the superhero as well.

In the new movie the character has trouble deciding on a name and is never called Captain Marvel or Shazam that I recall. Then again, the protagonist of Marvel’s Captain Marvel movie isn’t called “Captain Marvel” either. In fact, my movie ticket called the movie Captain Marv. I’m still going to call the hero of Shazam! Captain Marvel for purposes of this review.

As in the original comic, this Captain Marvel’s powers are magically bestowed on a 14-year-old boy named Billy Batson by an ancient wizard who is looking for a champion but isn’t wearing his glasses. Exclaiming the wizard’s name lets Billy turn into an adult superhero with the characteristic strengths of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury if I remember right. (Anyway, one Jewish guy and five Greeks, with the first letters spelling “Shazam.”)

I confess I got my hopes up about this film based on the trailer until during the opening credits I realized that it’s was a DC movie, at which point I became apprehensive. But to my amazement, it’s actually good. I liked it even more than the Marvel Captain Marvel, though I admit that the star of the other film is better looking.

As I said, the original premise of the Captain Marvel character strikes me as clever, but as far as I know, until this film nobody took it to the logical conclusion of letting Captain Marvel retain Billy Batson’s 14-year-old mind and personality in the body of an adult superhero. One might object that this is inconsistent with magic word’s supposedly bestowing upon him the wisdom of Solomon, but let me remind you that Solomon reportedly had 700 wives and 300 porcupines, and who but a 14-year-old boy would think that was a good idea?

Anyway,  as soon as he gets his mind around the fact that he can turn himself into a grown man with superpowers, Billy sets about doing what a 14-year-old boy would do with that ability: buy beer and junk food, figure out ways to get money to buy more fun stuff, and hit on girls in their late teens and early 20s. He even manages to succeed at the first two. When the bad guy asks him how old he is, Billy lies and says he’s “basically fifteen.”

His immaturity is initially his biggest problem, but then he encounter a bigger one, the evil supervillain Dr Sivana, who unlike the mad scientist character in the comics has powers very close to Captain Marvel’s own, as a consequence of being inhabited by the Seven Deadly Sins.

Said Sins had been imprisoned by the wizard Shazam until Dr Sivana came along and freed them, but aside from giving Dr Sivana superpowers, it’s hard to see what practical difference it makes whether the Sins are locked up or not. Even while they were still captive there wasn’t a noticeable lack of sinning anywhere, nor did their incarceration prevent their combined physical manifestation from becoming president of the United States.

Incidentally, some have pointed out that putting a boy’s personality into an adult body has been done before, with the most commonly cited example being the movie Big, starring Tom Hanks. The makers of this movie saw that observation coming, and they inserted a nice reference to Big in the film.

But of course variations on the idea have appeared before, often in the form of an adult and a child swapping bodies. And given the basic idea that Billy Batson turns into Captain Marvel, having him still be Billy Batson on the inside is just carrying the basic premise to its logical conclusion.

Shazam! has a pretty satisfying climax one in keeping with the spirit of the original Captain Marvel comic. I really enjoyed it.


By the way, a friend of mine reminded me that back in its early days, when it was still a comic book, Mad Magazine published a spoof by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood poking fun at Superman, Captain Marvel, and in passing the DC-Fawcett lawsuit. In Mad‘s version, Captain Marbles’ magic word is Shazoom!, standing for Strength — Health — Aptitude — Zeal — Ox, Power Of — Ox, Power Of Another — Money. If you do an image search in Google for “Superduperman” you can find it on line. The parody proved so popular that it gave Mad a major sales boost.

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