8/10 Less than a month after the hotly anticipated Captain Marvel flew onto screens, Warner Bros. and DC have released a significantly better Captain Marvel movie in Shazam!
In 1974, a young Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong, Ethan Pugiotto as a child) is transported to the Rock of Eternity, where Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), the last of an ancient circle of wizards who protect humanity from the Seven Deadly Sins, searches for a successor who is pure of heart to carry on his watch. Sivana is tempted by the sins and cast out of Shazam’s magical realm. Years later, in present-day Philadelphia, Sivana finally finds the incantation to force his way back into the Rock of Eternity. He absorbs the sins’ power and leaves the decrepit wizard for dead.
Having searched for years for a worthy successor and finding none, and with the world now at immediate risk, Shazam is forced to pass his powers on to the next child he sees – rough-around-the-edges foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel). When Batson says the wizard’s name, he is struck by lightning and becomes
Captain Marvel a nameless superhero who can’t say the title of his property out loud without turning back into a child (Zachary Levi). It’s all fun and games for the next hour or so until Sivana seeks out the young hero.
While Sivana has been driven mad by 45 years of inadequacy, the DC Extended Universe has been driven mad by only five – but sometimes it feels like 45. Every movie in this series has some sort of explicit reaction to criticism of the last – Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which the wanton destruction that marked Man of Steel is re-framed as a driver of conflict in order to fit with fan criticism, is the most specific example, but every other movie in the set has moved closer to the much more popular Marvel movies in some way.
In a blockbuster landscape that’s desperate for more diverse superhero movies, and from a company that initially set out to make more distinct films, this has been a sad process to see, but at the same time it’s obviously necessary, as the closer DC movies have gotten to Marvel, the more popular they have become. Its most popular entries, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, are the ones that best imitated the “Marvel formula,” but these – like many actual Marvel movies – still feel more like soulless imitations. Shazam! is the first offering that truly captures that MCU je ne sais quoi. The bright colors, the wrote origin story, the villain with similar powers, the runtime spent mostly on lead characters goofing around, are all hallmarks or the rival series.
The biggest difference between Shazam! and a randomly selected MCU movie is, despite the overwhelming saturation of superhero movies, Shazam! still feels special. The concept is “Big meets a superhero movie,” and as dumb as that is, it at least feels like it hasn’t been done before, and director David F. Sandberg follows through on that concept full-heartedly and unironically. Shazam! takes plenty of potshots at the superhero formula it is based on, but never from the angle of a direct satire. Instead, all the criticisms it levees at its own structure are from its teenage character’s unique perspective.
Shazam! is going to mean a lot to foster children in a way that feels kind of cheap, but that the property completely lends itself to. It still feels much more genuine than Vin Diesel growling something about “family” every 10 minutes in the Fast and the Furious franchise, which is the dominant use of that theme these days.
The film’s sillyness is held up by an extremely strong underlying story and well-written villain. Sivana, despite a lack of screentime, is arguably the main character of Shazam! – his actions and character growth, or lack thereof, are what drive the story. Batson is a deceptively passive protagonist, though he does take control by the end.
Sivana lusts not for Shazam’s power, but what it represents to him personally. After being told for years by his father and elder brother that he wasn’t good enough and holding onto his inner goodness as a kind of shelter, Sivana snapped when the all-knowing wizard told him he wasn’t pure of heart. Seizing the Rock of Eternity’s power is both forcible proof of his worthiness and the means to exact vengeance on everyone who said he wasn’t good enough.
Now he’s faced with Batson, who has similar inadequacy issues rooted in being abandoned by his mother at a young age and has rejected several foster families, despite them being much more welcoming than Sivana’s birth family was to him. Both men base their self-esteem on something that comes from the outside, and Batson’s ultimate triumph is learning that self-esteem comes from within.
In the climactic scene, Batson learns he can make Sivana vulnerable by drawing his powers out as individual entities, leaving Sivana hollow and powerless, literally nothing without his abilities. It’s one of the strongest metaphors in any superhero film.
Loud, dumb and completely genuine, Shazam! is everything superhero movies should be, but often are not. If you want spandex and good times, this is the ticket.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.