There is a complicated story as to why the DC hero formerly known as Captain Marvel cannot be called Captain Marvel any longer – and it’s only partly because of the one from Marvel Comics (Given that DC’s hero has been nicknamed the Big Red Cheese, one might imagine a subtle trolling here, too, with Marvel Studios casting someone named Brie as their Captain Marvel.)
As an acknowledgement/homage to this tangle of envy (no small irony that – minor spoiler – envy is the key to the hero’s success in the film), lawsuits and averted trademark infringements (look it up later), the movie turns the good Captain’s nomenclative issues into a running joke.
One of many gags, actually, though jokes are not all Shazam! is about.
It is the most joyously unabashed embracing of comic-book roots by the DC Extended Universe yet, a sprawling spectacle laced with an infectious kid-in-a-candy store/ toyshop / comic store enthusiasm by star Zachary Levi.
Not many actors today could pull off the man-child vibe so essential to the character but the cliche about someone being born to play a role could well apply here. Levi, best known for playing the man-child Chuck Bartowski in TV’s nerd-to-spy wish-fulfilment fantasy Chuck, now brings that awkward yet assured swagger to this misfit-to-superhero wish-fulfilment tale.
And “man-child”, this hero certainly is. Before he meets a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who turns him into a mighty champion, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a rebellious 14-year-old who has run away from dozens of foster homes to go looking for his biological mother.
Post-transformation, he becomes a grown man with bulging muscles and incredible powers. That becomes the subject of another series of gags, as Billy/Shazam and his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, sharing terrific chemistry with Levi) try to find out the scope and limits of those abilities.
But the fun and games can’t last forever, as they are rudely interrupted by Dr Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), whose own abilities are linked to Billy’s – only the Doc doesn’t like to share, and wants it all.
Between the brawling and banter, director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) and scriptwriter Henry Gayden weave in and establish, in a fairly short time, the dynamics and bond shared by Billy and his foster family – which fans of the more recent Shazam comics will recognise.
Family, in comics, has seldom been restricted to biological ties. Shazam! asserts, like many a four-colour tale before it, that a selfless sharing of adversity forges bonds just as strong as those of blood, if not stronger.
It’s also noteworthy that the filmmakers stay largely true to the character’s long and often-retconned continuity, even if Sivana was always more of a mad scientist than a mystically powered conqueror.
Fans of the comic – unfortunately never really one of DC’s top titles, partly because of its difficult history – will find their fair share of Easter eggs here. They will most likely squeal with delight when they see familiar sights on screen, like Marvel Comics fans did at the sight of obscure characters and Infinity Stones popping up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In line with its eager-to-please enthusiasm, Shazam! also brings a milestone event in the hero’s journey front and centre to this origin story (just when you thought they’d save it for the sequel).
As a result, the finale gets a little crowded and some of the supporting characters get lost in the chaos – which, admittedly, is still easier to follow than the barmy spectacle of Aquaman’s climax.
From its breezy, brisk tone to its stirring music score (reminiscent in spirit of John Williams’ compositions for Superman – The Movie), this is the kind of origin movie that Man Of Steel should have been. It warms this old reader’s heart to see that the DC Extended Universe has well and truly climbed out of the grim dark abyss.
Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Djimon Hounsou, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, John Glover