The first trailer for Shazam! came out eight months ago, and it looked like a pretty good movie. Unlike certain other DC superhero movies, it looked like the Shazam! filmmakers remembered that comics were supposed to be fun.
I managed to catch one of the sneak preview showings of Shazam! last week, and I thought it lived up to the promise of the trailer. Without a lot the sturm and drang that has afflicted so many DC-Comics-based movies lately, it was just two hours of enjoyable comic escapism.
I grew up reading these comics, and back in the 1970s when young Billy Batson said the magic word “Shazam!” he turned into a superhero named “Captain Marvel.” That name would be confusing to modern audiences — and it would probably anger the lawyers at Marvel, which has a completely different Captain Marvel in theaters right now — so nowadays the character is known simply as “Shazam.” Nevertheless, although I have nothing against the fine work of Carol Danvers, Billy Batson’s alter ego who will always be the true Captain Marvel to me.
(The original Captain Marvel stories published by Fawcett in the early 1940s were incredibly popular, outselling even rival National’s Superman comics, on which the Captain Marvel character was loosely based. The sad story of the comic’s subsequent downfall involves rather a lot of intellectual property lawyers.)
The new Shazam! movie is clearly based on the 2012 incarnation of the character from the New 52 reboot by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. The biggest change from the comics I read is that Silver Age Captain Marvel was an adult superhero with an adult personality completely separate from Billy’s, but in this incarnation, the big guy with super-powers is still young Billy Batson on the inside. He’s a 15-year-old with superpowers, and that makes for some hilarious moments. And no, you haven’t already seen all of them in the trailer.
Although Billy’s exploration of his new superpowers makes up a substantial portion of the movie, as it does in the trailers, the main plot of the movie involves a confrontation with one of Captain Marvel’s traditional foes, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, played with steely menace by Mark Strong. Sivana has come into his own magical superpowers through darker means than Billy, and he wishes to use them for darker ends.
But this is not a dark movie. Shazam! never loses touch with its origins in a superhero comic series that had a lot of zany fun. Perhaps more importantly, Shazam! avoids the recent DC misstep of having the bad guys kill tens of thousands of people and then trying to call whatever happens next a happy ending. The bad guy in Shazam! is certainly bad, but without all that unnecessary tragedy porn.
Speaking of those other movies, although Superman and Batman are name-dropped as actually existing in the world of Shazam!, this movie does not appear to take place in the same DC Extended Universe as movies like like Justice League. That’s probably a good thing.
Finally, at the risk of a small spoiler, I’d like to head off some disappointment for fans who may have heard enticing rumors: Sorry, but Tawny does not appear as a character in this film. And in case you’re wondering, there are two closing credits scenes. The first is foreshadowing of a future villain, and the second is just a bit of fun.
Shazam! opens widely in theaters on Friday.