The only thing more difficult than adapting a classic comic book character into a contemporary movie is probably adapting a classic comic book character into a contemporary comic book. The four-color funny pages often aren’t all that forgiving. After decades of keeping the classic Fawcett-turned-DC Comics character Captain Marvel “close to home” origin and style-wise, 2012 saw comic creators Geoff Johns and Gary Frank attempt a reboot of Billy Batson that reconfigured his origin and basic storytelling framework in significant ways. The DC/Warner Brothers movie Shazam! solidifies these changes in a way that will probably be difficult to backtrack on. Though, after just seeing an early screening of the movie, I can’t imagine that (beyond the occasional nostalgia trip) anybody body would want to. And I say that as a Shazam! skeptic.
When the character was rebooted about seven years ago as part of DC Comics’s “New 52” initiative, gone was the wide-eyed, overly-innocent Billy Batson and pure-hearted Captain Marvel. Beyond that, the character was introduced through a series of back-up features in DC’s flagship book of the time, Justice League. Definitely not enough to keep me coming back for me (or at least to pay all that much attention). Through most of the intervening years, not much has been done with the character (until the end of 2018, when the character and his new cast got a new series). But unlike most super-hero movies of the last ten years, the current movie makes we want to go back and take the new version of the character a bit more seriously . . .
. . . which is funny, because one hallmark of this cinematic version of the character is a kind of 21st-century wide-eyed humor (far from the anti-hero humor of movies like Deadpool but a bit more likely to have a main character give “the finger” once or twice). That was probably my biggest apprehension going into the movie: that the awkward humor that was evidenced in the trailer would tank the whole thing for me. It didn’t. The movie balances out the humor with some seriously dark villain activity as well as with some of the wonder most people feel has been missing from most DC Universe comics. The hands that guide the movie go between these different tones (and their accompanying threads) deftly. Perhaps more important than anything else, particularly for a DC movie, the story sticks the landing. The final act confrontation isn’t as bloated as what we got with Man of Steel, BvS, and Wonder Woman. And it’s not as unnecessarily cheesy as the end of Aquaman (though the movie ends with a nice bit of Aquaman-related humor). But the ending is big and goes somewhere I wasn’t sure would happen.
As frustrating as it is to have to call the character Shazam (instead of Captain Marvel, his original moniker; calling him Shazam is a bit like calling the monster Frankenstein), it’s nice to go to a superhero movie that reminds you of some things that have been lacking in other recent movies in the genre. If anything, this movie is as close as DC will probably get to Peter Parker/Spider-Man in terms of “everyman” tone. The sense of humor appropriately balances out some heavy backstory. And since the character hasn’t been in the public eye for a long time, there’s a lot of discovery that can happen in future adventures of the good Captain.
(Shazam! movie poster by Ivan Reis for DC Comics)