Holy Moley! The original Captain Marvel.
The original Captain Marvel lights up the dark.
Bringing a levity to the overly dark DCU is a breath of fresh air and Levi is perfect for the job.
By Tym Stevens
With the 1940 intro of Robin, kids worldwide ran around fantasizing they were superhero sidekicks. But what if a kid could magically switch with Superman and back? In one genius stroke, Captain Marvel upended and upgraded the game; by saying the magic word “Shazam!” young Billy Batson could change places with his implied adult super-self. With their endearing clean-line style and inspired wonder stories, Fawcett Comics’ line of Marvel Family adventures sold in the millions through the 1940s. Captain Marvel was the most successful superhero ever, outselling even Superman, until the gangsters stole his thunder.
Faster than Siegel & Shuster, more powerful than Bill Finger, jealous DC Comics sued their rival Fawcett into limbo in 1953. Claiming the Captain ripped off Superman, they then assimilated his best creators and concepts into the Superman Family comics of the Silver Age. [Swipe 1] Meanwhile, Britain turned him into Marvelman, later to become Miracleman. [Swipe 2] While DC sat on the Fawcett rights, Marvel Comics clipped the name for their cosmic guardian, Captain Marvel, in 1967. [Swipe 3] Even his magic word was nicked, from Gomer Pyle to Apple to Foxy Shazam to Beat Shazam. [Swipe 4]
DC returned Captain Marvel in 1973, but under the now legally-mandated title, “Shazam!” The popular live-action TV show (1974-’76) of the same name fused the character with the word into eternity for millions of eyes. Though the boy isn’t the man, one stray 1978 comics story mused that he might be a kid in a superman’s body. With typical Hollywood incest, the suits then rabidly fixated on remaking Big (1988) as a superhero film, a misconception jackhammered through countless screenplay attempts this century. (Reality check: Cap has the wisdom of Solomon, which means he’s the opposite of a kid.) Decades of the public calling him his magic word and producers making him the kid anyway let ignorance win the day. DC capitulated with writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank’s 2012 comic remodeling him as Shazam, a kid who inhabits an adult superbody. And then Marvel’s Captain Marvel (2019) film swiped his real name forever in public perception, a month before his own film.
The beauty of the ‘40s stories was their clean graphics and witty fantasy for young people, parallel to Wonder Woman and Tintin. But Cap had returned in the Relevancy Age of the early ’70s, when realism in writing and art turned the medium more adult. From then on, a misguided wrestle to transform the merry Captain Marvel into harsher realism ignited. (The only one that succeeded exceeded: Alan Moore’s postmodern abstraction Miracleman took superheroes to a mature level that no one will ever match.) From page to screen, the lunkhead mantra to go ‘dark’ has continuously mutated the character for decades. (Meanwhile, with sly karma, Alan Moore balanced the scale channeling the ‘40s stories with his clean-line, wondrous Tom Strong comics.) The current Shazam! comics try to balance kid fantasy with urban realism.
Now for some light in the stormclouds. To be fair, Johns and Frank’s work is very good and well-intentioned: truly, the original post-Depression-era comics were about orphans in constant peril, and this underscore gets smartly modernized. The film uses their comics as its prime source and only improves on their better innovations. The foster family gets more developed, the personal drama resonates deeper, the screen costume is its own marvel, and the various villains get focused through one. Cheekily, the legal backstory is continually mocked heartily, easter eggs proliferate like Hoppy, and lively slapstick counters the edge. (Some moments of violence and cursing feel unnecessary for a generally solid family film.) Zachary Levi captures the Captain’s trademark “Huh? Hey!” amiable gumption with fleet perfection, igniting delight throughout. Mark Strong is of course effortlessly great as the nemesis, and young Darla (Faithe Herman) is just adorable. The chameleonic Djimon Hounsou - pulling off the magic trick of being in both Captain Marvel and Shazam! in the same month! - completely renews the wizard, Shazam. With enough charm and continuity nods, the film almost makes even curmudgeons tolerate the kid/man shtick and name change.* Shazam! is another solid turn along with Wonder Woman and Aquaman toward more positive DC films.
*(Nope: Shazam is an ancient wizard, Billy is a kid, and the real Captain Marvel is his adult counterpart. This timeless truth is not going to change, regardless of shyster swindles, name heists, or late-kid ignorance.)
What could have been an unholy melee is rather wholly marvelous. Here, in spirit, is the original Captain Marvel. BOOM!