It’s a strange coincidence that two comic book characters who’ve gone by the moniker “Captain Marvel” – Carol Danvers and Billy Batson – should receive their cinematic debuts within weeks of one another, despite both being decades old. Yet compared to this rather bromide observation, the coincidence which strikes me as stranger still is that two of the three superhero film of 2019 so far should center their action in Philadelphia, a locale for which I hold much personal affection, having had many of the best times of my life there, but which dwarfs in prominence compared to the likes of LA or Chicago. For M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass, the choice of setting followed from the prior two entries in its budding cinematic universe, Unbreakable and Split. For Shazam!, other options were available. The earliest issues of Whiz Comics placed Captain Marvel’s adventures in New York. When DC acquired the character, he became protector of the fictitious Fawcett City, named in honor of the character’s original publisher. The association of Shazam with Philadelphia is exactly as recent as Carol Danvers’ tenure as Captain Marvel, dating back a short seven years. Like much of the film, it’s lifted from Geoff Johns’ defining run on the character. But more than the element being retained for the sake of faithful adaptation, setting it in the City of Brotherly Love is consonant with and communicative of the film’s central theme: family is those you chose to let into your heart.
The non-biological bonds of family is a theme which grew organically out of the earliest Captain Marvel stories. Like so many other superhero alter egos from Kal-L to Bruce Wayne, Billy Batson was conceived from the start as an orphan. But whereas Superman never took on a sidekick and Batman had only Dick Grayson for decades, Captain Marvel quickly took into his orbit Freddy Freeman and Mary Bromfield, calling their nascent team the Captain Marvel Family.”
The film further emphasizes this dynamic by making the antagonist Sivanna even more of a dark doppelgänger than in the comics. Eschewing the mad scientist cloth from which he’s cut, the cinematic take on Sivanna instead is an inversion of Billy Batson with respect to his homelife. He grew up knowing his blood relatives, but being no less alone for it. His father, the loveless Lionel Luthor, contrasts sharply with the welcoming Vasquezs, as does Sivanna’s blood brother with Billy’s foster siblings. The family dynamic – and Mark Strong’s inimitable performance – works to make Sivanna a worthy adversary in lieu of Black Adam’s omission from the film.
Still, family is a rather trite theme, centered too much on intrapersonal psychology and interpersonal relationships. The best DCEU films have as their common denominator an exploration of far weightier motifs. Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice offer a theodicy to the Problem of Evil. Wonder Woman puts forth a wonderfully misanthropic anthropology. Aquaman channels Arthuriana to modernize the deeply ingrained desire for those with the right to rule to also be right to rule. Shazam’s focus on friendships and family can come across a frivolous in compare. In spite of such, Shazam! is sure to resonate with Millennial audiences, who have substituted starting a traditional nuclear family to instead maintain closer comradery with our friends. Contra the biological bonds that would tie us to parents or offspring, our family are those who we elect to let in our hearts.
In that broad sense, Shazam! is simply a poor copy of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Both center on orphans-turned-outlaws yearning for their biological parents and finding their true family instead in an ensemble of misfits. And the dramatic arc in each turns on a scene in which the hero, reunited at last with his long lost parent, comes to the sudden realization of that parent’s self-centeredness and lack of love. But when compared with one another, the Distinguished Competition’s version is in every way outclassed by the House of Ideas.
Both stand out from the standard superhero fare through their penchant for humor. But whereas in Guardians the comedy is much more organically derived from the clashes in well defined and larger-than-life personalities, the jokiness of Shazam! comes from its attempts to deconstruct and subvert the superhero genre. But in a post-Deadpool world, there are no new tropes left to lampshade, no original observations to be made through Shazam’s toothless dissections.
Guardians and Shazam! also share an excellent use of licenced soundtracks. Shazam! starting off with “Do You Hear What I Hear” is particularly inspired. It not only establishes the perennial christmastide setting of the film (one of the incidental aspects pulled from Johns’ run), but through the conspicuous emphasis of lyrics such as “A child, shivers in the cold… he will bring us goodness and light”, parallels the Wizard’s search for a champion, in the immediate scene with Sivanna and foreshadowing Billy Batson. Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”, both through its upbeat tempo and the actual lyrics stating “I’m having such a good time, I don’t want to stop at all” perfectly communicates Billy’s state of mind during the montage of him exploring his newfound powers. The filmmakers obvious put more thought than usual into the music, but still fall short of James Gunn’s seemingly superhuman ability to perfectly pair pieces of diegetic music with the onscreen action.
Where Shazam! is not merely second-rate but genuinely bad is in its drab cinematography. You won’t believe a man can fly as Zack Levi and Mark Strong are unconvincingly pasted over greenscreens of grey city skylines. Gone are the DCEU’s style established by Snyder of dynamic camera angles, deliberate de-saturation, and painterly pulchritude. The Rock of Eternity alone matches the visual tone of locales like Themyscira or Atlantis. Nor does Levi’s poorly padded costume compare with Diana’s gilded girdle or Arthur’s scale mail. It lacks the elegance of Captain Marvel’s classic costume with the militaristic buttons and the golden sash and horn-collared cape. It is fully faithful to the New 52 redesign, but with one all-important exception: that garish glowing emblem emblazoned across his chest. Between the characterless citiscapes and the gaudy getup, not a single frame of the film sizzles with any style.
Nor does Levi’s casting help matter here. While other comic book characters are distinguished primarily by their insignia or uniform, Shazam is unique in that just about every artist to draw him, despite their vastly different stylers, have maintained the same distinctive facial features. There’s a prominence to his cheekbones, a squareness to his jawline, a slight concavity to his nose, that immediately differentiate him from other dark-haired Adonises. Levi already suffers from being too familiar a face to genre fans, but his lack of resemblance to how Shazam’s been depicted for eight decades makes his casting even more inexplicable. Contra Mark Strong, who despite being cast against type (apart from being bald) and being even more recognizable than Levi, nevertheless owns the role of Sivanna.
But even a stellar performance doesn’t indicate an actor was necessarily right for a role; the lovely but underutilized Grace Fulton as Mary Bromfield is perhaps the film’s biggest breakout, but at already twenty-two her window to portray the teenage Mary in future sequels might be closing with the swiftness of Mercury. On the other hand, that mean she’s legal drinking age, so Grace, if you find yourself at New York Comic Con this year I’d love to take you out for cocktails one evening.
I really wanted to love Shazam! The Peter Pan syndrome of being an adolescent trapped in an adult body is of course common to many Millenials, as are memories of once having been an overimaginative child who dreamed deep down that his own future self would be a veritable comic book superhero – replete with an instantly iconic uniform, noteworthy nom de guerre, and the adoration of a minor metropolis. Except I grew up and got to actually experience exactly that. One fateful day, I put on the cowboy hat, and like lightning I was transformed over a few short months from scrawny kid to strapping man, a superb specimen of physical fitness. Though not so influential as his historic rival Superman on my decision to adopt an alter ego, nevertheless, the Hermetic nature of Shazam’s powers has deeply informed my own self-perception, drawing a distinction between the personas of mild-mannered Matthew and The Cowboy every bit as sharp as that between Billy Batson and the World’s Mightiest Mortal. Each and every time I transform, placing the hat upon my head, I shout at the top of my lungs, “SHAZAM!!!” There’s real magic in that word.
Unfortunately, that magic is not in the movie of the same name. It isn’t transformational, either upon the film medium or the superhero genre or upon the life of the viewer. Its drama lacks pathos, its humor lacks bite, its message lacks depth. I’m tempted to exclaim, “Holy Moly, this movie’s bad!” but it’s not. It’s simply lacking that divine spark of inspiration; it’s lacking magic.