By Michael Sangiacomo
CLEVELAND, Ohio – “Shazam” is a rollicking good kids' movie that adults will enjoy on different levels.
For once, we see what a 14-year-old boy would be like if he had the power to turn into a super-powered adult – he’d show off, buy beer and go into a strip club.
But since the movie is PG-13, he dislikes the taste of beer and is confused by the strip club, though he loves to show off.
In the tradition of films like “Big,” “The Goonies” and child fantasy fulfillment shows like “Power Rangers” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Shazam” shows that good-hearted kids can do a decent job protecting their city – even if their powers caused some of the problems in the first place.
Kids, at least those over 13, will love the good versus evil themes as well as the rather outdated, handsome versus ugly themes, through the movie. The latter theme is pulled right from the 1940s comics where the bad guys were ugly and the good guys strikingly handsome.
The film closely follows the recent “Shazam” comic series from DC comics, written by the genius Geoff Johns, which updates the story for a modern audience. It’s as close as you can get to lifting scenes right out of the comics and slapping them on the big screen.
There is not a weak actor among the crowd of characters on the screen, that includes young orphan Billy Batson (Disney regular Asher Angel) and his six foster brothers and sisters that represent many different races and cultures.
Young Billy accidentally is endowed with ancient powers by a dying wizard named Shazam. When the boy says the wizard’s name, he becomes Captain Marvel.
And that’s the weird part of the movie.
Just like Marvel’s “Captain Marvel” movie released four weeks ago, “Shazam” goes through the entire film without once naming the hero, “Captain Marvel.”
Blame lawyers over the copyright mess that goes back to the early 1940s when DC sued Fawcett Publications over the similarity between Captain Marvel and Superman.
They settled out of court after more than a decade of legal wrangling, but the fight bankrupted Fawcett, which went out of business. To add insult to injury, DC purchased Fawcett and killed all their books.
Since no one was using the character since the end of the lawsuit, Marvel Comics wisely created their own Captain Marvel in 1967. That led to another lawsuit when DC revived the original Captain Marvel in 1972. This ended in another lawsuit which concluded with Marvel getting the rights to the name, Captain Marvel. DC got the rights to the character, they just couldn’t call him by name.
It’s not clear why Marvel/Disney named their film “Captain Marvel” but shied away from using the name in the movie, but there is no mystery why DC/Warner is not using the name “Captain Marvel,” even though, you know, it’s him.
The most striking actor in “Shazam” is Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, a mad scientist that drips menace. Played by Mark Strong, he’s a vast improvement of the weak, gnome-like Sivana from the comics.
Angel is effective as the troubled Billy Batson, a boy driven to find his long lost mother. Zachary Levi plays his alter-ego, the unnamed “Captain Marvel,” a superhero with the mind of a child.
Writer Henry Gayden and director David F. Sandberg cleverly allow Batson and fellow orphan Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) to try to come up with a superhero name, each more ridiculous than the last. There are numerous funny scenes in the film that more than balances out the dark ones.
Rather than try to disguise homages to films and comics, Sandberg embraced them. There’s a scene in a toy store pulled right from the oversized piano keys scene from “Big.” The characters quote “Rocky” in a scene that was set in (but not filmed in) Philadelphia. There are references to Fawcett Comics and a ton of references to DC superheroes.
“Shazam” is a welcome breath of fresh air in the DC cinematic universe where most of the films are dark. The writing and the acting will suck you in. And be sure to stay for the two after-credit scenes.
“Shazam” gets an A for kids and the young at heart.
Michael Sangiacomo recently retired as a reporter and critic for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. He is the author of "Phantom Jack," "Tales of the Startlight Drive-In" and "Phantom Jack: The Nowhere Man Agenda." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Facebook.