seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY
Earlier this year we talked about the superhero formerly known as Captain Marvel, now called Shazam — one of the oldest active characters in comics history, with a wide and devoted fanbase. He was the first superhero to make it to the big screen. He and his supporting cast spun off a ton of merchandise at the peak of their popularity. When DC Comics acquired the rights to the character, he enjoyed a new wave of popularity in the 70s. A big reason why was his television incarnations.
Filmation was big on Saturday morning and weekday afternoon television in the 70s and 80s. While their animation style looks primitive compared to, say, Teen Titans Go, never mind the great WB adventure toons of the 90s, lots of kids from my generation remember them fondly. They also made live-action shows, and their first was Shazam!, in 1974.
The familiar origin was tweaked: Billy Batson was older, at least sixteen, I’d say, and the wizard Shazam was replaced with an old mentor figure named, um, Mentor. The two of them traveled around in an RV (!) fighting crime because... they could, I guess? Later, they added a Wonder Woman clone, Isis, and made it an hour-long show. It was formulaic in a way similar to the live-action hero shows of the era: Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Superboy, The Incredible Hulk, etc. and made lots of unrecognizable changes to the canon.
In 1981, Filmation also made The Kid Super Power Hour with Shazam!, which had an animated version of CM much closer to the canon (including the fat old man and the talking tiger), paired with an original feature called "Hero High," which was exactly what it sounds like.
Look, this was for kids, okay? We didn’t question any of it and we didn’t need to. It wasn’t like today, where actual thought is put into these shows and movies because there’s big bucks in superheroes and fans are running things. Back then, we were grateful to even see our favorite comic book characters on TV! (Now get off my lawn.)
Also, it should be noted, neither the live-action Shazam! nor Super Power made me like CM enough to actually, y’know, buy the comic book. I doubt I was even aware of the comic book until I started shopping in comic shops in the mid-80s, and by that point I was a Marvel Zombie anyway.
The big point I want to make here is that CM always had a whimsical nature to him that bordered on the absurd at times, but his very premise — a boy who becomes a super-powered adult by saying a magic word — lent himself to that aspect. It was children’s wish fulfillment writ large: why read about Superman when you can be Superman — and only by being good enough and special enough to receive a gift that lets you be a grown-up in the eyes of the world yet remain a kid at heart?
So now that CM, a.k.a. Shazam, has returned to the big screen after almost eighty years (!), I was pleased overall with the result, but I wish it had been a bit more kid-friendly. This version had heart to spare: emphasizing the adopted family aspect of Billy, an orphan, as well as the “kid’s mind in an adult’s body” theme, which makes Shazam unique among superheroes. Zachary Levi, as Shazam, clearly had lots of fun in the role, and the kids were quite good, led by Asher Angel as Billy and Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy.
And yet... did this movie have to be PG-13? There were a few gratuitous naughty words; the violence, while typical for a modern superhero film, might be a bit much for little kids; and I’d argue the Seven Deadly Sins monsters didn’t have to be quite so... monstrous. It would have taken little effort to tone this down to a PG level, which as we know, does not necessarily equal inferior. Normally, I’m not one to gripe about ratings, but I honestly feel this is one movie that, given the nature of this specific character, would have been better served with a lighter touch... but PG-13 is where the big bucks are in Hollywood, as we also know.
One could make this case for all Disney and WB superhero movies, since they all started out for kids, but don’t blame Hollywood for that. Blame the comics writers and artists who decided, back in the 70s, superheroes needed to grow up and get “realistic” and “relevant” and “meaningful,” a trend that reached its apotheosis with The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. We’ve been paying for it ever since.
Shazam was different. Not anymore.
Oh, and it looks like WB has finally caved and provided a post-credits scene, or at least a scene during the closing credits. By this point it’s practically become a requirement of the sub-genre. It previews a villain I never thought I’d see in a movie, but the sky’s the limit these days.