Movies

Shazam! Is a Captain Marvel Movie Worth Seeing

A charming, lightweight superhero movie that works hard to please.

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DC Comics / New Line

These days, it's easy to be cynical about superhero movies. Over the last two decades, the genre has all but consumed the blockbuster business, leaving a trail of predictable, formulaic spectacles in its wake. Most are fine, and some are pretty good, but rarely are they any better than that, even (and sometimes especially) when they aspire to more.

That's a big reason why Shazam! is such a low-key delight. Its aspirations are modest—it wants to amuse and entertain while delivering a feel-good moral about the value of family—but it works hard to achieve them. Although it is loosely connected to other movies in the DC Comics universe, it largely stands on its own, and it actively rejects the gritty pomposity that has plagued so many recent movies based on DC characters, choosing instead to emphasize the idea that being a superhero is fun—especially if you're a kid. It's a movie that aims to defeat superhero movie cynicism. For the most part, it succeeds.

Not many superhero movies can claim to be charming, but Shazam! has personality to spare. Much of that is a result of winning performances from its trio of leads: Asher Angel as Billy Batson, a foster kid who is granted magical powers by an ancient wizard; Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman, another foster kid in Batson's group home, who ends up teaching Batson how to be a hero; and Zachary Levi as Shazam, the adult superhero that Batson becomes. Levi, in particular, plays the role of the comically oversized hero with a madcap commitment that is hard to resist: Not since Tom Hanks in Big (which gets an obliging reference) has an adult actor managed such a joyous display of childlike energy and enthusiasm.

There's a villain too: Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, a scowling, bald baddie with dastardly plans to blah blah blah something about the Seven Deadly Sins and infinite power…it doesn't really matter. Sivana doesn't have much depth, but he's played with reliable gusto by Mark Strong, who is so consistent in so many movies that it sometimes seems as if he has entirely cornered the market on middle-aged supporting actor roles. He's the Tommy Lee Jones of the 2010s.

Sivana exists mostly as an adult contrast to the childish glee of Batson/Shazam. Indeed, a significant part of what sets Shazam! apart from so many other superhero movies is its firm focus on children and their view of the world: Superhero movies are often designed to appeal to adolescents, but this one is actually about the often difficult experience of being one, even when you end up with superpowers Batson, who was separated from his mother early in life, finds himself surrounded by a makeshift family in a messy but emotionally warm foster home packed with cute—occasionally too cute—kids who ground the film in a geeky, gee-whiz innocence. (This is a movie in which one character says he took a "deep dive into peer reviewed studies about superpowers" and appears to be completely serious.) Shazam! isn't exactly a big idea movie, but it doesn't need to be: It's a big-hearted film about finding yourself by finding family, and its emotional simplicity and goofy earnestness account for much of its appeal.

Of course, there's the requisite superhero business as well.

DC Comics / New Line

The movie references other DC heroes, mostly Superman and Batman, but instead of setting up crossovers or franchise synergy, it treats them as childhood idols, role models for Batson as he struggles to figure out how to be a better hero.

If you go for the flying and punching and magical energy zapping, you won't be disappointed. But even the action scenes work a little differently from most superhero movies, where the object seems to be to show off the CGI budget. But instead of rolling out colossal spectacle for its own sake, Shazam! uses these sequences to support the movie's themes and define the characters and their personalities.

It helps, of course, that Shazam isn't as well known as some of his superpowered contemporaries. The character began in the 1940s as a Superman knock-off called Captain Marvel, which was later acquired by DC Comics after a legal dispute. Eventually, the name had to be changed for legal reasons. That old moniker now belongs to DC Comics' biggest rival, Marvel, which rolled out the big-screen debut of the current Captain Marvel last month.

The contrast between the two films couldn't be more stark: Captain Marvel was a charmless and underwhelming film about an personality-free character who struggled with nothing. The movie worked through predictable, forgettable superhero movie paces in pedestrian fashion, then expected viewers to show up and cheer simply because it existed. Shazam! is an energetic, charismatic movie about a relatable hero who struggles with everything. The movie works overtime to entertain, giving viewers something to appreciate and remember in nearly every scene. Captain Marvel, in other words, was the kind of superhero movie that breeds cynicism; Shazam! is the kind that defeats it. Finally, there's a Captain Marvel movie worth seeing.

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73 responses to “Shazam! Is a Captain Marvel Movie Worth Seeing

  1. Captain Marvel was a charmless and underwhelming film about an personality-free character who struggled with nothing.

    How transparently misogynistic. I saw it last night and while I agree with this assessment I would never say it in print.

    1. The movie was good, but it honestly wasn’t much more than a simple action movie. It was a Guardians of the Galaxy without the banter. Even the big shocker of a plot twist was predictable. There was no emotion in the title character.

      1. It was one of Marvel’s bad movies, but not Fantastic Four bad. It’s one of those bad Marvel movies which are as good as a good movie from some other studios.

        1. Take away the Infinity Gauntlet tie in, and it’s on par with Daredevil. Flat as a board.

          1. At least Brie Larson isn’t flat as a board. I wouldn’t mind taking the train to Titty Town on that one.

        2. Fantastic Four wasn’t a real Marvel movie. Fox held the rights and had a clause in their contract that the rights reverted back to Marvel if they didn’t release a new FF film within a certain number of years. So they released that abortion a few years back with Miles Teller and Kate Mara.

      2. It was a Guardians of the Galaxy without the banter.

        Resident Evil without the zombies or Michelle Rodriguez, but with Samuel L. Jackson.

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      3. We have a word that that. It’s “Okay”. It was an “Okay” movie.

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  2. I still don’t get this criticism of “Captain Marvel”. She’s been kidnapped, brainwashed, constantly deceived and abusiveley restrained by the Kree and you wonder why she’s unhappy and lacking much of a happy-go-lucky personality? Makes me wonder if you guys wanted “Twelve Years a Slave” to be a mad-cap musical.

    (I’ll be the first to admit that “Captain Marvel” is a lower tier Marvel movie and it didn’t take many chances or provide anything new beyond introducing the character and setting up for a possible Kree War. But it’s as good as “Wonder Woman”, better than “Aquaman” and WAY better than anything spewed out by Z.Snyder.)

    1. There was a good deal to like about the movie, and I agree with the as good as “Wonder Woman”, better than “Aquaman” and WAY better than anything spewed out by Z.Snyder analysis. BUT…there was something about the way Brie Larson played the character that almost oozed smugness. It’s a fine line between confidence and smugness. And I’m not looking for “warmth” or “caring” or any other “female” traits. The character just seemed to take too much in stride. As if being dropped into a Blockbuster shouldn’t provide a bit more “WTF is this weirdness?” expression. Maybe the big bad galaxy is so full of weirdness, that planet z527 (or whatever the movie referred to Earth as) simply isn’t a BFD.

      Still…her take on the character didn’t work for me.

      And oh please could I have done without the “beaten down but got back up” montage. I have no use for preachy virtue signaling.

      1. And oh please could I have done without the “beaten down but got back up” montage. I have no use for preachy virtue signaling.

        That wasn’t even the cringiest or ham-fisted part of the movie. Portraying the Skrull as oppressed refugees was the most Current Year moment in cinema thus far.

        Shazam looks like it will be a lot of fun. These capeshit movies really need to get beyond the emo, “woe is me” aesthetic and try to have a good time. Doing it from the perspective of a tween, who would absolutely go apeshit if they ever got super powers, is a great way to do it.

        1. I liked the Skrull twist. I thought the Skrull leader was the best thing about the movie. And Marvel movies tend to twist elements of the comics to make them more relatable to the mass market. Refugees are the new gays.

          Truth be told I hope this sets up for a Skrull hero joining the Avengers. I still have a soft spot for a Grue shapeshifter character I used to play in the Mutants & Masterminds RPG.

          1. That twist was telegraphed like nothing before. I’m not a huge superhero nerd, but five minutes into the movie was saying to myself, “hey, aren’t the Kree supposed to be the bad guys?”

          2. I liked the Skrull twist.

            What a shock.

            1. You know me so well. Who are you? (Your post exemplifies the largest problem concerning internet discourse…people claim to know everything about someone based upon one or two posts. When in fact you know next to nothing.)

              1. Except for getting you exactly right you mean.

              2. “Your post exemplifies the largest problem concerning internet discourse…”

                People barging into comment sections and trying to argue people into liking what they like?

                You come off as a douchebag. You’re not winning anyone over.

              3. You know me so well.

                Obviously.

          3. “Refugees are the new gays”. hahaha so true,

      2. I agree but a good 75% of the negative reviews and comments I’ve seen about this movie seem to forget the mental/physical state the character was locked into for the first 2 acts of the movie.

        As for the smugness…I’ve met some fighter pilots and that term along with arrogant describe them to a tee. I do agree that demonizing her father for being over protective of his daughter, who appeared to be the younger child, was unnecessary and heavy-handed New-feminism. I did like the final “fight” where Captain Marvel knew she had nothing to prove.

        And yes, there was a lot of virtue signaling, but given the abuse meted out several other female stars in previous Disney franchises I figured it was just an intentional middle-finger to the misogynistic internet trolls.

        1. I agree but a good 75% of the negative reviews and comments I’ve seen about this movie seem to forget the mental/physical state the character was locked into for the first 2 acts of the movie.

          For me, it was an inconsistent mess specifically for this reason. She’s a smug badass despite not remembering her past. I have no side in the Skrull/Kree conflict aside from her and she can’t remember what side she’s on.

          And yes, there was a lot of virtue signaling, but given the abuse meted out several other female stars in previous Disney franchises I figured it was just an intentional middle-finger to the misogynistic internet trolls.

          ‘Abuse’? Are you trying to portray Disney as the victim here? Disney snatches a princess out of pre-established cultural folklore every couple years and husbands, brothers, dads, sons, cousins, etc. dutifully and lovingly go to the theaters, play along, sing the songs, and buy the toys to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. And the few times a minority of men say “I don’t find this particular heroine to be likeable.” or “The retarded subtext and messaging really drowned out any of the art that went into making the film.” it’s considered abuse?

          1. she can’t remember what side she’s on.

            Sorry, can’t exactly remember why she’s on the side she’s on.

            1. Not Disney per say, but the stars who have faced harassment and death threats. I hated “Last Jedi” but that doesn’t justify a concerted effort to troll and threaten the stars.

              1. Not Disney per say, but the stars who have faced harassment and death threats.

                Isn’t this a sort of badge of honor in Hollywood? I honestly have no clue which stars/movies you’re referring to. Was it as crazy as the men who broke into Joss Stone’s house, planning to decapitate her with samurai swords? Or the woman who pretended to stole Letterman’s Porsche and pretended to be his wife?

        2. Your movies job isn’t to virtue signal or give anyone the middle finger.

          It was a 6 on a scale of 10. Be happy it wasn’t worse.

      3. I don’t care what anyone says I thoroughly enjoyed aquaman to a degree that surprised me. Thought it was awesome.

        1. I haven’t seen the movie but when I saw the trailer I was immediately reminded of Lawrence in Office Space.

          “I’ll tell you what I’d do, man: two chicks at the same time, man. “

          1. +2 for a million

    2. Captain Marvel just doen’t lack a happy-go-lucky personality, she lacks any kind of personality. At the very beginning she’s told to keep her emotions in check. And she does the entire rest of the movie. There is no emotional conflict in here. She’s doesn’t act as if she’s been betrayed. There’s not even a sense of confusion in her despite her amnesia. I could have been a discovery of her past, of herself, but even that fell flat.

      As an action movie it’s good. But it’s a generic action hero in a colorful uniform and lots of CGI and not much else.

    3. I still don’t get this criticism of “Captain Marvel”. She’s been kidnapped, brainwashed, constantly deceived and abusiveley restrained by the Kree and you wonder why she’s unhappy and lacking much of a happy-go-lucky personality? Makes me wonder if you guys wanted “Twelve Years a Slave” to be a mad-cap musical.

      Twelve Years a Slave: The Musical would be better written, better acted, more energetic, and more entertaining than Captain Marvel.

      I would understand if the lead for Twelve Years A Slave: The Musical said they didn’t make the movie for white people. I would equally understand outrage if, before the release of Twelve Years A Slave: The Musical Part 21, the lead actor who for reasons of novelty and diversity happened to be white *and* said this movie wasn’t made for black people.

  3. There was a TV show. Doesn’t anyone remember that?

    And the thing that makes the movie work is that they’ve make ‘BIG’, but with superpowers. The comics and the show aren’t like that. There’s a Billy personality, and a Captain Marvel/Shazam personality. He’s not a kid in a superman body.

    What next for DC? The Mighty Isis?

    1. A few decades ago there was a similar but subtler switch in Superman. He was no longer a spaceman disguised as a human, but rather Clark Kent disguised as a superman. For his 1st ~50 yrs. his “true identity” was Superman; now it’s Clark Kent, and Superman is his secret identity.

    2. Azathoth!, maybe you can confirm the description that was given to me of the original Billy/Marvel duality: that it was so complete, they couldn’t even remember what either of them had done in the other personality. “Shazam!” would summon Capt. Marvel as a genie, who wouldn’t know how he got there & would be disoriented for a moment, with the concomitant disappearance of Billy Batston; saying “Billy Batston,” would conversely cause Capt. Marvel to disappear (again, much like a genie) & Billy to reappear, disoriented & amnesic.

      1. They tried a similar gimmick w Clark Kent/Gangbuster some yrs. ago.

      2. “they couldn’t even remember what either of them had done in the other personality”

        This was true Hihn, but hasn’t been for decades. The character has had many Hawkmanesque reboots to his continuity because they keep trying to figure out how to rebrand a character who was more popular than Superman and it doesn’t work.

        1. Funny, I don’t remember ever having been Hihn.

    3. They can’t call her “Isis” because that name belongs to a terrorist organization. Even on “Legends of Tomorrow” they just call her “Zari.”

    4. He is absolutely a kid in an adult Superman body. With the benefit of being bestowed the awisdom of Solomon as alet of the deal. The basic premise is that the immortal wizard Shazam is seeking a champion to whom he will bestow his physical powers. The first time he tried this in ancient Egypt, he picked the Pharoa’s mightiest warrior. Teth Adam. After some years had passed, the power corrupted him and the Shazam had to banish him to an alternate dimension.

      In modern times the wizard seeks a new champion. He picks Billy because he is idealistic and pure of heart. Billy doesn’t summon Captain Marvel, he IS Captain Marvel. Essentially becoming a perfect version of his adult self.

  4. When you realize Shazam! is a child in disguise, that excuses much of the Caped Madman’s ill behavior. If you know what I mean.

  5. Wait…Shazam! is not about Gomer Pyle?

    1. Gomer kept trying to change, but it never worked. Well, it sort of worked…sideways…when he became Goober.

    2. That joke was never funny.

  6. Welcome to the Suder-verse, Shazam!

  7. Sometimes a movie is just for fun, enjoy the popcorn, have fun w babygirl without imposing adult world grumpiness onto childhood. We liked Captain Marvel.

  8. loved the show can’t wait to see the movie.

  9. I liked Captain Marvel more than I thought I would.

    The key to happiness (in all of life?) is to go in with low expectations.

    1. Your other 4 socks are obvious.

  10. If right-wingers are this excited by Shazam, it seems reasonable to expect to see white male (super)human heroes, vaguely foreign or darker-skinned villainy, submissive and subordinate (but good-looking) white females, blacks as “others” or props, and an old-timey, vaguely Christian morality tale.

    Even if the movie is lame, it won’t have a female lead, so conservatives will like it.

    1. Feets, don’t fail me now!

      1. When you get right down to it, the idea of costumed vigilantes fighting crime was invented by…the Ku Klux Klan.

        Superman was obviously based on Nietzsche’s ubermensch.

        The Thing’s orange skin represents the Loyal Orange Order.

        The Hulk’s green skin is a racist code that people with nonwhite skin are enormous rage-monsters.

        1. Even Power Man is named Luke Cage, reminding readers of how blacks were kept in cages.

          1. And Gandalf is a wizard in white robes, who rides to the rescue on his horse like the scene in Birth of a Nation.

            Harry Potter, like a typical white boy, is always obsessed with the size of his wand.

            1. And you have to wonder how Dagwood got his job…there must have been plenty of better-qualified black candidates without eating disorders.

              1. Blondie is of course the perfect Aryan Hausfrau.

                1. When correctly viewed
                  Everything is lewd
                  I could tell you things about Peter Pan
                  …and the Wizard of Oz – there’s a dirty old man!

                  /Tom Lehrer

          2. The funny thing about Luke Cage is that isn’t his name, he chose it.

    2. Siskel and Ebert, eat yer hearts out! “(Not) At the Movies” with your reviewer, Reverend Artie!

      (Who needs to SEE a movie to review it, anyhow?)

    3. Yeah, having fun is SO white cis-het! Going to the movies should be a woke joyless experience!

    4. Plot twist: the last movie Arthur L. Hicklib saw was Deliverance, where he cuts that mean banjo solo.

      1. I have used a snippet of “Dueling Banjos” to introduce “Dead Flowers” periodically.

  11. I have to wonder at the title of this piece. I think both movies are worth seeing. Truth be told, I actually liked Captain Marvel a bit more. Captain Marvel was aimed more at drama and Shazam more at humor. Neither were cinematic milestones but both succeeded in their foci.
    Shazam starts out as a self-absorbed man-boy and realizes he needs to grow up a little. Captain Marvel starts out more as an adult, but discovers things about the folks she’s working with and against that cause her to act differently. Both have an element of “all is lost until they discover the nature of the power within them” aspect.
    The only disappointments I had with Shazam were first that it was on the shallow side of character development. One major plot element was basically a reprise of “Big”. I am glad to see that they at least tried to have the characters have motivation and develop through the film. Second, I thought Shazam’s fish-out-of-water aspect was too reminiscent of Chuck. I hope Zach Levi doesn’t get type-cast.
    I wasn’t dissapointed by Captain Marvel at all. Unlike some of the hype and a lot of the pre-release criticism, I didn’t see any “only a woman could do this” misanthropic sort of thing.

    1. I wasn’t dissapointed by Captain Marvel at all. Unlike some of the hype and a lot of the pre-release criticism, I didn’t see any “only a woman could do this” misanthropic sort of thing.

      All of your sock puppetting is getting tiresome. If you missed it, then you weren’t watching the movie because they beat the audience over the head with it. Writing machismo lines in earnest that would’ve been seen as over the top in Top Gun.

      The issue was never exactly that “only a woman could do this”. The issue, much like with Black Panther, was that supposedly women aren’t allowed to do this (by men). When, in fact, men had already propped up mediocre amnesiac/badass with a cloudy history hero-chick several times in exceedingly recent history. Moreover either the amnesiac badass chick is a lesser character that, while not necessarily undeserving of her own movie, hardly represents a revolutionary lynchpin in the larger narrative *or* is a revolutionary lynchpin that is critical to the larger narrative and has been rather obviously been shoehorned in.

      Takes a lot of work to make a drama cum superhero movie like Captain Marvel seem more laughably ridiculous than an earnest superhero drama like Airplane!.

      1. I thought it was kind of fun, but I agree with an online commenter who said that the cat had a much greater range than the protagonist, and that maybe it will be the cat who will finally defeat Mr. Thanatopsis, or whoever.

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  13. I miss when they made movies for grownups once in a while.

    1. Looks like there were plenty.

      Suderman just wants to complain about Captain Marvel some more, and Shazam! gave him an opportunity.

  14. Meh, DC hasn’t handled the original Captain Marvel (Shazam!) right since the 1970s. Batson and Shazam are supposed to be two different personalities. Shazam isn’t supposed to be Billy Batson in an adult, super-powered body. I’m tired of the entirely too self-conscious humor, even if it hasn’t been overdone in the superhero movies yet.

    As for Marvel’s Captain Marvel, I’m not watching it. It wasn’t made for white male comic fans like me, and I’m taking Brie Larson at her word. Besides, they messed that up, too. Carol Danvers should have been Ms. Marvel, a derivative of the Kree Warrior, Mar-vell. If they wanted a female Captain Marvel, why didn’t they go with Monica Rambeau, who is not only female but black, too. Carol Danvers is just another ‘privileged white person’ in comparison. After Black Panther, a black Captain Marvel would go over well, I would think.

    1. Black Captain Marvel’s light/energy powers don’t translate well to the big screen. I think they don’t work well in the comics either – was too powerful so they wrote her out pretty quick (either that, or the writers got bored).

      A real Danvers movie would have been a nice spin off from Wolverine, with the history they have. But that was never going to happen…

    2. #FakeComicFan

      C’mon dude, comics have been reinventing themselves for decades, with alternate realities, alternate versions, ret-cons, reboots and so-on.

      You can have your preferred iteration of a given character, but insisting that one specific version is the way the character is “supposed” to be ignores the history and evolution of the genre, in which constant reinvention is the status quo.

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