Armchair pop culture analysts drone on and on about “superhero fatigue,” but the current abundance of material isn’t the primary cause of that (largely exaggerated) issue; the real root of the problem lies in studios’ over-reliance on soulless mimicry. Every time a comic book adaptation earns widespread critical acclaim and/or smashes box office records, corporate bigwigs race to replicate the secret recipe that will allow them to print money (see: The Dark Knight, The Avengers)—and, more often than not, end up face-planting at the starting line. DC’s SHAZAM! succeeds where the likes of Suicide Squad and Justice League fell short because it actually understands why audiences responded so favorably to its trailblazing predecessors: innovation always trumps shallow imitation.
(For even more compelling evidence, look no further than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which—contrary to what its detractors would argue—constantly experiments with different tones, styles, and sub-genres.)
SHAZAM! isn’t only special because of the inherent novelty of its premise (the protagonist is a young boy capable of literally transforming into a Herculean demigod—the ultimate evolution of the adolescent power fantasy upon which the industry was built); it is further distinguished by its emphasis on characterization and theme over mere spectacle. Billy Batson is a fourteen-year-old orphan that refuses to play by the rules of the foster care system—after all, why should he settle for a “pretend family” when he knows that his birth mother is still somewhere in Philadelphia, just waiting to be found? When he is suddenly chosen by the ancient wizard Shazam to act as his champion in the war against the personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins, however, our hopelessly overwhelmed protagonist turns to his nerdy new brother (an unabashed Superman fanatic) for aid in mastering such fantastic abilities as the lightning of Zeus, the speed of Mercury, and the stamina of Atlas.
Predictably, they behave with the level of responsibility and maturity you’d expect from a pair of teenagers, abusing Billy’s magical gifts in the pursuit of fame, fortune, and beer. But after their foolish antics (which they diligently record and post on YouTube, naturally) attract the attention of the nefarious Doctor Thaddeus Sivana—a previous candidate for the mantle of Shazam that was ultimately rejected for lacking a pure heart—the newly-christened Captain Marvel (I don’t give a damn what the lawyers say, that’s his name) must learn the true meaning of heroism in order to protect the ragtag bunch of misfits he now considers his siblings. And along the way, he discovers that “home” was never quite as far away as he thought.
Despite the seemingly monumental stakes (demons, mysticism, and metaphysical horror), the conflict remains charmingly small-scale—heck, the climactic battle takes place not in some bizarre alternate dimension or on the surface of a remote alien planet, but smack-dab in the middle of a Christmas carnival. This is due in large part to the relatively modest budget, but director David F. Sandberg turns this potential disadvantage into his greatest asset, devoting the vast majority of the 132-minute running time to developing the characters and the relationships between them, thus ensuring that viewers are totally invested in the action (and, consequently, making them more inclined to suspend their disbelief and forgive the less-than-stellar visual effects).
All that being said, I sincerely hope that there’s no misguided attempt to distill this film’s triumphs down to a simple formula. SHAZAM! soars because its originality makes it feel fresh, exciting, and surprising; trying to cannibalize the qualities that make it work (particularly its self-deprecating sense of humor and lighthearted atmosphere) without comprehending its underlying strengths would only end in disaster.
(Let’s be honest, though: if we interpret the plot as a metaphor for the DC Extended Universe itself, then Sivana symbolizes Warner Bros. Entertainment—always trying to exploit shortcuts in its endless quest to seize greatness, rather than acknowledging its limitations and learning to stand on its own merits.)
And now, if you’ll permit me to geek out for a moment, here is a list of my favorite of the movie’s many winks, references, and Easter eggs (SPOILERS below, obviously):
Billy and his siblings attend a school called Fawcett Central. The original Captain Marvel Adventures comic books were released under the banner of Fawcett Publications before DC acquired the rights to the character.
A flashback shows Billy begging his mother to buy him a stuffed tiger. Mister Tawky Tawny, a talking anthropomorphic tiger, was a frequent recurring character in the source material.
When Sivana initially arrives at the Rock of Eternity, the camera lingers on an unassuming caterpillar in a jar; fans will immediately recognize this as Mister Mind, a classic Captain Marvel villain. When Billy drops by later, the glass prison is shattered, and the fiend is nowhere to be seen. I expected that to be the full extent of his little cameo; imagine my delight when he returned for the mid-credits scene—and with several lines of dialogue, to boot!