Filipinos are just as much familiar with the conventions of superheroes as the rest of the global hero fandom. One concept in particular stands out for us: the idea of a transforming superhero. Rather than a character that changes clothes to a hero costume, armor or equipment, transforming heroes change physically from a “normal” form to their alternate heroic selves. Legendary local comic creator Mars Ravelo did that with Captain Barbell and Darna. Japanese pop culture introduced the likes of Sailor Moon and the suited-up heroes of “Tokusatsu” shows. But American superhero comics pioneered the concept, with examples like “Shazam!”
This is the latest film from Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Films as part of their counterpart superhero movie franchise to Disney and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Speaking of Marvel, the funny thing was that the Shazam character was not an original DC creation. It belonged to 1940s publisher Fawcett Comics. And while the name/term “Shazam” plays an important part in the character’s backstory, his superhero name was once “Captain Marvel.” That was before Marvel created their own Captain Marvel in the sixties. Short history lesson aside, let us now focus on the cinematic adaptation of this hero, now called Shazam.
Viewers get to meet Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a teenage foundling who constantly bucks foster care in order to look for his mother, whom he was accidentally separated from as a child. He cares the bare minimum for his latest foster family, but Billy is a decent enough kid to help out his new foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) from school bullying. His action causes him to be taken to a magical place by an ancient wizard (Djimoun Honsou). Said wizard tasks Billy with defeating an ancient evil set loose, and gets him to grasp his staff and call the wizard’s name – Shazam – to transfer the latter’s power over.
This power transfer transforms Billy into a lantern-jawed and chiseled adult in a red suit with a lightning-bolt symbol and a white cape (Zachary Levi). Now the new Shazam, he possesses the wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, the (lightning) power of Zeus, courage of Achilles, and speed of Mercury. That is what his name “means,” and by saying the name Billy transforms from boy to hero and back as needed. It is like Darna without her stone, or Captain Barbell (parody by Ravelo) without the barbell.
So what does Billy do with his new abilities? Well first he gets Freddy, a superhero fan-boy, to help test his powers and limitations. Then Billy starts using his adult form and super-powers in activities that make for prime cinematic comedy, if the loud laughs in the theater were any indication. But danger lurks in the form of Sivana (Mark Strong), a twisted scientist who was himself summoned as a boy by the wizard Shazam, only to be rejected. In revenge he has freed the demonic Seven Deadly Sins from their imprisonment in the wizard’s lair, taking their power and intent on stealing Billy’s too.
The thing about “Shazam!” the movie is how differently it feels from previous entries in the DC Extended Universe. “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” were pretty grim; “Wonder Woman” and the more recent “Aquaman” were more lighthearted but still primarily serious, “Justice League” was fairly uneven, and “Suicide Squad” focused on black comedy. “Shazam!” meanwhile gave a lot of good clean laughs, mainly from the pairing of Zachary Levi’s Shazam and Jack Grazer’s Freddy, with their hijinks ranging from the super-power tests to the attempt to buy beer without ID.
Other cast members were quite effective too in the roles they play. Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana was a quiet but intimidating menace, whose darkly homicidal actions somewhat reasonably stem from childhood miseries that could serve as a cautionary lesson. Billy’s other foster siblings help pad out the narrative, from the older Mary (Grace Fulton), the young and bubbly Darla (Faithe Herman), the gamer geek Eugene (Ian Chen) and the silent Pedro (Jovan Armand). It is amazing to think that such a fun superhero adventure was directed by David Sandberg, primarily known for horror titles. So was “Aquaman” by James Wan.
Fawcett Comics got their “Shazam”-shouting Captain Marvel character bought out by DC decades ago to remove competition for Superman. They resumed use of the character when Marvel Comics created their own “Captain Marvel,” but now had to use the name of power to title the resultant comic books. From this remarkable copyright mess Warner-DC was able to deliver an awesome hero film that comes across as a better “Superman” movie than “Man of Steel” according to detractors. Of course, the main character is a boy that turns into a superhuman by saying the magic word. But it matters little to the verdict: “Shazam!” is great.
Image courtesy of Forbes