You’d be forgiven for not knowing this is the second Captain Marvel movie released this year, even though Brie Larson’s titular character was never actually called by that name, and Zachary Levi’s character doesn’t even have a name – but yes, the guy in the red costume and yellow lightning bolt is actually named Captain Marvel. Marvel Comics won the copyright battle on that one, and so from that day, he’s been referred to colloquially by his activation word, Shazam! I will not even try to give you a canned history of the character, as I didn’t grow up reading him and don’t have any particular affinity for him either. In fact, the only personal relationship I have to a version of this character is to the British rip-off character, Marvelman, so a little more of that later. But right here, all you get is the movie.
Starting with a 1974 prologue, the movie opens quickly and gets into the story right away, but that’s about the best thing I can say about it. I could tell right away from the dumb interactions of the family in the car that the script was going to be about as broad and unsubtle as it could possibly be, and once the main character in this scene was pulled into the cavernous home (?) of a crazed-sounding wizard I could feel the lack of writing talent immediately. This wizard – he’s the one actually named Shazam – has the 7 Deadly Sins imprisoned and wages some kind of eternal battle … no wait, hold on. They’re waging an eternal trash-talking session with him. Their essence is locked into what appear to be statues, and all they seem to do is badmouth the guy all the time. Like, forever. When Billy Batson is magically transported here, the scene plays as mostly childish and underwritten. These clearly aren’t the actual 7 Deadly Sins, they’re just a bunch of generic-looking gargoyle-like monsters who, from the get-go, don’t really seem to be either all that threatening or all that powerful. In a brief replay of the prologue, Billy Batson (an exceptionally drab Asher Angel) is judged worthy enough to inherit the power of Shazam, and so begins his personal journey to be a better person. Except, the giant problem I had with this scene is that Billy is not The One, he’s simply good enough, given the time that the wizard has left – and not only that, Billy doesn’t really seem to be any kind of interesting, special, or friendly kid. He’s just a kid that comes from a past made miserable by becoming estranged from his mother at an early age and running away from one foster home after another.
This particular time he’s handed off to a new, multi-cultural foster family (which is sure to set the teeth of some right-leaning fanboys grinding), and each kid is introduced one after the other, like checking off a list. The kids range from utterly personality-free and surly, to insanely annoying, and it’s entirely predictable how this part of the story is going to go: Billy Batson, who has never known a true home, will find one here in the end with this sweet band of misfits. It’s depressingly formulaic and uninteresting. Frankie, the kid with the most personality is a self-described “cripple” with a motormouth, and I’ll go out on a limb and say that this young actor (Jack Dylan Grazer) is the best of the lot (in a weird way, he reminds me a lot of a young Michael Keaton, and not just facially), but he’s saddled with a character that is just a charmless annoyance every time he appears. The script and director only give him one speed, and its maxed out in every scene the kid appears in. This in contrast to Billy who is pretty much a non-entity here, and in a spectacular misfire the personality of Zachary Levi’s nameless superhuman is meant to be the same Billy Batson in a grown-up body, yet that personality is rarely seen when the character reverts to young Billy. They’re supposed to be the same kid, but you’d never know it.
The main plot of the movie here is that a villain, possessed by the freed spirits of the 7 Deadly Sins, is after the immense power given to Billy and wants it for himself. Fair enough, so far as motivations go, it isn’t the worst, unfortunately once again the script does the actor (Mark Strong) zero favours. The dialogue is horribly on the nose for a villainous character to the point where if he had a moustache, the simple-minded script by Henry Gayden would surely have him twirling it. It’s a character that could be played ironically, but either Strong didn’t care or the director didn’t know how, because the character is a tiresome bore. We know why he’s there, we know he’ll get beat in the end, and there’s no dramatic meat along that journey to go on that bare-bones throughline.
On the way to the climactic confrontation, the movie features a number of “training” sequences where superhuman Billy is put through a series of inane tests to determine what his powers actually are, and this middle section of the movie has some fun moments, and yet … and here’s where my own personal gripe about the movie comes in. Remember the name Marvelman? It’s way at the top. Not going to give you a canned history of this character either, but in a nutshell, legendary comic book writer Alan Moore took the rip-off character Marvelman and elevated him to somewhat legendary status. In an early installment of Marvelman, the “Shazam”-like superhuman is put through his paces by a young boy during a chance meeting in the woods and there’s no way this scene with this character was not an influence on this section in Shazam. In another Marvelman-related gripe, it was was pretty crass when a school security guard is referred to as “Officer Moron” when the man’s name is actually “Moran”. Mickey Moran is to Marvelman what Billy Batson is to Shazam. Given the fractious relationship between DC and Alan Moore, it’s a pretty obvious, and sad, dig. If you want to read a little more about Marvelman, check out my mate Glenn Miller’s excellent comic-heavy blog, My Little Underground right HERE.
Another aspect of the script bothered the hell out of me. Yes, I’m aware of the comedic scenes where a kid will be a kid, upon discovering superpowers, but the vast majority of the movie is spent showing superhuman Billy stealing and wrecking stuff, with zero consequence – namely one sequence where he saves people from a bus hanging off a bridge – an accident that he caused. It’s addressed once, but never in a self-revelatory moment, and it made me wonder: who is this movie for? On the surface, it’s a kid movie with juvenile laffs and a relatively safe view of being a kid, foster parents, and school bullying (the two school bullies are maybe THE worst ever committed to film – not because they’re clueless incompetents, which would be funny, they’re just flat out awful), but the movie also has a fairly brutal fight scene towards the end, swearing, and trips to a titty bar (you only see the outside) – so who is it for? The kids who were in the audience at the viewing I attended were yukking it in all the right places, but what were they getting from the more adult content? Look, I have no problems whatsoever with moviemakers throwing the adults in the kids-movie audience a bone. Pixar wrote the book on that – but these guys never read it. The end result is that Shazam feels wildly unfocused and uncommitted, and I wasn’t exactly sure who it was really meant for. It definitely wasn’t meant for me, but not because of the kid-oriented humour. It’s a movie with some okay performances but mostly mediocre ones, some action that’s decent, but scattered randomly among scenes that are tiresome and badly written. Nothing about the movie felt like there was a lot of care put into it in pretty much all departments. The music, by It composer Benjamin Wallfisch, is as generic and obvious as that of the first Avengers movie, the effects are ho-hum and Act 3 is an unfunny debacle for the most part. Like I said, Shazam is not my guy, but I like superhero movies in general – in this one, I found very little of it to be worthwhile
© Andrew Hope, 2019
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