By Andrew A. Smith
Tribune Content Agency
Shazam!” has arrived, and Holy Moley, there’s a lot to talk about! With SPOILERS AHOY, Here are 10 takeaways:
1. O COME ALL YE FAITHFUL
Shazam! is a Christmas movie. It takes place during the holiday season, carols pepper the soundtrack and decorations play a role. It’s also a feel-good movie for the whole family, that probably would have pulled families to the theater in greater numbers if the movie had premiered during winter break, instead of in the middle of April. One wonders why Warner Bros. scheduled “Aquaman” last November instead. Maybe “Shazam!” just wasn’t ready.
2. EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
As everyone must know by now, today’s Shazam! began in late 1939 as “Captain Marvel” – the first character to bear that name, but hardly the last. He was so popular, he was spun off into an entire Marvel Family of characters: Mary Marvel (Mary Bromfield), Captain Marvel Jr. (Freddy Freeman), Uncle Dudley Marvel, the three Lieutenants Marvel and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny.
Those characters are mostly gone, but remain in spirit, replaced by new versions of Mary and Freddy, and new characters Darla Dudley, Eugene Choi and Pedro Peña. Despite being an ardent traditionalist, like most comics fans, I consider this an improvement. The new cast not only increases diversity, but establishes stronger bonds between all the heroes who derive their power from the old wizard.
And since this new “Shazam Family” didn’t appear until 2011, and have only appeared intermittently since, you haven’t missed much. All six appear regularly now in the current Shazam! title, which is only on its fourth issue.
From the ‘40s to the present, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) and Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) have always been BFFs in every incarnation, including the movie Shazam!
3. PAGING EDITH HAMILTON
Speaking of the old wizard, he talked a lot – most of which won’t make much sense to non-comics readers, until the inevitable sequels explicate his babbling. But comics readers immediately recognized his reference to “The Seven Realms” – because the abovementioned Shazam! title is currently exploring the (newly invented) mythology of “The Magiclands”: The Darklands, The Earthlands, The Funlands, The Gamelands, The Monsterlands, The Wildlands and the Wozenderlands.
The Shazam! series has shown us The Funlands (kids only), and is currently exploring The Gamelands (everything runs according to video game logic) and The Wildlands (populated by anthropomorphic animals). We live in The Earthlands, and while we haven’t yet seen The Darklands and The Monsterlands, they seem self-explanatory. As to The Wozenderlands, your guess is as good as mine.
4. YOU HAVE CHOSEN UNWISELY
The old Wizard also spoke of a badly chosen champion, and again we comics nerds have the inside poop. This is a reference – and a foreshadowing – of Black Adam, the first character to be granted the Shazam powers. His civilian name was Teth-Adam, and he was an Egyptian about 3,000 years ago when he was made champion. But he misused his powers for personal gain, and has been called Black Adam ever since.
Oddly, a “Black Adam” movie, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, was in the works before the mothership. And it still might happen – Johnson has done some interviews lately that indicate filming will start soon. In the comics, Adam is a complex anti-hero more than an out-and-out villain, and could certainly carry a movie on his own – especially since there are 3,000 years of history to play with.
5. DOUBLE TROUBLE
While a Black Adam movie starring The Rock is awesome on its face, it does raise an uncomfortable question about duplication.
In the comics, Dr. Sivana is a mad scientist – he has even dubbed himself “The World’s Maddest Scientist.” But one must assume that was too Lex Luthor-y for the movie, so the screenwriters instead gave Sivana … Black Adam’s powers.
So what powers will Black Adam have now? If they’re the same, an appearance in a “Shazam!” movie would be déjà vu all over again.
6. TIGER, TIGER, BURNING BRIGHT
The movie had a number of tiger-related moments, from young Billy’s insistence on a tiger at the fair, and super-powered Billy giving a stuffed tiger to a child as reassurance in the end. Savvy comics readers don’t need to be hit with a baseball bat to get the reference to Tawky Tawny, a talking tiger who walked on his hind legs and was established in Captain Marvel Adventures in 1947.
While it’s not a sure thing that Tawky will ever appear in the movies, he has just been rebooted in the current comics as a resident of The Wildlands, and he will almost certainly become a member of the cast. Since old Shazam mentioned The Seven Realms – which include The Wildlands – Magic 8-Ball says “Chances are good.”
7. PLAY BALL
Yes, I mentioned the Magic 8-Ball, a toy that surely everyone has played with at some time or another, and is important for Dr. Sivana as a reminder of his painful past. Meanwhile, Billy Batson had a ball-shaped totem of his own, a compass he prizes as the last thing his mother gave him.
Neither of the these items appears in the comics, so I have to tip my hat to the screenwriters, who invented these emotionally revealing objects out of whole cloth.
Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) watches Shazam (Zachary Levi) do his “Lightning from my hands” routine, which will have you humming “Eye of the Tiger” the rest of the day.
Veteran movie-goers ignore a familiar face’s history when watching a movie, and try to enjoy the actor’s performance in context. But with some thespians, it’s hard to ignore – especially when they are playing essentially the same character for which they’re known.
Such was the case when Mr. Sivana and Victor Vasquez appeared on screen.
Sivana père was played by John Glover, whom older readers will remember as Lionel Luthor on The CW’s Smallville. The senior Luthor was an evil corporate baron, hopelessly corrupt and cruel to his son and others. As Dr. Sivana’s father … well, he was exactly the same. The only difference is that Sivana senior got what was coming to him, while Lionel always seemed to skate.
And what a pleasure it was to see Cooper Andrews play Victor, the genial, big-hearted papa bear of his mischievous brood. Because he has played, for several seasons, a genial, big-hearted papa bear named Jerry on The Walking Dead. It was like greeting an old friend.
In fact, some people in my theater did, in fact, greet the actor with their best, whispered impression of TWD’s Ezekiel (Khary Payton): “Jer-REEE!”
9. THE WORM TURNS
That caterpillar in the mid-credits scene? That’s Mr. Mind, an alien, mind-controlling worm who looks like a caterpillar, and first appeared as the leader of the Monster Society of Evil in Captain Marvel Adventures in 1943.
Yes, he’s small. But in the immortal words of Yoda: “Size matters not. Judge me by my size, do you?” You shouldn’t underestimate Mr. Mind , because like the Sage of Dagobah, he’s crazy dangerous.
10. CAPTAIN SPARKLEFINGERS
A gag about what to call Shazam (and later his family) runs throughout the movie. It’s funny, but what’s interesting is that the issue is never resolved: At the end of the film, at least five of the six super-powered siblings still have no superhero codenames.
Clearly, Billy thinks he should be called “Shazam,” because when he’s passing on his powers, he tells his siblings to “Say my name!” – to which they dutifully reply in unison, “Billy!” (Which was pretty funny.) So to get them to say “Shazam,” he carefully constructs a sentence to avoid saying the word himself: “No, no! Not my name, the name I said to transform into this guy!”
Which raises the obvious question: If he goes by Shazam, can he say his own name without transforming? That would be awkward. “You can call me … Shazam!” (BOOM!) “D’oh!” Nor could his super-powered siblings address him without becoming their civilian selves. “Hey, Shazam, can you … “ (BOOM!) “Whoops.”
Shazam (Zachary Levi) asks Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), “So, you’re, like, a bad guy?” in Shazam!, which gives us a Sivana who is far different than the comics version.
As dopey as that would be, it has precedent – and it arose, as you’d expect, in the Marvel Family. When Captain Marvel shared his powers with Freddy Freeman in Whiz Comics in 1941, the disabled newsboy had to say “Captain Marvel” to transform. And since his superhero handle was Captain Marvel Jr., he became the first superhero unable to say his own name (without disappearing amid a crash of lightning and a cloud of smoke). For a while in the ‘80s he went by “CM3,” which, another character noted, sounds like a toothpaste ingredient.
It’s yet to be seen how or if the other kids will name themselves some version of “Shazam,” and if so, how the screenwriters will get around the obvious self-reference problem. My vote is that they go with “Thundercrack and the Lightning League!”
Unless, as Billy says, that’s a butt thing.
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