By Any Other Name...
Be warned: I suspect we are about to go even further down the rabbit hole than is customary in these parts. Buckle up.
I have first-hand experience of the fact that you can be quite well-versed in your comics lore and still not really be fully cognizant of the sheer degree of obfuscation surrounding the superhero codename Captain Marvel: a colleague, who knows which SHIELD operatives have metahuman powers and who will happily discuss the provenance of the various Infinity Stones, turned out to be entirely unaware of the clutterbuck attached to this issue – then again, she is essentially a Marvel zombie, which may have something to do with it. The quick and easy version is that there are two versions of Captain Marvel in comic books, although this is really a significant simplification, given there are arguably nearly a dozen characters who have used this name at some time or other, to say nothing of related characters such as Marvelman (better known these days as Miracleman).
The original Captain Marvel first appeared in the early 1940s, boasting vast superhuman strength and resilience, the ability to fly, matchless courage, and so on: he went on to become the most popular superhero of the decade, comfortably outselling all his rivals, even DC Comics' Superman (whom he was suspiciously similar to in some respects). However, just as Superman's vulnerability is to Kryptonite, so Captain Marvel's weakness is litigation – his publishers were sued by those of Superman on the grounds of plagiarism, and by the early 50s sales had declined to the point where contesting the issue wasn't worth the legal fees. Captain Marvel vanished into comics limbo until DC Comics acquired the character decades later. By this point, of course, the word 'Marvel' had acquired a certain resonance in the world of comic books, with Stan Lee's company trademarking the name and creating their own Captain Marvel character (one iteration of which is, at the time of writing, being played by Brie Larson in Marvel Studios' blockbuster meta-franchise).
The upshot of this is that while it was possible for DC to publish Captain Marvel stories, they couldn't actually call the comic Captain Marvel. Apparently this is such a big deal in the world of comics that a few years ago they made the somewhat baffling decision to rename the character Shazam, despite his long (seven decade) history in comics and TV. I am, as longstanding readers may already have guessed, a bit of a stubborn old purist in matters of this sort: this guy's name is Captain Marvel, no matter what the company may say, and to suggest anything else is silly and does him and his creators a disservice.
All of which brings us (probably not before time) to David F Sandberg's Shazam!, which is by any rational metric the second Captain Marvel movie in as many months, and the latest entry in DC Comics' line of superhero movies. The story concerns troubled, streetwise foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), whose essential decency finds himself summoned via an enchanted subway car to the mystic Rock of Eternity, where he encounters an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, whom the attentive will have noticed has done the superhero movie equivalent of winning the double, by appearing in both of this year's Captain Marvel movies). All Billy has to do is say the wizard's name to be transformed into his champion (Zachary Levi), a vastly powerful superhero known as…
Yeah, well, the awkwardness with which Shazam! tackles this point is undeniably a weakness in the film – Levi is billed as playing someone called Shazam, but he's never addressed or referred to as such in the film. This itself is not that uncommon in the world of the modern, credible superhero movie – both Wonder Woman and the other Captain Marvel movie do something similar – but it's usually handled much more deftly than it is here. The script even draws attention to the fact, by playing with the idea of giving him various other codenames such as the Red Cyclone and Captain Sparklefingers. (Shazam is surely a terrible idea as a codename, as it just means he'd never be able to tell anyone who he is. I'm just going to refer to him as (Captain Marvel) and let the writs fly as they may.) Anyway, there are less abstruse things to worry about, as a corrupted former candidate to become the wizard's champion, Sivana (Mark Strong), is aware of (Captain Marvel)'s existence, and determined to steal his power…
It is, as has been noted, a crowded marketplace these days when it comes to superhero movies, and the main way that Shazam! makes itself distinctive is through functioning primarily as a comedy – partly as a spoof of superhero films in general, but also by playing on the comedic potential of the idea of (Captain Marvel) basically being a young teenager inside the body of a demi-god (it's a bit like Big, but with superhero battles, something the film tacitly acknowledges at one point).
Now, this idea of the hero being a child in an adult body (perhaps they should have gone with the codename Boris Johnson Man) isn't quite how Captain Marvel has traditionally been depicted in the comics – there, he's really a child's idea of the perfect hero, made incarnate. The problems with this are firstly that it makes him massively uncool, and secondly, that he becomes totally redundant in a comics universe which already contains Superman. Since being acquired by DC, Captain Marvel has only really been allowed to shine in situations where Superman is out of the way for some reason, or when the writers have required a character capable of fighting Superman to a standstill (which, given his effectively limitless physical prowess, he is quite capable of doing). So you can kind of understand why they have gone down this particular route in the movie.
Still, for all the entertainment value of scenes in which we see (Captain Marvel) knocking over ATMs to fund a trip to a lap-dancing club (as any teenage boy would do, I suppose), I have to admit that I still found myself harrumphing a bit, on the inside at least: probably because turning this kind of film into a comedy feels like the safe and easy route to go down. (I was one of many people quite relieved when plans to do Green Lantern as a comedy with Jack Black were abandoned in favour of a more traditional take on the character (also featuring Mark Strong, of course), but as this resulted in one of the most relentlessly-scorned films in the genre, I'm not sure what the takeaway value of that is.) The problem isn't just that this is a superhero film with comedic elements, it's that it can't stop undermining even dramatic moments by inserting gag after gag, some of them slightly dubious ('Touch my staff,' the Wizard commands Billy at one point, which, if it isn't a misjudged double entendre, certainly sounds like it).
And yet, somehow, I have to say that the film's energy and sense of fun is infectious and somehow irresistible, not least because it does work hard to include so many references to the classic Marvel family mythos: Mr Mind appears, there's a reference to Tawky Tawny the tiger, Billy and his foster-siblings attend Fawcett Central school, and so on. The performances are also excellent: Mark Strong is quite as good as you'd expect in what could have been a fairly two-dimensional role, giving it real heft and presence (let's go down the rabbit hole one last time and note that his father is played by John Glover, who also played Lex Luthor's father for a number of years).
In the end, Shazam! does work as a piece of entertainment, although it is certainly its own thing. It gets close enough to the classic version of Captain Marvel to satisfy anyone with fond memories of the character, probably, while it also does enough to work as a comedic take on the superhero movie for audiences not that familiar with him. I'm not entirely sure how it manages this ticklish balancing act, but I suppose it qualifies as an achievement of sorts. This is a solid movie that continues the positive trend in DC's cinematic output.
Also This Week...
...The Kid Who Would Be King (yeah, I was late to the party on this one) – family-friendly comedy drama riffing on Arthurian mythology (Patrick Stewart cameos as Merlin), firmly aimed at the Harry Potter audience, as a young lad pulls a sword from a stone and finds he has to save the country from an ancient sorceress. Well-handled CGI spectacle and some good jokes are the film's main strengths, but some elements of the story feel slightly laboured and it's at least fifteen minutes too long. But genuinely difficult to dislike.
...The Sisters Brothers, a peculiar international western starring John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as the titular pair of wild west killers, sent in pursuit of an idealistic chemist during the 1851 gold rush. Initially seems to be an authentic if somewhat brutal revisionist western, until some odd third-act developments break all the usual rules of story development – the kind of ending proper film critics like but punters usually despise. However, the journey is interesting even if the destination is strange.
...Pet Sematary – new version of the Stephen King novel about a family who discover their new house backs onto an ancient site where the boundary between life and death has worn a bit thin. Solidly written (basically it's another take on The Monkey's Paw), with a very good performance from Jason Clarke in the middle of it all. The pacing is a bit off, and I would imagine that some viewers might find the subject matter in very poor taste, but I thought this was a reasonable piece of schlocky horror.
...Out of Blue – very loose adaptation of a Martin Amis novel, with Patricia Clarkson as a troubled veteran homicide detective investigating the death of an astrophysicist. Sounds fairly straightforward but is really anything but; the film's various pretensions and digressions into areas such as quantum theory are bafflingly impenetrable, and the story really fails to engage on any level. The incoherence of the film makes it a demanding and unrewarding watch.
…Hellboy, another take on Mike Mignola's demonic superhero. Definitely from the heavy metal end of the genre, with yet more Arthurian borrowings – our hero and his allies find themselves contending with an ancient sorceress (yes, another one) who wants to end the world. Directed by Neil Marshall, so taste and restraint are not much in evidence; the script is not great and most of the performances are worse. Not nearly as witty or satisfying as the Guillermo del Toro version, but the film has energy and a sense of humour that keep it watchable – but only just.