Sunday, 7 April 2019
The Original Captain Marvel
Directed by David F. Sandberg
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Some mild spoilerage.
Hmmm... okay, I’d better cut to the chase and start off by saying that, despite all the awful things I’m going to say about certain aspects of this film up front, I think it’s a really good movie and would recommend it. And you can imagine how conflicted that makes me feel now I have to write a review of it.
Okay, long story short, Captain Marvel was a character created in 1939 by C.C. Beck for Fawcett Comics (Billy goes to Fawcett School in this movie version). DC sued for alleged similarities to Superman (whom Captain Marvel outsold for a period) a while later and the comic stopped being published. The long gap before his next publication allowed rival company Marvel Comics to buy and copyright the name Captain Marvel for one of their most powerful superheroes. Some would argue that he was just a ‘Marvel remake’ even, of the Fawcett character (of course ‘Captain’ Marvel is now a girl but... don’t let’s get too complicated here, this is supposed to be a very brief history). Think about it, though... even the original Thor was a guy who banged his stick on the ground to be ‘replaced’ by Thor with a bolt of lightning. Marvel have tried a few times to rip off this character, methinks.
Anyway, back to my potted history... DC bought the Fawcett character and started publishing him again in the 1970s. He was still allowed to be called Captain Marvel in the interiors but, because of the Marvel character, the comic was called Shazam! Which is what the 1970s live action TV series was also called, whereas the 1940s theatrical serial was called The Adventures Of Captain Marvel (and you can read my review of that here). He’s been a staple of DC Comics since then but the character has probably changed somewhat over the last two decades in ways I wouldn’t like to guess.
Okay, lets get the bad stuff out of the way first. As much as I like some guy I’d never heard of called Zachary Levi in the role here... this is not Captain Marvel. This is a mickey-take ridiculing Captain Marvel and I’m sad that DC chose to go down this path. The name SHAZAM, the name of the wizard who granted Cap his powers in all the iterations, which is almost straight out of the comics, is an acronym standing for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury and the appearance of Captain Marvel when Billy Batson speaks the wizard’s name is supposed to conjure up a Captain Marvel who embodies all the qualities of these Gods and Kings. Seriously though... it’s quite obvious that this screenplay does not include ‘the wisdom of Solomon’ into the mix with Zachary Levi here. Instead, we have the same consciousness occupying Captain Marvel’s body... which was definitely not what the original comics were about. So basically, the comedy in this version of the character... and it was always a light, somewhat comical character... is all about body switching, teenage fish-out-of-water stuff which plays like a superhero version of Big (it even has a blatant reference to the Tom Hanks comedy in it) and it does really belittle the character.
Now, I have seen DC do this with the character in the 1990s but I stopped reading after a few issues of that awfulness and I’d hoped that they’d stopped treating the character like that (basically jettisoning the Captain Marvel personae completely). Perhaps they didn’t, which might explain why the movie has taken this track. It’s a travesty and insult to the character and I suspect C. C. Beck (who has a shout out in the movie) would be turning in his grave. Unfortunately, it’s also immensely entertaining and I loved a lot of the performance here. Which leaves me very conflicted now people.
Okay, so another thing is that... and we’re getting into slight spoiler territory here folks... most of the characters look somewhat like their original comic counterparts, except for maybe Billy Batson (Asher Angel), the kid who says SHAZAM! and SHAZAM himself (Djimon Hounsou) who... I’m not going there. But the casting is pretty good. Levi looks somewhat like the character whose looks were originally based on actor Fred MacMurray and Mary Batson (sorry, Mary Bromfield... I guess they’re saving that revelation for another movie) looks just like her, especially when she becomes the unnamed Mary Marvel in the final showdown (she’s played nicely by Grace Fulton here). Similarly, Freddy Freeman looks just great (and Jack Dylan Grazer does really good stuff in the role) although, when he does transform to an unnamed Captain Marvel Jr, he doesn’t look the same as he did in his real life incarnation, like he did in the comics. Although you can tell exactly who he is supposed to be from the colour of his costume.
There are some great moments for followers of the original comics including an early appearance from Mr. Mind, the evil, talking earthworm who controlled the Monster Society Of Evil. He gets freed later on in the movie and this kinda tips the audience off that he’ll be back for a bigger moment later in the story (if you stick around after the credits). Also, Billy Batson says 'Holey Moley!' a lot, which is just a huge point in favour of this movie. Mark Strong as arch nemesis Sivana is, as usual, a truly villanous villain and although he’s too tall for Sivana, he looks quite like him (barring they've given him super powers, which he didn’t have in the comics). Alas, he plays him nothing like Sivana and it’s a shame he doesn’t let out either of that character’s prime Sivana-isms... the constant repeating “Heh! Heh! Heh!” laugh or the perpetual referring to Captain Marvel as “The Big Red Cheese”.
But, despite all the differences and insults to the original characters, the film works really well as an entertaining feature with a heck of a lot of heart and warmth in it. It has some surprisingly dark moments (especially in Sivana’s ‘origins’) but it does some nice new stuff too. For example, using the Seven Deadly Sin statues from the wizard SHAZAM’s lair, which were always a constant in the comics and using them as more of a plot element is nice. Also, Cap’s old ‘double cape’ with the smaller cape at the top does kinda have an equivalent here but, although he doesn’t actually use it, they’ve found a way to make it nicely functional by having it as a hoodie which lays down on top like a second cape. So that was really great. Alas, they don’t have the original button down top from the 1930s version of the character there but, you know... modern movies, you can’t have everything.
There’s also an appearance, kind of, of one of the other DC superheroes in the movie, not to mention a fair few props and reference to the other characters in the current DC Extended Universe films. Also, the first half of the end credits takes the form of a kind of cartoon (and perhaps as a bizarre homage to the end titles of Spider-Man Homecoming, which seems to be definitely the equivalent vibe that DC are going for with this movie) and a few of the regular DC characters appear in this animation. Also, there are two post credits sequences here... the first is mentioned briefly, earlier on in this review and appears mid way through the end titles. The other is right after the credits are finished and, well, it’s a nice little joking potshot at one of the other DC superheroes.
At the end of the day, despite the terrible treatment of the title character, SHAZAM! is still a fun and very watchable DC movie with a lovely supporting score by Benjamin Wallfisch. Easily one of the best films they’ve done. Well... I say title character but... not once is Captain Marvel referred to by his actual name in the movie and that’s very interesting because, in the recent Marvel movie Captain Marvel (reviewed by me here), Brie Larson’s character is never once referred to by that name either. It’s like both companies didn’t want to open up old legal wounds... very strange. I’d definitely recommend SHAZAM! to fans of superhero movies and, despite a few very dark sequences, it’s pretty much an out and out comedy which works fairly well. Die hard admirers of the original character, such as myself, may have a bumpy ride with this one but, at the end of the day, the artistry behind the film certainly helps DC get away, to an extent, with reinventing the character for a modern film going audience. Hoping for a sequel which would hopefully feature one of my favourite characters from the comic, Mr. Tawky Tawny The Talking Tiger, at some point soon.