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Shazam

Shazam!

***There are minor spoilers ahead***

I’m gonna be honest here. I’ve learned the hard way to go into a DC movie with low expectations. My fiancé and I’ve endured too much: trudged through too many sluggish, gritty, grey overtoned color palettes; winced through too many poorly-written, edgy, grimdark facades of the characters we know and love; and pointed out so many potholes, the whole DCEU could easily be mistaken for one of many poorly-maintained streets in the major city nearest us. To say DC movies have been a slog to sit through is a major understatement.

It was with this mindset that I sat down in the theater with my fiancé and ordered my dessert. The trailers had looked good, much better in my humble opinion than those of Shazam’s Marvel counterpart, Captain Marvel (and made me laugh at the use of Eminem’s “My Name Is” in one of the trailers; after the use of “Without Me” in Suicide Squad, it makes me wonder exactly how much of a hard-on DC’s marketing team has for the rapper’s old hits), but if I was optimistic it was cautiously so.

Billy Batson is a 14-year old foster kid. He’s been shunted from home to home, because he keeps running away. Billy is on a mission to find his mom. When he was very little, he and his mom got separated at a carnival. He’s tracked down half a notebook’s worth of female Batsons in the Philadelphia area, but none of them are his mother. Nevertheless, he’s determined to find her, whatever it takes.

A couple named Rosa and Victor Vazquez are the next family to take Billy in. They foster five other children who have been difficult like Billy has been, or have special needs. The Vazquez’ are a loving couple, who were foster kids when they were younger, so they know the ropes and are confident Billy will fit in well and become part of the family. All the children take to him: Freddy Freeman, his new roommate and superhero enthusiast, most of all. Billy, however, doesn’t really want anything to do with anyone in the house; to him, it feels like they’re keeping him from finding his mother, from his real family.

While plotting to run away again to chase down the next Batson on his list, Billy is summoned to a mystical cave. A very old wizard named Shazam tells Billy he has been chosen to become the next champion to protect the world from the manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins. Out of everyone else in the world, Billy has been chosen because he has the purest heart. Billy is skeptical; there are no truly good people left in the world, right? And he can’t possibly be one of them, right? But the wizard is adamant, and Billy lays his hand on the mystical staff and shouts, “Shazam!”

A crack of thunder, a flash of lightning, and Billy is transformed into an adult superhero. The wizard fades away, his quest fulfilled, leaving Billy alone and very confused. He makes his way back home to Freddy, the superhero expert, and together they test the limits of Billy’s powers, film them, and post them on the internet. He immediately becomes a viral sensation, and Billy soon starts using his powers not for good, but to show off and make money. When the Seven Deadly Sins escape and a threat arises, can a teenaged and untrained Billy even rise to the challenge? Will he keep chasing the mother who gave him up for adoption, or learn the true meaning of family?

As usual, the good first:

Guys. GUYS. GUYS. THIS is what a superhero movie should be. Shazam! was everything I had previously been missing from the DCEU, and more.

The difference with this movie was, it felt like they finally just let loose and had FUN with it. They took the concept “what would a 14 year old boy do if he suddenly got superpowers?” and really rolled with it. Of course he would not know how to pee while in costume! Of course he would film himself showing off his powers to become famous! Of course he would try to buy beer while in his older disguise!

What would you have done if you acquired superpowers at that age? Probably about the same stuff, if you’re being honest with yourself! I know I might have ;D Billy behaved exactly as I would expect any 14 year old to, as I would have expected myself to at that age. It was for that reason that the entire theater was in stitches for what I’d say was the first third of the movie.

For all the laughs it provided, it has soul too. Billy has a good heart and is worthy of the mantle of Shazam, though he doesn’t believe it and doesn’t show us at first. It’s over the course of the movie that we, and him, learn it. Rosa and Victor, though they have limited screen time, are obviously loving and caring parents for their foster children. I wish they were my parents! Freddy has a physical disability, for which he has to use a crutch to walk, but his knowledge of superheroes is encyclopedic, and he at turns acts as Billy’s conscience and rival, much as real brothers would.

For all their faults, the DCEU sure knows how to cast. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi are perfect for the roles of Billy/Shazam. Angel is quick on his feet and unafraid to show deep emotion, allowing him to bounce from sarcastic joking to disbelief to fear all in the same sentence. He’s so young, but obviously an artist to watch. Levi, maybe pulling from his own childhood fantasies of gaining superpowers, gives a hilarious and believable performance as adult Shazam. The character fumbles a bit at first, but soon finds his stride, much as a teenager really would.

The bad? There isn’t much. I’ve been mulling it over for a few weeks, and really my one big nitpick is that Billy went from typical teenager in a costume to a hero too fast. That character development was saved only for the third act. At that point you’ve sat through the hilarity of the first act, the very middle-y and bogged down second act during which the Big Bad gets a lot of attention and Billy’s antics have gotten kind of old, before getting to any “meat.” A two-hour movie isn’t a long time for significant character development, but a little bit more of a gradual uptick in hero-ness as the film went on would have been appreciated.

Oh, more of Mary would have been most welcome too. She’s an American treasure, a sweet baby, and must be protected. The cameo right at the end could have been expanded upon a tiny bit more, buuut I suppose there was a good reason, so I can let it slide =P

Overall, Shazam! is a genuinely funny romp through finding the true meaning of family, and back through childhood dreams of becoming a hero. All through the hilarious first act (and at the very end!), we the audience are also back in Billy’s shoes as children, longing for superpowers of our own. To see our wishes fulfilled through Asher Angel and Zachary Levi’s Billy Batson on the big screen is truly fun and heartwarming. I stated in my Aquaman review that it was DC’s best since Wonder Woman, and while nothing DC does can ever top Wonder Woman for me, I feel Shazam! was leaps and bounds above what Aquaman accomplished. Shazam! had more consistent characterization (despite my above nitpick), a main character you truly saw yourself reflected in, and overall, superior writing, a bit of a tighter plot, and a better time at the theater. I appreciate that the DCEU is letting lesser-known characters come out to play… if the rest of it (though I’ll settle for a spin-off series) could be Shazam Family Shenanigans, I would be very satisfied indeed ;D

After Justice League was yet another disappointment, I gave the DCEU three chances to redeem itself in my eyes. With Aquaman and Shazam!, it used two of those chances, the third being Wonder Woman 1984. I mean, I’ve never doubted WW84 would be good, but now I truly have hope for the rest of the DCEU going forward. Don’t screw it up, DC!!!

– Kathleen

Sandberg, David F. Shazam! 2019.

Kingdom Come

Kingdom Come
Waid, Mark & Alex Ross. Kingdom Come. 1996.

When IGN declared this story “One of the greatest comic book stories of all time” they were not far off the mark.

After I read Red Son and enjoyed it so much, this book was recommended to me by the manager at Graham Crackers, and he was spot on- I loved this book. The moralistic debate storyline and the artwork are top-notch, and holds up 20 years after first being published. The Eisner Awards that were given to Alex Ross were well deserved.

Set in the near future, the iconic superheroes have retired, giving rise to a new type of “hero,” some of whom are children of the original heroes, many of whom are selfish and are out only for themselves. They do not care for the destruction that occurs when they fight among themselves (Marvel’s Civil War seems to borrow from this plot point in the beginning of their book) as they are lacking personal responsibility.  We are introduced to Norman McCay, a pastor who is the story’s POV narrator and is shepherded around by The Spectre, The Agent of God’s Wrath. The two are privy to events, as an impending apocalyptic event looms.

Superman is in seclusion, after the death of his wife Lois Lane, but Wonder Woman visits him to ask that he reenter society to help ward off further catastrophic events, after a huge swath of America is ruined after two warring superhumans fight. The two reform the Justice League, with many heroes such as The Green Lantern, The Flash, Power Woman, and Red Robin joining them in solidarity. Superman approaches Batman, but is angrily rejected by him. Many other of the superhumans refuse to join with Superman so he reluctantly sends them to prison, nicknamed The Gulag, to reeducate them. Although the Justice League tries their best to help the world, their methods are not entirely successful and suspicions and resentment build in different factions.

Lex Luthor and his evil cohorts band together to form the Mankind Liberation Front, in which humans would regain control, just for Lex to control them in turn. Batman aligns with this group, along with a motley group of second-generation superhumans. Lex’s secret weapon, Captain Marvel, comes out of hiding with his alter ego, Billy Batson, completely brainwashed by Lex. The group stirs dissent in the public, and when disaster looms in the too full Gulag, the true intentions of Batman come to light.

Wonder Woman, who has been pushing for a more militant stance due to her Amazonian heritage, leads the Justice League to the prison to quell the riot. As the rioters emerge, an epic battle ensues. Captain Marvel appears and seems to be outfighting Superman. Can Superman appeal to him, and what will happen among the fighting factions?

The relationships between The Holy Trinity of the DC heroes- Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman- are perfect. Although I have not seen the newest Batman Vs. Superman movie, I am aware that there was criticism about how the guiding principals of the two heroes were changed.  This book stays true to each character’s back story, so kudos to Mark Waid for his familiarity with the history of all the superheroes!  As such, the Epilogue was a perfect ending. After my frustration with how clueless Superman was in Red Son about Wonder Woman, I thought this book ended the story in a wonderful way. The three heroes will remain united.

The artwork is photorealism in style and painted in gouache. This opaque watercolor dries to a matte finish so combining the painting, drawing and other graphic media such as Photoshop produced a unique look. I thought throughout the book that some of the heroes and public looked so realistic that models must have been used, and in the Apocrypha section, my suspicions were confirmed, with a list of who the artist based his drawing off, with the bystander, Norman McCay based off Ross’s own father. The heroes were all aged realistically, and not caricatures of themselves; the greying, lines and weight added was naturalistic. The layout was fun, with splash pages and varied spread panels utilized. Ross’s original idea for this story and his artistry are what made this novel superb.

I so needed a cheat sheet to help me with the many, many characters. As I am not typically a DC fan, I was not familiar with many of the supporting, second-generation superheroes. This Wikipedia page helped me sort out everybody and how they were connected to one another. Sometimes clues in the panels helped me figure out connections, but for example, this site cleared up some confusion to me in regards to three family relationships of Batman. An added bonus in identification was at the end of the book there were several pages that identified every character with a picture and a brief description.

Final asides: When this graphic novel was published, Shazam was still called Captain Marvel, but due to there being a Captain Marvel in the Marvel universe this hero is now known only as Shazam to avoid misunderstandings and lawsuits, with the name officially changing in the New 52 run. I felt the meeting between Orion and Superman didn’t fit in with the narrative (it was not included in the first issue). If Diana is ageless why did her fellow Amazonian sister Donna Troy age? Speaking of Donna, loved the pic of her and Diana reuniting on page 77. In fact I thought Diana looked like Lynda Carter in that panel and Green Lantern/Jade looked like Linda Hamilton of Terminator fame. I shipped on Green Arrow and Black Canary, now mature with a daughter. I’m sure I’ll think up more things, and type in a few edits later 😉

I feel I have not done justice to this book, it demands a second & third read through with more time spent examining the pictures. I am very glad I dipped into DC books with this & Red Son!

-Nancy

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