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The World’s Mightiest Movie

Shazam! (or the original Captain Marvel, as has been discussed ad nauseum all around the Internet, including many times here in these pages) has, for as long as I can remember, been one of my all-time favorite comic-book characters. One of my earliest memories is my dad telling me about the Shazam! comics he bought as a kid back in the 1940s, tales of Captain Marvel battling Mr. Mind, a terrible villain who turned out to be a tiny worm wearing glasses.

When I was five years old, my Easter basket contained not one but two Shazam! figures, both offerings from the toy company Mego, which ruled the toy shelves at the time.

While I grew up reading the “From the 30s to the 70s” hardcover collections of Superman and Batman, the Shazam! edition was exceedingly rare, and I only got to occasionally read it when I could convince my local library to have it transferred over from another county.

Many years later at university, when I found out that a sister UC school had a copy, I had it transferred over and painstakingly Xeroxed the whole book by hand – in those days before scanners or eBay, it was the only way to guarantee I’d ever see it again.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying: I love Shazam, especially the original comics from the ’40s and ’50s. I love everything about it. I love the silliness, the fun. I love how it could turn on a dime from scary action-adventure to fairy-tale whimsy. One minute Captain Nazi is crippling Freddy Freeman with an oar, the next minute Captain Marvel is walking down the street with his friend Mr. Tawny, a talking tiger wearing a sport blazer and borsolino hat. It’s everything great about comics, occasionally outlandish, bright and colorful and grounded in real heart. And I never thought a movie could really capture all the craziness that makes Shazam comics great.

And then I saw David Sandberg’s Shazam!, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t pull it off.

This isn’t going to be much of a traditional review, because so much of what I loved about this movie miraculously never made its way to the trailer or commercials, and if you’ve yet to see this, you really need to go in uninformed and let this movie win you over.

But what I will say is that this is just about the most straight-up pure fun superhero movie I’ve seen in years, and yet there’s a genuine emotionality to it that totally works. Zachary Levi as Captain Marvel (even though he’s never called that in the film) is note-perfect, and he brings all the joy and enthusiasm the character needs, as well as the resolve and bravado in the face of real danger (once he learns a lesson or two, that is). And Levi just looks great in the suit. I can’t imagine anyone else making it work. Mark Strong is great as a much-rethought version of the villainous Dr. Sivana, and I have to admit I’m surprised how much I liked it. So many elements of the Shazam! mythology, old and new, find their way into this picture (with much credit going to the screenplay by Henry Gayden), and even the newer stuff from the comics I don’t have as much affection for, like Billy Batson’s foster family, works like absolute gangbusters here – I like the scenes with Billy’s foster parents and brothers and sisters just as much as the superhero derring-do.  And much credit has to go to Asher Angel, whose Billy Batson comes across just right: slightly sullen street kid with a heart of gold.

Shazam! is a superhero movie that’s not ashamed of what it is, and is willing to have fun with it. It pays tribute to everything that’s made the character popular for the last eighty years, with the right amount of wish-fulfillment for kids, as well as a few genuine scares here and there to keep their parents on their toes. There’s so much more I want to talk about here, but I’m not going to be the one to ruin it for you. Go see it already. Trust me.

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