During the early days of World War II, there was another conflict going on in America that divided our nation’s youth. I was a kid during those early 1940s, and as I remember it, you pretty much had to come forward…declaring yourself in support of one side or the other. You were either a Superman comic book kid or you were in the camp of Captain Marvel. There were few, if any, crossovers. I always believed that in this battle I was in the minority. It seemed to me that everyone liked Superman and only I related to the other guy.
The reasons for my choice were solid. Superman was always invincible… never really in jeopardy… even when he put on glasses, and a double-breasted suit and called himself Clark Kent. Underneath that suit and tie, Superman was wearing his tights and was still Superman while my guy was different. Captain Marvel only existed when summoned by a 14-year-old crippled newsboy named Billy Batson. Billy was vulnerable, very human, and all alone in the world… until he shouted out the word SHAZAM…and magically became the indestructible, invincible, Captain Marvel.
It is easy to see how things could get hairy for young Batson. Some bad guy might observe the transformation, then lie in wait for the kid, grab him and gag him before he could say anything… let alone “Shazam.” Now there you have something… a hero who was vulnerable. Something bad could happen… unless Billy could figure out some way to get rid of that gag and say the mystical and magical word…SHAZAM.
And what did that all mean? Shazam was an acronym. Whomever was given the gift…and the comic book had a very elaborate explanation of just how it was that Billy came to be chosen… by saying “Shazam” he would instantly be the embodiment of the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the spirit of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.
And then… it all ended. I grew up, and Captain Marvel disappeared…not just from my life, but from everyone’s life… Billy Batson and his alter ego became the victim(s) of a protracted lawsuit where the verdict handed down came from none other than the fabled Judge, Learned Hand. Coincidentally, along about this time, the popularity of the comic book in the US waned, ultimately to have a resurgence and a bigger than ever comeback for the superheroes, but not for my favorite….
Captain Marvel, once the most popular comic book superhero in the land (who knew? I thought it was just me) was consigned to the inkwell of history while Superman hit the top of the charts… not just in comic book land, but in Hollywood as well.
The success of Superman in the movies was so great it opened new doors for other comic heroes to go Hollywood, even rescuing Batman, the caped crusader, from the dung heap of a farcical (but popular) television series (remember? “Same bat time/same bat channel”). Batman, it should be pointed out,is not exactly a superhero… he is, one must remember, only human. Athleticism and unlimited funds for all kinds of transportation and weaponry enabled him to do his fabulous feats.
I confess to not keeping up with all the semi-recent additions such as Iron Man (also human and extraordinarily rich), Captain America (kinda human), Thor (don’t ask), the Hulk, and other humanoids such as Ant Man, Spider Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Wonder Woman, Wasp. The list goes on, but what is interesting is that the movies featuring these characters have come to dominate Hollywood. These superhero action films are called Tent-Pole movies in the trade because they are the tent pole that holds up the tent that is the entire studio. One after another… these creatures come on screen individually and together to make up the highest grossing pictures in the history of the motion picture industry. Still, no Captain Marvel, that is until….2019. Captain Marvel is finally reborn and….
It’s a girl!
I had to see this. I mean, as the guy behind Cagney & Lacey, I have certain creds in this arena. And y’know what? It is a good movie. Brie Larson is terrific in the title role, the how she got her magical powers contrivance is (as those things go) credible… one thing, though: it ain’t Captain Marvel. No Billy Batson, and (most importantly) no SHAZAM.
It seems this female Marvel movie is a result of a re-settlement of the lawsuit of the 1950s (Judge Hand, remember?). Somehow… in exchange for the rights to use the title Captain Marvel on this movie, the rights holders of the original Captain Marvel are given permission to make a film with the original elements, including Billy Batson… and… wait for it: SHAZAM.
There is a slight problem: with Ms Larson now Captain Marvel, a new title is needed. Guess what? They call the new movie… Shazam! A tip of the cap to us old folks who just might remember. Works for me.
The film comes out and I see the billboards… oops, looks like they made it into a comedy. Disappointed and a bit turned off I do not go, but down deep I really want to see what they did (or did not do) to my childhood hero. By the time I get a free evening, the film has left the theatres. I do have Apple TV but how do you tell your spouse, “let’s not watch The Crown tonight, sweetheart, how ‘bout viewing this pre-teen fantasy of mine?”
You cannot do that so you wait… bide your time til one night she says she is on a deadline for the captioning of the photos for her memoir and needs to go to another part of the house, and would I mind watching TV without her? I try not to break into my happy dance as I search for the film, finding it at last on the I-Tunes Movie platform where I could rent it for chump change for up to something like 30 days.
I settle into my chair and the movie begins…. I am two minutes into the film when my wife appears, “Whatcha watching?” I turn off the movie as if I got caught viewing a porn flick. It seems she has decided to wait to finish those captions until sometime in the future.
“Want to watch The Crown?” she asks.
Days go by… I am still within my month-long rental range… and I have had time to reflect a bit about this latest incarnation of Captain Marvel. I begin to imagine it in terms of the problems faced by the creators of the movie. Not so much production values, cost overruns, and casting, but the early creative decisions that will affect the entire movie.
There have been so many of these superhero movies… so many Superman films… what could they do to make this incarnation of Captain Marvel unique and pleasurable to an audience? At first, I had trouble making the adjustment from my memory… my own dream… to their movie. It was not camp… not exactly… and certainly not at all the kitsch thing that 20th Century Fox did with Batman on TV all those years ago. Still, Shazam! did have a sense of humor… as much about itself as anything else. And what I first thought was a too fey superhero (understandable in that caped crusaders and their costumes are a big part of any drag parade… also I remembered when my wife played Debbie Novotny in Queer as Folk, the guy who played her gay son owed a comic book store, while Sunshine, his talented friend, created and drew a superhero worshipped by the gay community).
Turns out, this is not what they were doing. In almost an homage to the Tom Hanks movie, Big, the creators (it seemed) speculated what would happen if a 14-year-old kid could turn into a superhero just by saying “Shazam” … would all of him change, or would he still be 14 inside that grown up super body? I never thought of that in 1943 when I was six, but… well… it is not altogether a bad idea.
For me, the movie gets a bit dreary where all of these superhero movies do…. too much wham, bam, crazy fights and over the top action sequences… that all just sorta goes with the territory. But where it is that this movie succeeds for me is in those thoughtful and semi subtle decisions that were made about setting, character, and relationships with the rest of the family of dramatis personae in the film.
I am not going to recommend it to you all, because I have no real good idea just who is reading this stuff. But if there is still a youngster inside anyone out there with access to Apple TV, who wonders what became of their favorite superhero… on a night when their spouse is engaged in a longish Zoom session…. I’m just sayin’… you could do a lot worse.
…And y’know, it’s sort of fun getting back in touch with that kid.
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Superman was my superhero. Actually, it was Clark Kent, Superman disguised as a mild mannered reporter. Imagine, eyeglasses, and a suit and hat, was enough to fool his closest friends. I accepted that. We all did. Superheroes stretch our imagination and give us hope. And now, especially now, we all need a Superhero or two, no matter his or her race, age, or super abilities, to suddenly appear and save our day. Dena Stewart