There’s a running gag throughout the movie Shazam! that revolves around the title character trying to figure out just what his superhero name should be. Captain Sparkle-fingers is a strong contender for first place. For old-school comic book nerds, it’s a fun nod to the character’s history. You see, as all good fanboys (and girls) know, Shazam (as he’s now known) first appeared in 1939 under the name Captain Marvel, where he quickly became the most popular hero of his time, outselling even Superman himself.
Unfortunately, long after the character was forced into retirement in the 1950s due to legal reasons, some guy you may have heard of by the name of Stan Lee eagerly snapped up the Captain Marvel moniker and copyrighted it for one of his own creations. That left our titular hero with something of an identity crisis when he later returned to publication. So yeah, the character’s in-movie name troubles are a fun Easter egg for comic fans in the know. However, those who have never followed comics need not worry about being left out, because if there’s one thing the movie Shazam! has plenty of for everybody, it’s fun.
Of course, fun has always been at the very core of Captain Mar … um, Shazam! After all, this is the story of a 14-year-old orphan named Billy Batson who is transported from a subway train to the Rock of Eternity by an ancient wizard who promises the lad super powers (eat your heart out, Harry Potter). All Billy has to do is say the wizard’s name and, shazam (yes, this is where that exclamation originated), magic lightning transforms Billy into the world’s mightiest mortal. Is it any wonder kids immediately loved this concept so much? There’s no training for years to wear a bat-suit, no need to be an alien from a dying planet; just say the word and zap, instant super-hero.
Well, sort of. The thing is, Billy may turn into a six-foot tall adult who is as strong as Superman and as fast as the Flash, but inside he’s still just a young, confused boy. That means there’s something of a learning curve for the new hero on the block, both in terms of how to use his amazing powers, and in finding out just what it means to be a true hero instead of a costumed jerk. The former is handled through a hilarious sequence in which Billy and his foster brother Freddy check for various abilities such as flight and invulnerability to fire. The latter, alas, can only be gained from experience.
Part of said experience comes through Billy’s obsession with locating his birth mother and the subsequent difficulties this causes in his ability to accept the people in his foster home as his actual family. These parts of the narrative never reach the sturm-und-drang level of someone like Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker, but they do provide a nice emotional underpinning to what is otherwise a purposely goofy movie.
The rest of Billy’s on-the-job training comes through his interactions with the movie’s villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. As it turns out, Billy was not the first child tested by the wizard Shazam. As a boy, Sivana was among those given the same opportunity, but his heart didn’t prove pure enough to withstand the temptations of The Seven Deadly Sins. Yes, those Seven Deadly Sins. Rejected by the wizard as unworthy, Sivana spends the rest of his life searching for a way back to the Rock of Eternity so he can claim the power the Sins promised him.
Now look, most superhero stories exhibit some religious undertones, but Shazam! wears them right on its spandex sleeves. As the wizard explains, Billy’s various powers are funneled to him through a host of heavenly beings including Solomon (wisdom), Hercules (strength), Atlas (stamina), Zeus (power), Achilles (courage), and Mercury (speed). Using these virtues granted from on high, Billy must combat a man possessed by the actual Seven Deadly Sins. Heck, the demons themselves eventually manifest physically to slug it out with our hero. The whole premise is pure homily fodder.
But most of all, it’s just fun. Taking elements of Tom Hank’s Big (which the film gleefully acknowledges) and grafting them onto a simple coming-of-age story of good versus evil, Shazam! is probably the most kid friendly superhero movie to show up in a while. Even its most violent moments are tempered with laughs. So, no matter what they’re calling him these days (Shazam, Captain Marvel, whatever), the Big Red Cheese is a good time at the movies.