Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews, Grace Fulton
Director: David F. Sandberg
Runtime: 132 minutes
Release Date: 5th April 2019
Matt C: The original Captain Marvel finally makes his debut on the big screen, albeit under his modern designation, the result of various legal issues with Marvel Comics over the years. At one point, early after his inception in the 1940s, he was outselling Superman and, while the character has been in publication on and off ever since, he's never quite reclaimed his popularity in the same way his superpowered peers have, although not for lack of trying. In 2011, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank relaunched the character in DC Comic's 'New 52' initiative, jettisoning the name Captain Marvel completely (leaving it for Carol Danvers to claim), but extending the cast of secondary characters, and it's that series this film draws heavily from. Like the comic, it skews towards a younger audience, but has a darker edge alongside its abundance of charm and wit.
The core concept captures one of the central tenets of the superhero paradigm, underlining its enduring appeal to the young and the young at heart: uttering a magic word that can transform you into a hero capable of flight and punching out bad guys with super-strength. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster kid who's been bounced around the system, issues of abandonment fuelling his perpetual desire to cut loose and run, never feeling like he fits, believing he can get by on his own. The wizard Shazam picks him either due to foresight or desperation, as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) - a rejected contender - seeks to unleash dark forces on the world. This may sound somewhat dour and portentous but it's exactly the opposite thanks to a script that knows how to balance serious with fun, a director that has an eye for wonder as well as realism, and some delightful performances from the core cast.
Zachary Levi shines as the title character, fully embracing the opportunity to do the boy in an adult's body thing (yes, there is a nod to Big), and the way Billy matures through different eyes, as he gains a new perspective on the world, is as touching as it is effective. Levi has a a great dynamic with Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Freddie Freeman, a young boy who's both thrilled and exasperated with the way Billy handles his transformation. By extension, the chemistry between Angel and Grazer feels truthful thanks to the way each young actor iinhabits his respective role, and this feeds through to the rest of the younger cast members, allowing the film to become an ensemble of sorts as it reaches its third act. Strong is clearly having a ball playing a supervillain (again!), although there seems to be more potential for him to take Sivana further than there was with Sinestro in the misjudged Green Lantern (where he was the standout by far).
Director David F. Sandberg takes his experience from horror flicks Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation and invests Shazam! with an '80s Amblin sensibility, where scaring kids whilst entertaining them was part of the formula. It may be lightweight in comparison to some offerings in the genre but it's a far more appealing direction for the DCEU to be headed in, worlds away from the relentlessly grim Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Sandberg understands there's a need to go dark in this sort of fare, but not at the expense of dismissing the material's four-colour roots, where outlandish costumes and physics-defying feats of strength and agility by their very nature have 'fun' written in their DNA.
It's perhaps a little longer than it needs to be, and the big emotional scenes don't always reach as deeply they could have, but it successfully sells the idea that family isn't just defined by blood, it's what we choose to make it. It deviates from the Johns/Frank text by having only the briefest hint of archnemeis Black Adam, but even though it's not doing anything we haven't seen before, there's an undeniable enjoyment in seeing these particular characters together that makes the notion of a sequel a most welcome proposition, regardless of whether Dwayne Johnson's ready to pitch in and suit up or not. 7/10