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Posts Tagged ‘Asher Angel’

I have seen it suggested that what Warner Brothers are currently engaged in with their DC Comics superhero movies is the cinematic equivalent of what I believe is called a fire sale: they’re offloading product which they don’t have a great deal of confidence in. I suppose some of these films are lucky to be coming out at all, given that the corporation cheerfully spent $90 million on a Batgirl movie which they then junked as some sort of tax wheeze.

Then again, this sort of thing is not entirely surprising where the DC movie franchise is concerned, for this has felt like a chaotic sort of undertaking for a long time – they have, in short, been all over the place since Joss Whedon and Zach Snyder ended up doing different parallel versions of the Justice League movie and they hired two different actors to play the Joker. The latest development is the hiring of James Gunn, whose previous DC-adjacent projects include The Suicide Squad and Brightburn: rumour has it he will be sacking most of the established actors and resetting the continuity. The whiff of confusion persists even now – no sooner had Henry Cavill come back for his cameo at the end of Black Adam than it was announced his services as Superman would no longer be required.

Where this leaves everyone connected to the Captain Marvel-related corner of the DC franchise I have absolutely no idea (the last time we discussed this topic I explained why there are compelling historical reasons for calling the guy in red and cream with the lightning bolt on his chest Captain Marvel, so there). The new movie here is Shazam! Fury of the Gods, directed as before by David F Sandberg. The first one came out four years ago and dates back to a point when DC actually seemed to have turned a corner and were routinely making non-sucky films – a sequel would usually be an opportunity to go bigger, more confidently. This sort of proves to be the case, though the results are not necessarily positive.

As things get underway, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) and his fellow fosterlings are spending their free time as mystically-empowered champions of justice – Billy’s heroic alter ego, who still hasn’t settled on a name for himself (suggestion: Captain Marvel), is played by Zachary Levi. They mean well, but still end up causing a significant amount of property damage, which naturally impacts on their popularity. The movie’s moral premise is also rather bluntly introduced at this point – Billy has abandonment issues, and is reluctant to give his family the freedom to be heroic in their own ways.

Soon enough they have bigger problems, as three ancient goddesses rock up looking to steal their divine powers and revive the ancient realm of the immortals. These are Hespera (Helen Mirren, 77, long skirt, fairly evil), Kalypso (Lucy Liu, 54, quite short skirt, extremely evil), and Anthea (Rachel Zegler, 21, very short skirt, only marginally evil). A big chunk of Philadelphia is soon sealed inside a magic dome, the family members start having their powers nicked, and there’s even a wooden dragon on the prowl…

And, you know, it’s a functional movie inasmuch as they spend the CGI budget wisely and it occasionally has some good jokes in it and ruptures your ear-drums quite effectively. Even so, you’re always aware you’re not exactly seeing anything groundbreakingly new, and what is here isn’t quite good or charming enough to make you overlook the fact it’s just a slab of corporate product. Unlike the original movie or Black Adam (its closest cousin), it’s a pretty big and unwieldy beast – there are a total of six major and assistant heroes, most of whom are played by two actors (Grace Caroline Currey plays both Mary Marvel and her human incarnation, presumably because both characters fill the hot young female supporting character niche), three villains, the foster parents and the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to be wrangled, so it’s not surprising the plot feels a bit discursive in places. Nor is it really surprising that the moral premise of the movie gets largely forgotten about, but the relative lack of screen time for Asher Angel as Billy Batson is quite unexpected – although this helps keep the jarring difference between Angel’s quite down to earth performance and Levi’s extremely broad comic turn less noticable. Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Billy’s friend Freddy, is really in the film much more (which of course means that Adam Brody, who plays his alter ego Captain Marvel Junior, also doesn’t get much screen time).

Doing quite well in terms of prominence is Helen Mirren, who isn’t the kind of person you would expect to appear in this kind of film (then again, you could say the same about the Fast and Furious series, and she seems very happily ensconced there – there’s even an in-joke about this). Nearly thirty years ago many people were rather surprised when Nigel Hawthorne turned up in the Stallone headbanger Demolition Man; the explanation was that Hawthorne really wanted to lead the movie version of The Madness of George III, but would only be allowed to do so if he had some kind of proven track record in big Hollywood movies. Is there some fabulously good part that Mirren is gunning for which would explain her appearance in what’s really quite lowbrow fare? I’m not sure, but to be fair to her, Mirren slams various other performers through reinforced concrete with considerable aplomb.

I will be honest and admit I found myself wondering, partway through Fury of the Gods, if I was actually suffering from the fabled superhero movie fatigue. I think it’s more likely that this is just not a particularly interesting movie – it feels very much like the sort of thing that Marvel were doing five or six years ago, though maybe not quite as good – there is action, spectacle, knowing humour, some slightly contrived references to other films in the franchise, and a big cameo at one point, along with the now-obligatory mid- and post-credits scenes setting up future episodes. It’s a proven formula, but by now it feels a bit old-fashioned. And will any of the things this is setting up ever actually happen? I’m not sure anyone knows for sure at this point. The Shazam! films are amiably goofy enough, I suppose, but if this series does fall victim to the Great DC Reset I’m not sure anyone will really be that upset.

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Warning: I suspect we are about to go even further down the rabbit hole than is customary in these parts. Buckle up.

I have first-hand experience of the fact that you can be quite well-versed in your comics lore and still not really be fully cognizant of the sheer degree of obfuscation surrounding the superhero codename Captain Marvel: a colleague, who knows which SHIELD operatives have metahuman powers and who will happily discuss the provenance of the various Infinity Stones, turned out to be entirely unaware of the clutterbuck attached to this issue – then again, she is essentially a Marvel zombie, which may have something to do with it. The quick and easy version is that there are two versions of Captain Marvel in comic books, although this is really a significant simplification, given there are arguably nearly a dozen characters who have used this name at some time or other, to say nothing of related characters such as Marvelman (better known these days as Miracleman).

The original Captain Marvel first appeared in the early 1940s, boasting vast superhuman strength and resilience, the ability to fly, matchless courage, and so on: he went on to become the most popular superhero of the decade, comfortably outselling all his rivals, even DC Comics’ Superman (whom he was suspiciously similar to in some respects). However, just as Superman’s vulnerability is to Kryptonite, so Captain Marvel’s weakness is litigation – his publishers were sued by those of Superman on the grounds of plagiarism, and by the early 50s sales had declined to the point where contesting the issue wasn’t worth the legal fees. Captain Marvel vanished into comics limbo until DC Comics acquired the character decades later. By this point, of course, the word ‘Marvel’ had acquired a certain resonance in the world of comic books, with Stan Lee’s company trademarking the name and creating their own Captain Marvel character (one iteration of which is, at the time of writing, being played by Brie Larson in Marvel Studios’ blockbuster meta-franchise).

The upshot of this is that while it was possible for DC to publish Captain Marvel stories, they couldn’t actually call the comic Captain Marvel. Apparently this is such a big deal in the world of comics that a few years ago they made the somewhat baffling decision to rename the character Shazam, despite his long (seven decade) history in comics and TV. I am, as longstanding readers may already have guessed, a bit of a stubborn old purist in matters of this sort: this guy’s name is Captain Marvel, no matter what the company may say, and to suggest anything else is silly and does him and his creators a disservice.

All of which brings us (probably not before time) to David F Sandberg’s Shazam!, which is by any rational metric the second Captain Marvel movie in as many months, and the latest entry in DC Comics’ line of superhero movies. The story concerns troubled, streetwise foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), whose essential decency finds himself summoned via an enchanted subway car to the mystic Rock of Eternity, where he encounters an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, whom the attentive will have noticed has done the superhero movie equivalent of winning the double, by appearing in both of this year’s Captain Marvel movies). All Billy has to do is say the wizard’s name to be transformed into his champion (Zachary Levi), a vastly powerful superhero known as…

Yeah, well, the awkwardness with which Shazam! tackles this point is undeniably a weakness in the film – Levi is billed as playing someone called Shazam, but he’s never addressed or referred to as such in the film. This itself is not that uncommon in the world of the modern, credible superhero movie – both Wonder Woman and the other Captain Marvel movie do the same – but it’s usually handled much more deftly than it is here. The¬†script even draws attention to the fact, by playing with the idea of giving him various other codenames such as the Red Cyclone and Captain Sparklefingers. (Shazam is surely a terrible idea as a codename, as it just means he’d never be able to tell anyone who he is. I’m just going to refer to him as (Captain Marvel) and let the writs fly as they may.) Anyway, there are less abstruse things to worry about, as a corrupted former candidate to become the wizard’s champion, Sivana (Mark Strong), is aware of (Captain Marvel)’s existence, and determined to steal his power…

It is, as has been noted, a crowded marketplace these days when it comes to superhero movies, and the main way that Shazam! makes itself distinctive is through functioning primarily as a comedy – partly as a spoof of superhero films in general, but also by playing on the comedic potential of the idea of (Captain Marvel) basically being a young teenager inside the body of a demi-god (it’s a bit like Big, but with superhero battles, something the film tacitly acknowledges at one point).

Now, this idea of the hero being a child in an adult body (perhaps they should have gone with the codename Boris Johnson Man) isn’t quite how Captain Marvel has traditionally been depicted in the comics – there, he’s really a child’s idea of the perfect hero, made incarnate. The problems with this are firstly that it makes him massively uncool, and secondly, that he becomes totally redundant in a comics universe which already contains Superman. Since being acquired by DC, Captain Marvel has only really been allowed to shine in situations where Superman is out of the way for some reason, or when the writers have required a character capable of fighting Superman to a standstill (which, given his effectively limitless physical prowess, he is quite capable of doing). So you can kind of understand why they have gone down this particular route in the movie.

Still, for all the entertainment value of scenes in which we see (Captain Marvel) knocking over ATMs to fund a trip to a lap-dancing club (as any teenage boy would do, I suppose), I have to admit that I still found myself harrumphing a bit, on the inside at least: probably because turning this kind of film into a comedy feels like the safe and easy route to go down. (I was one of many people quite relieved when plans to do Green Lantern as a comedy with Jack Black were abandoned in favour of a more traditional take on the character (also featuring Mark Strong, of course), but as this resulted in one of the most relentlessly-scorned films in the genre, I’m not sure what the takeaway value of that is.) The problem isn’t just that this is a superhero film with comedic elements, it’s that it can’t stop undermining even dramatic moments by inserting gag after gag, some of them slightly dubious (‘Touch my staff,’ the Wizard commands Billy at one point, which,¬† if it isn’t a misjudged double entendre, certainly sounds like it).

And yet, somehow, I have to say that the film’s energy and sense of fun is infectious and somehow irresistible, not least because it does work hard to include so many references to the classic Marvel family mythos: Mr Mind appears, there’s a reference to Tawky Tawny the tiger, Billy and his foster-siblings attend Fawcett Central school, and so on. The performances are also excellent: Mark Strong is quite as good as you’d expect in what could have been a fairly two-dimensional role, giving it real heft and presence (let’s go down the rabbit hole one last time and note that his father is played by John Glover, who also played Lex Luthor’s father for a number of years).

In the end, Shazam! does work as a piece of entertainment, although it is certainly its own thing. It gets close enough to the classic version of Captain Marvel to satisfy anyone with fond memories of the character, probably, while it also does enough to work as a comedic take on the superhero movie for audiences not that familiar with him. I’m not entirely sure how it manages this ticklish balancing act, but I suppose it qualifies as an achievement of sorts. This is a solid movie that continues the positive trend in DC’s cinematic output.

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