Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wonder Wednesday 11-10-10 Superman/Shazam!

Yesterday saw the release of Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam, the latest direct-to-DVD animated feature by DC Universe. The story is a modern reinterpretation of Captain Marvel's origin. For two video clips, go here.Debuting in 1940, published by Fawcett Comics, Captain Marvel smashed onto the super hero scene following the introduction of DC Comics' Superman and Batman in 1938 and 39 respectively. Yes, Captain Marvel was originally published by a different company than the DC Super Heroes. Power-wise, he hewed closely to Superman, super strength and invulnerability, speed and flight. But Captain Marvel was different in a lot of ways. Created by C.C. Beck, in his secret identity, Captain Marvel was actually a CHILD, ten year-old Billy Batson, an orphaned newspaper seller!The pure-of-heart Billy is selected by an ancient wizard to serve as his champion, given the powers of ancient gods. In order to transform from Billy into Captain Marvel, (and back) Billy only needs to shout the acronym of the names of these gods, Solomon (wisdom), Hercules (strength), Atlas (stamina), Zeus (power), Achilles (courage) and Mercury (speed), "SHAZAM!" (Shazam, coincidentally is also the ancient wizard's name.)Fawcett scored massively with their Captain Marvel stories, which were much lighter, more whimsical and comedic than the rest of the super hero comics on stands at the time. Kids were enchanted by the wish fulfillment of being able to transform into a super powered adult!How whimsical? One of Captain Marvel's supporting cast members was a tiger, Mr. Tawky Tawny, who spoke, walked upright and wore snappy suits!
So successful was the series that Captain Marvel leaped onto the big screen in an excellently produced movie serial, widely considered the finest of the comic book adaptations of the time. The film, however eschewed the whimsy and light-heartedness of the comics. In fact, Billy in the movie is much older and the storyline is more violent and action oriented. Fawcett soon turned Captain Marvel into a franchise, introducing Billy's long-lost twin sister, Mary, who quickly realizes that she too can gain super powers and becomes Mary Marvel. Mary Marvel proved an instant smash with young girls, who like the boys with Captain Marvel, were thrilled with the prospect of gaining super powers and adventuring! And unlike the bulk of female super heroes, Mary's persona and stories were much sweeter and girlie. Like her brother, Mary's transformation is activated by her utterance of the name "Shazam!" however in her case, the letters stand for the names of female deities. (Except one, Zephyrus... guess there weren't any goddesses whose names started with Z.)
In order to save the life of a young boy, Freddie Freeman, Billy passes along some of his powers, allowing him to become the blue-suited Captain Marvel Jr. Freddie's transformation is activated when he says the name of his idol, "Captain Marvel!" Making him the only super hero who can't say his own name without losing his powers. Billy's WC Fields-inspired Uncle Dudley often accompanied the kids on adventures in a matching red suit, calling himself Uncle Marvel, however he did not actually posses super powers. Appearing less frequently were the Lieutenant Marvels, three other boys who all also happened to be named Billy Batson! They shared Captain Marvel's powers to act as Fat Marvel, Tall Marvel and Hill (short for Hillbilly) Marvel!
And just for good measure, Fawcett published Hoppy The Marvel Bunny, a funny animal version of the Shazam franchise. Hoppy's adventures however were self contained and didn't actually impact the human characters' story lines.
DC Comics was all, "Aw heeeeeellllllll naw!" They sued Fawcett for copyright infringement, attesting that Captain Marvel was too similar to Superman. By this time, super hero comics were on their way out anyway, so Fawcett agreed to cease publication of its Marvel line.

Then in the early 60s, a publisher named Timely Comics decided to change its name to Marvel Comics and began its own line of super hero comics AND securing any and all comic book rights to the word "Marvel."
Then, in the 70s, DC bought the rights to the original Captain Marvel and his crew and wanted to publish a new book starring the characters. However, since Marvel Comics controlled the name Marvel, DC had to retitle their book Shazam! (With the subtitle "The ORIGINAL Captain Marvel" although I think eventually, Marvel made them stop using that line as well.)
DC licensed the Shazam concept with a live-action Saturday morning show which was a ratings smash and even led to a spin-off cartoon. The live-action show, like the movie serial of the 40s, once again aged Billy. The series was light in tone, but set in a more real world setting of the 70s, not the fanciful realm of the comics.Captain Marvel appeared on a bevy of licensed materials.
Most fondly remembered is the Mego doll, part of one of the most popular and fondly recalled toy lines of the 70s.

Captain Marvel's problem is that very few people realize his name IS Captain Marvel. Since Shazam! is the title that appears on all of his adaptations and licensed products, 99.99% of people think Shazam is his name, not the magic word that activates his powers!
That's his BIGGEST problem, but he's got quite a few others. For one thing, DC was right the first time around... he IS a lot like Superman, at least when it comes to powers. It's hard to figure out a reason why he is needed, when there's already a Superman (and Supergirl, Superboy, Krypto the Superdog, Powergirl...). Also, with his mythological origin, he hews closely to Wonder Woman as well!
Also, the whimsical, light-hearted nature of his original comics didn't particularly jibe with the politically charged post-Watergate/Woodstock/Vietnam era. And kids of the day no longer felt the need to fantasize about turning into an adult. They were capable of simply relating to characters that were always adults.
Creators and fans alike seem obsessed with Superman and Captain Marvel fighting each other. I can't even count the number of times those two have squared off!
Wow! I cannot believe that someone drew that image from that angle and saw nothing wrong with it!
At one point, in an effort to make the character more relevant, DC considered making him black and, in order to skirt the Marvel copyright issue, rename him Captain Thunder. The idea was scrapped for some reason.
So yeah... the animated feature. First off, it's not a full-length movie. It's only twenty+ minutes long. This irritated a lot of fans when they heard about it. It's being packaged with three previously released shorts that were included as bonus features on other DC animated releases. These shorts are, in my opinion, the FINEST comic book based animated features ever produced. The Spectre, set in late 1970s Los Angeles, plays like a sleazy cop movie from that era, with a bit of a Tales From The Crypt vibe. It's even shot very grainy and distorted like an old film that hasn't been given any care over the years. Jonah Hex is straight up spaghetti western. Everything seems sun bleached and washed out. Green Arrow is like Die Hard in an airport. It's the only one of the three that's a traditional super hero story, so it's not as unique and innovative as the other two, but it's still a lot of fun, plus it also features Black Canary, so ain't nuthin' wrong with that!
The main feature, shows the return of Black Adam, Shazam's first champion, originally empowered in ancient Egypt, who lost his humanity and dedicated his powers to conquering the world. Shazam banished him to a distant planet and it took him thousands of years to return to Earth. Somehow sensing that Billy (homeless and squatting in a filthy, rat-infested apartment) is his successor. Like in the original comics, Billy is unstoppably optimistic here, gladly giving the rats in his apartment food and helping a homeless man being mugged. Black Adam attacks Billy, who it just so happens is being interviewed by Clark Kent. Clark becomes Superman and attempts to save Billy, but quickly realizes that Black Adam's powers are magical, one of Superman's greatest weaknesses.

In the mayhem, Billy flees to the subway tunnel. On the way, the homeless man he helped earlier gives him a subway token. Billy is whisked to a magical chamber, in a scene that is faithful, but updated from the original, where Shazam grants him powers... but doesn't instruct him how to use them. So upon returning, Billy is almost killed before he shouts the wizard's name and changes. He then must experiment to find out exactly what his new powers are, before he teams with Superman to battle Black Adam.

Overall, the story works fine. It's faithful to the source but modernized. There is a lot of charm present and Black Adam is nicely defined and depicted. My biggest gripe and it's one I have with Justice League Unlimited as well, there is a LOT of collateral damage here. Fawcett City is nearly destroyed as the characters smash each other into building after statue after landmark. Someone like Superman should make an effort to move the battle away from where innocent bystanders could get crushed. Speaking of... where ARE the bystanders? Fawcett City seems like a ghost town! Not very realistic, considering how LARGE it appears. It should be teeming with people, but it's not. I think only like seven people appear to live there!

The origin of Captain Marvel is well done, but there's not much story beyond that. It's just a lot of fisticuffs. But overall, I mean it's fine for a short feature. It would have worked as an episode of a Superman cartoon series. So I'm content with it. It's at least a solid B+.

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