The spring of 2019 was a big one for superhero movies. Though the season was ruled by the release of Avengers: Endgame, a span of four weeks between March and April saw big-screen adaptations of two different characters, from two different comic book publishers, who coincidentally shared a name: Captain Marvel.
How that happened is long, messy, and confusing. In just two sentences: In 1953, now-extinct publisher Fawcett Comics got sued by DC Comics and lost the copyright for the name of its most popular character, "Captain Marvel." In 1967, Marvel Comics seized on the availability and claimed the name for its own character, while DC resurrected the former Captain Marvel as "Shazam."
It was a cosmic coincidence that a span of one month in 2019 saw the release of both Captain Marvel from Marvel Studios and Shazam! from Warner Bros. Now, one of those movies is streaming on Disney+ and isn't going anywhere — but the other one, Shazam! is leaving March 1 on HBO Max. If you still haven't seen it in the nearly two years since its release, you absolutely have to watch before it leaves the streaming service. Here's why.
Directed by horror filmmaker David F. Sandberg, whose career began with the viral short Lights Out, Shazam! is both a return to the genre's gee-whiz roots and a pathfinder of territory where superhero movies have not gone ventured century.
In the movie, Asher Angel stars as Billy Batson, an orphan chosen by an ancient wizard to inherit his powers at the shout of his name, "Shazam." (Chuck alum Zachary Levi stars as Billy in his adult Shazam form.) This brings him into conflict with Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), a rejected candidate who uses his fortune — and demonic minions — to take the powers from Billy.
Tonally and stylistically a throwback to '80s Amblin movies like Gremlins and The Goonies, Shazam! happily eschews the same baroque 'n gritty aesthetic that defines the DC franchise and lovingly roasts the corniness baked into all superhero stories.
“This was a chance for me to tap into those movies I grew up with and made me fall in love with movies,” Sandberg told Inverse in a 2019 interview. “They have a lot of heart to them. They’re fun, they have drama and even a bit of horror. It felt like my chance to make something like that.”
And Sandberg did. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a habit of grounding itself in a façade of realism, Shazam! openly plays with the absurdity, and does so by being more honest. "More powerful than a locomotive," references Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy's foster brother and "mentor" in the ways of a superhero. "What are you? An old prospector?" replies Billy as Shazam. Continuing the classic Superman prologue with "Can leap tall buildings in a single bound," the two, well, test leaping buildings in a single bound. It goes hilariously sideways.
That's just one instance. Later, after saving a bus full of people from crashing and cheering that "I did it," Billy/Shazam comically shoos a cute pup who has inconveniently chosen to sit as Shazam's arm strength begins to give out. (My absolute favorite spoof: The hilarious acknowledgment that climactic superhero/supervillain speeches aren't always audible.)
It's not just that Shazam! knows how to make a winning joke. It's that it knows how to make winning jokes at the expense of practically every superhero cliche. But while Shazam! is brighter than the lightning bolt on Billy's chest, it is boldly unafraid to venture into emotionally dark territory in a way that resonates deeper than the DCEU's nihilism.
As an orphan, Billy's arc is the search for a family. He begins the movie searching for his birth mother, his imagination rampant with a warm, cozy reunion on the doorstep of a home. It never happens. When Billy does find his mother, she's cold, distant, and in the brutalist hallway of public housing. While Kal-El was sent to Earth by loving alien scientists and adopted by loving Kansas farmers, Billy was abandoned — abandoned — by an unprepared single mother. Shazam! is lighter than most superhero movies yet heavier than one could ever expect.
Still, that doesn't deter from the movie's cheer.
“At the core, it’s a holiday about family,” Sandberg said to us on the movie's Christmastime setting. “I felt it was so appropriate for this story. It’s the whole reason Billy is finding his family and what that family is coming together. I’m happy we got to do things like show foster parenting from the perspective of a very loving, functional home.”
Shazam! is streaming now on HBO Max until March 1.