MARVELS OLD AND NEW
Last month, I discussed Marvel’s Captain Marvel. This month, I’m covering DC’s Shazam! (2019) and the vintage, 12-part serial Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941). That’s right, Marvel may own the copyright, but Fawcett Comics first used the moniker starting in 1939 until a long-running lawsuit brought about by DC, alleging the character was too close to Superman, left that Captain Marvel in limbo from 1953 until 1972 when, ironically, DC acquired the rights to him and other Fawcett characters. By then, Marvel had copyrighted the name, thus the DC hero’s metamorphic catchphrase “Shazam!” became his comic book title.
Regardless of this past history, let’s be serious: There is no way you can really do a super serious version of Shazam! on a big screen. The original Captain Marvel came from a different era and given the child-to-adult transformation of the original hero, this version of Shazam!—directed by David F. Sandberg and written by Henry Gayden from a story co-conceived by Darren Lemke—cleverly approaches Captain Marvel from the perspective of a teenager placed into an adult body rather than a boy turning into a full-fledged man. Essentially, it’s a comedic superhero movie done in the style of the Tom Hanks comedy Big. There’s even a reference to that film in this one when Captain Marvel and his enemy Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (the scenery chewing Mark Strong) traipse across a large keyboard at a toy store. (There is also a nod to Superman II at the end.)
What helps Shazam! click is how star Zachary Levi really plays the man-child card to the hilt, summoning his inner kid for sequences where Captain Marvel fakes macho adult bravado but underneath has no idea what he’s doing. In the original comic book, Billy Batson was an orphan—here he is a part of the foster home system which helps to ground him in a reality that is relatable for kids in similar situations. There is plenty of fighting, flying, and lightning bolts in this amiable adaptation of the long-running DC comics series, but themes of familial unity and finding your home also give the story some emotional weight. The actual magic on display here is part of the film’s magic, but the performances and self-aware sense of humor also make it a lot of fun for adults. Dr. Sivana even gets a decent backstory that clearly delineates his cruel motivations. And for those who have 4K TVs, the film really pops in terms of color and resolution.
On the flip side, the black and white Adventures of Captain Marvel takes an entirely different route. In the Kino Lorber reissue, liner notes author Matt Singer points out that using a child actor for some of the trickier action sequences in the nineteen-forties would have been unwise, therefore they decided to go with a Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan Jr.) in his mid-twenties. This 12-part story extends over three hours and begins with a Raiders of the Lost Ark scenario, in which American archaeologists plunder a tomb in Siam to steal away with a golden scorpion statue with four lenses that, when combined in different permutations, do everything from transmute rock into gold to even disintegrate people. The thieving team return to the States and separate out the different lenses so that no one person will have this tremendous power alone, but one among them has a secret identity as The Scorpion, who seeks the magical item for his own purposes and will kill anyone who gets in his way. Billy Batson must utilize his wits, and employ his alter ego’s brawn, to get to the bottom of the mystery before it’s too late.
This serial is nearly 80 years old and obviously dated. The plotting is hokey, the dialogue quaint, the racial and gender stereotypes groan-inducing, and the musical fanfare very much of its time. But aficionados of old school serials will enjoy the fairly brisk pacing and old fashioned cliffhangers. Amateur weightlifter turned actor Tom Tyler makes for an imposing and even sinister-looking Captain Marvel who is not as noble as Superman. In the debut episode, he machine guns three fleeing men in the back. Elsewhere, he threatens to impale a thug on a bed of nails if he does not talk. And at one point, after three criminals try to kill him, our hero flings one from the roof of a tall building and never looks back. I laughed out loud at that. If you want to see what a state of the art superhero experience was during WWII, during a time when some comics sold over a million copies monthly, check out Adventures Of Captain Marvel. Kino has lovingly restored it to Blu-ray from a 4K scan courtesy of the Paramount Pictures Archives, and numerous film historians including Leonard Maltin offer episode commentaries. For superhero and comic book history buffs, it’s worth a look.
RETRO RENTALS: RUNAWAY (1984) and THEY LIVE (1988)
Writer/director Michael Crichton always had a flair for high-tech thrillers, and Runaway was actually his sixth film as director on top of the numerous books that he wrote, many of which were adapted into films by other directors. Runaway is actually a pretty good eighties techno-thriller starring Tom Selleck (Magnum P.I., Blue Bloods) as a cop whose beat on the “runaway” squad is to wrangle malfunctioning domestic robots, while Gene Simmons plays the villainous foil working on technology to turn said robots into killing machines. He has also designed heat-seeking bullets that target specific people and is obviously going to sell his twisted tech to the highest bidder. While many eighties action movies have not aged well, Runaway still holds up. Yes, Jerry Goldsmith’s synth score sounds dated, the female characters deserve more action sequences and roles of authority, and the technology certainly looks old. But the characters are engaging, the story is fun, and Gene Simmons does a decent job as the creepy baddie in control of nasty robotic spiders. It is also interesting to note that the film takes place in an alternate version of 1984 in which robots were as much a part of our world as the then-burgeoning home computer revolution. Like 2001 before it, Runaway features predecessors to the iPad and Siri, and in this movie, drones. Crichton certainly was aware of where technology was going. The film has no Blu-ray available, but it is a free rental for Amazon Prime members.
Another eighties movie that makes for fun and thought-provoking viewing is John Carpenter’s They Live. While the director was known more for the horror genre, this sci-fi film also takes place in the eighties and showcases special sunglasses that allow the wearer to decode the subliminal messages that are being fed to human beings by our secret alien overlords, who also become visible in their hideous form when viewed through these lenses. (The messages include: “Consume.” “Obey and Conform.” “Stay Asleep.” “Marry and Reproduce.”)
After settling into a shantytown in Los Angeles, a wandering construction worker (wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) stumbles onto this insidious hierarchy and tries to convince his work mate (Keith David) of what is going on. Working with a limited budget and decent effects, Carpenter’s sharp satire sends up everything from consumerism to traditional notions of American life. It was a perfect statement to make during the Reagan eighties when the American Dream was dangled like a golden carrot in front of the masses while rich people pulled the strings. (Oh wait, that hasn’t changed.) One of the most memorable sequences in the film involves Piper literally pummeling David in an alley brawl to make him wear the glasses and see the truth, which resonates in our world of social media vitriol and political discord. If you really like They Live, Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray is loaded with great bonus features.
STRANGER THINGS 3 (2019)
It’s time for another season of Stranger Things, and once again the sinister realm of the Upside Down threatens to turn the small town of Hawkins, Indiana into a supernatural disaster area. While our protagonists, children and adults alike, seem calm after Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown) closed the gate to that other dimension, the sinister Mind Flayer has managed to grab a hold onto our realm again. Over the course of this season, it attempts to secretly convert citizens of Hawkins into pawns through the conduit of teen troublemaker Billy (Dacre Montgomery). Further, a paranoid political subplot involving Russians secretly working in America is tossed into the mix, making things even more over-the-top than ever before. These two major plots are quickly interlinked, and this time out many of our characters are divided into different groups a la The Empire Strikes Back.
What keeps the Duffer Brothers’ show from going off the rails this time are the intimate character moments, many involving the growing pains of being a teenager, interspersed amongst the crazy fantasy and sci-fi elements that help to define this retro eighties delight. There are a couple of characters that prove grating, including an overly spunky but smart kid named Erica (Priah Ferguson), along with a more edgy Chief Hopper (David Harbour) whose paternal instincts often become overbearing. There are also times that Joyce (Winona Ryder) is insufferable as well. Luckily, Cary Elwes enlivens things as the town’s sleazy mayor, the smaller character moments work really well, and the conclusion to the season is the most emotional finale of the entire series. The transitions that many of the characters go through come to a climax in the 67-minute final episode that does not leave everyone unscathed. While this is my least favorite season of the three, its combination of eighties mall nostalgia, character development, and teary finale make it enjoyable fare. There is no other show like it.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018)
Over the course of the last few months, both Marvel and DC have seriously been diving into the tween market. Between Shazam!, Captain Marvel, and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, it’s becoming clear that more of these stories are being tailored to kids in the single and double digit age range. Then again, with the slew of upcoming movies that Marvel has on their roster, they can easily stretch their audience reach.
In the Oscar-winning and second major animated feature for Marvel Studios, The Kingpin is experimenting with opening the door to other dimensions and timelines in order to find the wife and child who died in a tragic car accident in our world. But through his selfish actions, the embittered crime lord creates a rift that could undo the fabric of our reality. Into this mess comes the new Spider-Man, young Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) and the recently deceased Peter B. Parker (alive in another timeline), as well as Spider Gwen, Spider-Man Noir, Peter Porker the Spectacular Spider-Ham, and Peni Parker. It’s fun to see Spider people both male and female, representing everyone from vintage to anime Spidey, all assembled in one movie. We also get a female Doctor Octopus and Spanish-speaking Scorpion among the rogue gallery of nemeses.
I have to admit it took me a least a half an hour into the film before it began to charm me. Like some of the modern Marvel live action films, the breakneck action and repeated fight sequences get tiring. But underneath all of this chaos and carnage lies a story about a young man coming to terms with adulthood, coping with his relationship with his overprotective cop father, and learning what it really means to be a hero. It’s not like these are new themes, but co-writers Peter Lord and Rodney Rothman bring everything together in a hip, satisfying way, and they provide enough narrative pieces to allow everything to make sense to people not steeped in superhero mythology or logic. My one big complaint is elaborating more on the Kingpin’s back story would have added greater emotional depth to the film. The main difference between Shazam! and Spider-Verse is that the former embraces more of its childlike aspects while the latter represents a bigger transition. Both are valid and well done. Into the Spider-Verse certainly opens the door wide for more big screen Marvel animation.