It’s amazing to look back from our current superhero renaissance and remember a time when they weren’t the thundering engines driving pop culture. They didn’t get any blockbuster movies back then; they were lucky to have a few lunchboxes and the occasional crappy Saturday morning show. That’s where we find Shazam!, a relic from another era so hopelessly outclassed by today’s costumed wonders that it actually comes across as rather charming. That’s not the same as good, of course, but it certainly provides its share of fun. Hit the jump for my full review.
Shazam! came out of Filmation studios, the same cut-rate animation house that produced He-Man and Fat Albert among other kiddie staples. This was their one of their first forays into live action, bringing DC’s Superman clone Captain Marvel to life. They had no money and were furthered hampered by the standards of children’s television at the time, which reduced all heroes to one-dimensional nice guys. (That was a double blow against Captain Marvel, whom DC had acquired as part of a copyright infringement suit and who basically acted as the guy who out-niced Superman.) They also had to use the character’s catch phrase as the title, because Marvel had their own Captain Marvel and held the rights to the name.
Those obstacles make their presence known at every episode… and that’s actually part of what makes it enjoyable.
It also managed to keep the core elements of the character intact. Okay, there’s no wizard Shazam to train young Billy Batson (Michael Gray) in the art of superpower-dom, but that’s a minor point. Instead, he gets a six-pack of immortals whose names form an acronym of Shazam (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury). They show up in stunningly bad animated form to give live-action Billy advice before setting him loose on the adventure du jour. When not standing awkwardly in front of his badly painted benefactors, he cruises around in a Winnebago with an old man named Mentor (Les Tremayne, and yes, really) searching for wrongs to right. By calling out the magic name, he transforms into Captain Marvel (initially Jackson Bostwick and later John Davey): ready to beat up bad guys, thwart natural disasters and teach kids important lessons about eating their vegetables.
I’m snickering, of course, and there’s a lot to snicker about. The writers attach a simplistic moral lesson to each episode, then pound it into our skulls with a sledgehammer. (One show features an anti-Semite getting his comeuppance via random cougar attack.) The cringe-worthy dialogue is delivered in the earnest monotone of community theater, while the stories depend on ridiculous notions that test even the youthful target audience’s credulity. If all that weren’t kitsch enough, the sight of forty-something Davey in red spandex – complete with beer gut and inappropriate bulge – is enough to send the drinking games into overdrive. (We won’t even start with the flying scenes: Christopher Reeve made it look so easy…)
But as with so many other types of high camp, those qualities form a big part of the appeal. We can laugh up our sleeves at its bargain-basement production values, and marvel at how something so shoddy could ever find its way to the screen. But at the same time, its awkward rhythm becomes endearing after a while. You start to smile in spite of yourself, and those of a certain age may find themselves reminiscing on the wide-eyed innocence of their youth. Parents looking for a nostalgic kick can enjoy it with their kids, chuckling at its silliness without disrupting the wee ones’ enjoyment. And as ham-fisted as they can be, the moral platitudes still speak to an era when kids’ TV held a sense of responsibility to its viewers. (“Look both ways before crossing the street” beats “buy my toy” any day.)
It’s almost a shame that the DVD set comes as part of Warner’s Archives collection, which means it offers no extra features at all. An interview or two from cast and crew, or insight into the production history (perhaps explaining why Bostwick was replaced midway through) would improve the throwback factor even more. As it stands, however, it’s a respectful package, with all 28 episodes included and even announcements for commercial breaks in the appropriate spots. We’ve come a long way from the likes of Shazam! and that’s definitely a good thing. But in our brave new world of grown-up blockbusters like Christopher Nolan’s, it’s nice to remember that superheroes started out as kids’ stuff. Shazam! makes for an enjoyable trip down memory lane… because of its flaws, not in spite of them.