Warner Bros. officially announced their full DC superhero movie slate through 2020, and, as expected, Shazam is a prominent inclusion. And with good reason. This is a character who once surpassed Superman in popularity, and the basic wish-fulfillment elements that make up his origin are timeless.
This may be hard to believe, but there hasn’t been a Shazam story told on the big screen since 1940. That’s right, a character who has been around almost as long as Superman and Batman, and who beat both of them to the screen with Republic Pictures’ The Adventures of Captain Marvel (which is not only a standout among movie serials but is actually one of the finest superhero movies ever made, but that’s an argument for another article), hasn’t been seen in theaters in almost 75 years. He hasn’t even been seen on TV (in live-action, at least) in over thirty.
That’s about to change in a big way. A Shazam movie (DC and WB, for rather obvious multimedia reasons, will no longer call him Captain Marvel) is in active development at Warner Bros. and will be distributed through New Line Cinema. Darren Lemke is writing the screenplay, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will play the villainous Black Adam. Warner Bros. have now announced Shazam will open in 2019.
So why should you care about an old-fashioned magical superhero fighting what is essentially an evil version of himself? Read on…
Captain Marvel first appeared in Whiz Comics #2 in 1939, just one in what would become a seemingly endless parade of characters trying to duplicate the success of Superman. The secret to Captain Marvel’s eventual overtaking of Superman as the ultimate superhero of the Golden Age was the absolute simplicity of the concept. Billy Batson is a boy (between the ages of 10-15, depending on which era of the character’s history we’re looking at) who says one magic word that transforms him into the World’s Mightiest Mortal, wielding the power of six mythological figures: The wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. What does that spell?
For the sake of everyone’s sanity, we’ll refer to him as Shazam for the rest of this article, but know this: for most of his existence, the character was Captain Marvel, something which only became complicated when DC Comics took over the publishing rights and Marvel Comics found themselves in ascendancy, and publishing their own (very different) character named Captain Marvel. Why did this happen?
Keep in mind that during his heyday, Captain Marvel was more popular than Superman. So much more popular than Superman that DC Comics (then known as National Periodical Publications), annoyed that they were getting whupped by what was an improved version of their own formula, decided to sue the pants off of the folks putting out the Shazam books for copyright infringement and get him off the stands. This is a character with a publication history as rich as Batman or Superman (for more on that history, check out this great article at CBR, written by our own Marc Buxton), and it’s about damn time he gets to shine. The transition from Captain Marvel to Shazam makes sense in this oversimplified context, yet irks longtime fans (like this writer), but that’s all you need to know for now.
It’s this idea of perfect wish-fulfillment that rocketed Shazam to comic book superstardom. Powered by creator C.C. Beck, Shazam adventures rarely dealt with mundane criminal acts, but rather the Captain (and his ever-expanding family of Marvels, not to mention a talking tiger named Tawky Tawny) dealt with the bizarre, often magical schemes of baddies like cackling mad scientist Thaddeus Bodog Sivana (and his nasty kids), Mr. Mind (a caterpillar) and his Monster Society of Evil, and ultimately, his own predecessor, a nasty fella by the name of…
Just as young Billy Batson was chosen to wield the power of Shazam, so was an ancient Egyptian prince named Teth-Adam, thousands of years ago. The difference is, Teth-Adam allowed the power to corrupt him, and he was ultimately banished to another realm. Eventually he returned, none too thrilled to learn that he’d been replaced. This was just another typically perfect short superhero story when it first appeared in 1945’s The Marvel Family #1, but there was more in store for Black Adam once he was revived decades later.
In recent years, Black Adam has made the transition from out and out supervillain to a more complex anti-hero, becoming ruler of the fictional Middle Eastern nation of Kahndaq, and even joining the Justice Society for a period. It’s more than likely that the version of Black Adam that makes it to the screen here will reflect these more modern takes on the character.
Dwayne Johnson has been quite vocal about not only his desire to play Black Adam, but about why he thinks the character is so vital. “A complex psychology, motivated by a badass dominance with a devlish charm. This’ll be fun,” he tweeted. There’s no doubt that he’s perfect for the role, with New Line President Toby Emmerich saying, “You look at these comic book characters and they have this certain swag and charisma that Dwayne carries with him wherever he is so that’s why this always made sense.”
This does raise an interesting question, though. With a star as high-profile and charismatic as Dwayne Johnson playing the “anti-hero” (a word that Johnson has continually repeated while discussing this role), how can the more traditionally heroic Shazam hope to compete? Is it remotely possible that the Shazam movie is going to focus more heavily on Black Adam than his red-suited counterpart? It’s unlikely. We imagine we’ll see the two team up against some common enemy (Dr. Sivana seems like a reasonable choice), but this is purely speculation.
Why Should You Care?
There’s another magic word to consider: contrast. Marvel Studios have been enjoying their current run of success in no small part because of their balance of humor with serious superheroics and adventure. Warner Bros., on the other hand, have been all business with their recent superhero movie offerings, from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy to Zack Snyder’s recent Man of Steel. The title and early promotional images for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice don’t give any indication that’s going to change anytime soon. Shazam is another story, though.
Despite rumors of a “no jokes” policy regarding DC Comics superhero movies at Warner Bros. (something which sounds kind of unenforcable to us), the idea of doing a “serious” Shazam movie just doesn’t line up. Luckily, New Line’s Toby Emmerich sees it the same way, promising that the film will have “a sense of fun,” and that “Shazam will have a tone unto itself…the feeling of the movie will be different from the other range of comic book movies.” I wouldn’t be surprised if this means something that takes the recognizable real world of the DC and Marvel films, but adds just enough magical whimsy (something which has yet to be explored by either studio) to buoy the story.
Come to think of it, a tone similar to Warner Bros. recent mega-franchise, the Harry Potter films, might be exactly what the wizard ordered. If you look at Shazam screenwriter Darren Lemke’s other credits (Turbo, Jack the Giant Slayer, the forthcoming Goosebumps movie), you can see that they chose someone who can do a mix of family-friendly humor and high adventure.
What Else do You Need to Know?
Don’t expect Shazam (or Black Adam) to show up in the Justice League movie. There are a number of practical reasons for this, including the tight shooting schedule of both Batman v. Superman and Justice League, which will release within 18 months of each other. While it looks like the Shazam release date is going to be April 5th 2019, sandwiched between two Justice League movies, it’s dififcult to imagine this movie playing too heavily in that sandbox. That doesn’t mean they won’t take place in the same universe, but it’s unlikely we’ll see crossovers any time soon.
No director has been announced, and there has been no word on casting Billy Batson/Shazam just yet. Warner Bros. and New Line have been trying to bring Shazam to the screen for the last fifteen years, with one particularly notable script written by William Goldman (who wrote little movies like All The President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Princess Bride), back in 2004, and more recent attempts made by writers like John August and the team of Bill Birch and Geoff Johns. They all stalled for any number of reasons, which I will detail in a future article.
But this time, it looks like they’re determined to say the magic word.