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Saturday, March 23, 2019




Family Matters

"I think he's ungrateful," Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) says at family dinner when he's asked his opinion on Philadelphia's brand new, nameless superhero in red. The foster parents and the rest of the orphaned kids who live in their group home don't realize it, but Freddy is really talking about the new kid across the table from him, Billy Batson (Asher Angel). As the old-timey origin of Captain Marvel (no, not her) goes, Billy was brought by magic subway car to the Rock of Eternity, the source of all magic. The ancient Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), the last of the Council of Wizards, needed a champion to stop the Seven Deadly Sins, which were unleashed by the nefarious Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong). For 45  years, the Wizard tested dozens of people, looking for a pure soul who was worthy of inheriting 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 -- desperate, he settled for Billy Batson, a runaway who jacks police cars and steals their cheesesteaks. "SAY MY NAME!", the Wizard demands. Billy replies, reasonably, that he never told him his name. But when Billy does say "SHAZAM!", magic lightning transforms him into the World's Mightest Mortal (no one calls him that, but Freddy does call him a whole lot of much more terrible superhero codenames).

David F. Sandberg's Shazam! takes one of the oldest superheroes (and in the 1940s, the most popular) and brings him into 2019 with real wit, color, and... the magic ingredient, charm. In his perfect, muscular superhero form, Shazam (Zachary Levi) is still just a 14-year-old kid who wants what any kid wants: to not be responsible for anything. Showing off his awesome powers on demand, Shazam essentially turns into a street performer, Philly's local superhero always available for selfies (no Comic Con badge required). In Freddy, a fanboy who knows everything about Superman, Batman, and Aquaman, he has the ideal accomplice to train him, post videos on YouTube, and be his partner in crime - literally. Shazam and Freddy take advantage of his powers to short circuit devices with his lightning to steal from ATMs and buy themselves whatever they want. Soon, they want to upgrade to real estate and they start shopping for a lair... possibly a castle on a cliff overlooking the ocean... It all goes great until Billy bails on Freddy and doesn't stand up for him against the local bullies, which drives a wedge between them and raises the question of what Billy should be using Shazam's powers for.

I've only described, like, a third of this movie. There's a lot going on, but Sandberg juggles the superhero action and PG-13 coming of age comedy deftly, always keeping the momentum buzzing and the movie engaging. There's the evil Dr. Sivana, who is possessed by the Seven Deadly Sins and has powers similar to Shazam - but he wants what the kid has anyway. There's Billy's foster family in his rather inviting group home (not quite the shithole Sivana calls it): loving foster parents Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans), loquacious Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman), sullen Pedro Pena (Jovan Armand), genius hacker Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), and Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton), the caring, oldest, college-bound kid. All of them do their best to welcome Billy and they eventually catch on that he might somehow be that superhero guy on TV. Billy himself is searching for his real mother, who abandoned him at a carnival when he was four. And there's also the rest of the DCEU woven in the background, with constant shoutouts to Batman, Superman, and Aquaman. Shazam! is a masterclass in existing in a shared universe while constantly poking fun at that shared universe.

As Shazam, Levi is in full command of his offbeat charisma; he's fittingly heroic when it counts but otherwise, Levi deftly plays a 14-year-old who happens to be very tall, strong, fast, can fly, yet is constantly in over his head. Thankfully, Angel is also excellent as Billy, a kid who tries to be hard because life gave him a tough hand, but his cheerful innocence still shines through. Shazam! is actually an intriguing treatise on the nature of family; Sivana was scorned by his father (John Glover - Smallville's Lionel Luthor himself) and older brother since he was a child and takes brutal revenge on them. Meanwhile, Billy disregards the found family who wants him as he seeks the family who didn't, but he eventually learns that his greatest power is creating a super family. 

This leads to the movie's crowning touch, which is really no surprise to longtime fans of Captain Marvel (no, not her), but is no less satisfying to witness: The Marvel Family is in the movie. (I suppose they're now the Shazam Family for legal reasons, but it just doesn't have the same zing, you know?) When faced with the threat of Sivana and the Seven Deadly Sins, Billy realizes that even he's not enough on his own and he unlocks Shazam's ultimate ability in the movie's single best gag: when he calls for "all hands on deck", asks his foster family to lay hands on Shazam's magic staff, and asks them to "say my name", they all (naturally) yell, "BILLY!" But when they all actually say "SHAZAM!", Mary, Darla, Eugene, Pedro, and Freddy also become superheroes with the same powers as Billy, played by Adam Brody, D.J. Cortona, Meagan Goode, Michelle Borth, and Ross Butler. And somehow, the movie gets even hokier, with cornball, gee-willickers wisecracks and big, red (and blue and green) cheese from the Family as they fight the Sins and figure out their superpowers at the same time to save the world.

Shazam! satisfyingly succeeds by earnestly continuing the course-corrected, feel-good, fun style of the DCEU that began with Wonder Woman and was taken to new heights of profitability by Aquaman. In this inviting, new and improved DCEU, the lovable goofball Shazam fits right in, conjuring just the right amount of warmth, sizzle, some Harry Potter WB synergy, a little bit of Wonder, a little bit of Aqua, a little bit of Super, and a little bit of Bat. With Shazam!, Sandberg has just the right magic touch and reminds us that a strong man isn't strongest alone, he's strongest when he's with his Family.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Captain Marvel



Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's Captain Marvel is fine. But, while watching it, I was reminded of the scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (the best Marvel Studios movie - fight me) when Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) walked through the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian. He looked at the events of his own life, sanitized, enhanced for maximum heroic impact, but he frowned in displeasure. This is my experience of watching Captain Marvel,  the 21st Marvel Studios film and the first with a female lead superhero. That would be Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), or Vers as she's known to the Kree, and she soars higher, further, faster than any Marvel hero before or after. But in her movie, Captain Marvel is already living her own Smithsonian exhibit, sanitized and enhanced for maximum heroic impact while leaving the interesting stuff - the human stuff - in the dust.

Who are you, Vers? I'm not the only one who wants to know. The most telling exchange in the whole movie is when Nicholas J. Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., or Fury as he's known to his mom, asked Vers what she wants. Vers answers she wants to stop the Skrulls from finding the Lightspeed Engine invented by her mentor Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) - who is secretly a Kree crusader named Mar-Vell. "No," Fury reiterates, "What do you want?" Vers doesn't say. Because Vers doesn't know what she wants - as a person, as a living breathing human being - and neither does the movie. Vers is Brie Larson "in a rubber suit", smirking, acting smug, cracking wise, being cool, blasting Skrulls and Kree with photon blasts from her hands, and that's great. But is she a person? What are her hopes? Her dreams? Her fears? Her foibles? Who are you, Carol? When Captain Marvel is over, I was still waiting to hear the answers.

Vers is essentially perfect. Oh, her best friend and fellow fighter jock Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) says she was a pain in the ass growing up, but we don't really see it. Like Vers, we see flashes of her life growing up - her dad was angry and abusive, she was mocked in basic training - and it's like a museum exhibit. But how does Vers feel about any of it? Can't say. What Vers does think for most of the movie is that she is a Kree warrior-hero, possessed of incredible superpowers her supervisor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) claims the Kree gave her. They also gave her an inhibitor chip on her neck that holds her true potential back, but she doesn't seem to mind it. Vers is part of Starforce, an elite Kree unit that hunts down the shapeshifting Skrulls they are at war with. And Vers' only real problem is amnesia; most of the movie is Vers back on Earth discovering she's actually a human named Carol Danvers. 

But here's the thing: Vers starts out the movie awesome; she's a superpowered badass a cut above the rest of the Kree. Then on Earth, Vers discovers who she was in her previous life before she "died" 6 years prior, and she essentially finds out she was awesome before she had powers. Then, in the third act, Vers gets rid of the inhibitor chip and levels up: she becomes 1000x even more powerful and more awesome. And if that isn't the most boring movie arc you've ever heard of, then you and Vers must be besties. Much of the fun of Wonder Woman was seeing immortal demigoddess Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) as a fish-out-of-water in 1918 London and Belgium. Wonder Woman is also a perfect being, but Diana was also a charmingly naive soul who learns something about herself and about humanity in the end, and loses the first man she ever loved, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Captain Marvel does its own fish-out-of-water story - Vers exploring 1995 Los Angeles - except this fish is just fine on land because she's actually from the land! Her reaction to the people, places, styles, and music of 1995 is no reaction.

What sets Marvel apart from their competitors is Marvel creates imperfect heroes who struggle with their flaws and try to rise above them (see, Stark, Tony, Quill, Peter, Odinson, Thor, Parker, Peter and so on). With Captain Marvel, Marvel breaks their own mold and creates a superhero who's all powers and no problems she can't energy blast away. The Kree and the Skrulls were already no match for her before she leveled up. By the end, Vers is juggling Kree nuclear missiles and swatting their starships away with ease to save planet C-53. (A neat thing in Captain Marvel is all the planets are described by their Kree designations and "Earth" is never said.) Meanwhile, Vers doesn't express any love for anyone, any hopes, dreams, fears, or doubts. She just goes about her business being a warrior-hero.

In Captain Marvel, Vers is never in peril - ever. Even when she's captured and mind probed by the Skrulls, she easily escapes and overpowers the shapeshifters. On C-53, no Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (including Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson in a fun walk on), Skrull, or even the Starforce can touch her in a fight - her final battle with her former Kree buddies is even played for "laughs" with No Doubt's "Just a Girl" accompanying Vers comedically beating down the Starforce with ease. Her final confrontation with Yon-Rogg - he was the real villain all along, what a shock! - is also a joke where she quickly energy blasts him like he's nothing. Anyone looking for a story about Captain Marvel pushed to her limits, plunged into genuine danger, facing insurmountable odds, making a mistake and trying to rectify it, and somehow finding the hero inside her and rising above it all best look on some other planet. 

As a prequel, Captain Marvel does its Marvel admin and introduces the Terreract/Space Stone and a younger Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) in a walk-on. It has Goose the Cat, which is really an ill-defined alien called a Flerkin (which is supposed to be Carol's cat in the comics but Fury falls for it and Carol barely has interest to even look in the cat's direction). But Captain Marvel also does the same kind of stuff Solo: A Star Wars Story was rightfully mocked for: not only do we learn how Fury lost his left eye but did we really need to know how Fury decided to name his future superhero team the "Avengers" and that they were named for Carol Danvers' callsign? That's the equivalent of how Han got the last name Solo. Captain Marvel also contains an interesting twist that the Skrulls are not a malevolent race bent on universal conquest but a scattered group of refugees being exterminated by the Kree and seeking an asylum planet of their own. This explains where Captain Marvel has been since 1995: she was "a couple of galaxies" away helping move her cockney-accented Skrull pals, including Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), to another planet far from the Kree.

What is a Skrull? Captain Marvel defines the Skrulls as an alien race able to "sim" (i.e. replicate) another life form right down to its DNA. It's a perfect simulation, but it's still not the real thing. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to report that the real Skrull all along in Captain Marvel is the movie itself, which has attractive and talented movie stars, action, humor, special effects - everything that simulates a movie except for the vital things a movie needs to have: dramatic tension, stakes, a main character with vulnerability and impossible odds to overcome, humanity, and a beating heart. Captain Marvel is pure, calculated Marvel product going through all of the proven formulaic motions but with no blood (neither red nor blue) in its veins.

Now, it's undoubtably empowering for girls and women to see Captain Marvel at maximum swagger assert her overwhelming superpowers and become untouchable, and that's wonderful and important. But I sincerely hope as they feel properly empowered, the Carol Corps also someday learns what a movie actually is and what a movie is supposed to do, and that it's okay for Marvel's most powerful superheroine to have flaws and be human - that's what makes her and her movie interesting. Maybe Thanos will bring out the hero in Captain Marvel and show us that she's more than her colorful suit and her shiny superpowers. We know Captain Marvel can kick ass - maybe, as she leads the MCU into the future, she can find the time to be a person too.