So, in this past week I have seen both Captain Marvel and Shazam! Hence the title there. If you know your comic history, you know that the heroic protagonist of Shazam! takes on the name Captain Marvel, a deliberate choice by his creator’s to stick it to Marvel comics at the time. There’s a lot more history with that which went bouncing back and forth, but there are comic historians who’ve delved into that particular legal and trademark battle and produced write-ups for you to read with a little Google-fu, so I won’t go into that here.
No, instead, I’m going to drop my thoughts about both Marvel movies. One film #21 in Marvel’s massive and magnificent Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, the other the newest entry in DC’s own attempts to mimic Marvel with a DC Cinematic Universe. Which was good? Were either? Were both great? Well … let’s talk about. And I’ll start with the more controversial Captain Marvel first.
All right, I’m going to get this out of the way first: Captain Marvel is both good and fun.
I lead with this because, as I mentioned above, the film has seen some controversy arise around it, mostly owing to some bad marketing (more on that in a bit) and some confrontational statements from the film’s lead actress. Both these attracted a lot of attention from media and otherwise, and essentially drew a monumental amount of focus to the fact that the main character is, if you couldn’t tell, a woman.
Yeah, you can probably fill in the blanks on your own. Various groups piled on, praising or decrying the movie around that one central fact, and well … yeah. Controversy. There were people who went into this film solely judging in on how much it did for feminism or putting down the patriarchy or whatever other nonsense fixation they currently had, and well … none of that has anything to do with the movie itself.
Almost. If I’m honest, there are definitely a few “girl power” moments in the film. And while some of them feel organic and work (Captain Marvel’s moment of shared exclamation with her best friend about fighting to be the best pilots they can be is one of them) there are others were it does feel forced, like the choice of “Girl fight” as a background song for the first bit of the final battle. That one got groans from the audience, and not just in my showing. It’s just … too on the nose. Like if the finale of the first Captain America movie had played the goofy showtune from his stage performance as a reprise during his final fight with the Red Skull. It was just too much, like a director walking onto the screen and winking.
Thankfully, that’s a minor gripe, and shy of two large ones I’ll get to in a moment, that’s all I had with the film that was negative. Captain Marvel is fun. I had a good time. I genuinely want to know what Vers past was when she started to realize that, spoiler alert, she might be from Earth. I wanted to know where her powers came from (and I won’t spoil that here, but I did say “Oooooh,” aloud when that was revealed, and it made sense in-context of what the MCU has done before.
Is it the strongest MCU movie? Well … no. Black Panther was better. But it’s very easily a MCU movie, and one of the good ones.
Okay, so what were the two big problems? Well, the first was the advertising. Whoever made the decision they made for the advertising needs to be fired. Why?
They showed the final battle in the trailers. Not just the final fight, but Captain Marvel winning.
That is a huge no-no, and completely undercut any sense of struggle out of the film, as well as sucked the wind out of a number of its fight sequences. Why? Because I’d already seen the big finale. I already knew she was going to win that fight and awaken some newer, bigger power, because the freaking trailers gave it away.
Now, I have heard that the trailers did this to highlight the “it’s a woman” aspect of the movie. Regardless of the reasoning, be that true or false, that advertising team needs to be fired. This was like trailers for Infinity War showing Thanos beat down Stark, snap, and then most of the MCU dying.
What’s the point if I as an audience member already know that there’s a victory without struggle at the end? It sucks, but having seen those trailers, a lot of the wind and guesswork that would have otherwise been better just kind of fell flat.
Don’t show the finale in your trailers, Marvel. You’re better than this. Fire whatever idiot made that decision. It was a horrible one.
So, the other issue? Well, it’s kind of minor and major at the same time: Captain Marvel’s character-writing is … off.
This wasn’t a problem with the actress. In fact, she did a good job with what she was given, I feel. But the script she had to follow? Well …
Okay, minor spoiler here: Captain Marvel, or Vers, has amnesia. Naturally, this means a good chunk of the plot is her discovering who she was and trying to make sense of that with who she is now, while figuring out who she can be. All while trying to determine who is lying to her, who is telling the truth, etc about her past.
There are certain emotions that go into that sort of thing. Anger, denial, fear, sadness … the works.
Captain Marvel doesn’t display any of them. And when she does, they’re out of order.
Again, this isn’t the fault of the actress. When she displays an emotion, she does. The problem is the writing: those emotions are out of sync.
There is, spoiler warning, a scene where Vers is sitting across a table from someone who was once her best friend, explaining to Vers who she was and how it’s like she’s back from the dead. And the writing gives all the cues for anger, frustration … any sort of emotion at all. Except … there’s none from our protagonist. At all. She’s like a robot. And then when those emotions do come up later, they’re out of sync with what you’d expect.
It’s … disjointed is the best term for it. And I’m not sure how it happened. It could be that the writers forgot one of the most basic rules of character and refused to let their protag show any weakness … or it could just have been that they’re not really that in touch with how people act and react to that kind of scenario, but either way it left parts of the film feeling disjointed. At the worst, they made the protagonist seem callous and unlikable.
However, while these are weaknesses, they’re not enough to drag the movie down to, say, Iron Man 2 or Thor levels of the MCU. It’s still a solid movie. Just with some missteps. I am interested to see how the Russo Brothers handle Marvel’s character in Endgame, seeing as their writing so far for the MCU has been on-point.
Is it as bad or amazing as some people have loudly shouted? No. It’s in the middle. It’s a Marvel film!
Fury had the best line, though. I won’t spoil it.
So then, how does that stack up to—
Honestly, it probably depends on how much investment you have in the MCU. For me, Captain Marvel is, flaws aside, an important part of the overarching MCU, and so I’d see it even if it were Iron Man 2. If you’re an MCU fan, you should see Captain Marvel.
But you should also see Shazam! And honestly, as fun as Captain Marvel was … Shazam! is better.
I know. A DC film better than its MCU counterpart? What universe is this? One with a Dora the Explorer live action film that actually looks fun?
Well … yes! You wouldn’t think it but … The setup, premise, and costume are right out of the Silver Age of comics, where everything is goofy. And Shazam!?
It owns that goofiness, embraces it, plays is straight, flips back to goofy, and manages to have a great, inspiring message wrapped up in it. It’s clever, it’s funny, it has kid actors that are great in their roles, like Stranger Things, and actually feel like kids. Which gets even more important when the actor playing the kid-turned-adult superhero Billy Batson also nails being a kid playing at being an adult.
That’s skilled acting folks.
And that’s where Shazam! is the better movie, even if only by a hair and by not making the missteps Captain Marvel made (like having the end in the trailers; no fears of that here!). Shazam!‘s characters nail their emotions and their beats perfectly. They feel like kids being kids, even when one of them is magically an adult (a wizard did it. Yes, a wizard. It’s every bit as funny and hilarious as it sounds).
Better yet, however, the film uses these characters to blend together a story that, if not groundbreaking, delivers its territory by hitting the right beats at the right time to produce a satisfying result and theme that keeps you rolling right with it.
And it’s daring. “A wizard did it.” I’m not joking. And yet Shazam! manages to hit the sweet spot of laughing at its own self while still being just serious enough that you want to see how its going to turn out, want to see how it ends.
Then it still manages to bring in some great ideas on top of that, like how simply having superpowers isn’t an immediate solution to every problem (though they can be fun). Not stated, but simply … approached and tackled by the characters.
Now, I’m not saying it’s perfect. Personally the fights, when they did occur, felt a little lacking at times, with some odd camera angles here and there. But at the same time, it’s a 14-year old kid in an adult’s body trying to be a superhero in these fights, and it’s nailed. In fact, I keep mentioning that because everything about it was that spot on. It’s funny and heartwarming all at once.
Oh, and the heartwarming? Shazam! manages to wrap a couple of good themes into its story, but they’re not messages. They’re themes. And the characters don’t address them openly at the audience either. In fact, a few themes are only evident from the external viewing point of what the characters are discovering for themselves, never spoken.
That is good storytelling. Wrapped up with a lot of heart, a lot of laughs, and some talented actors young and old.
So, that said, which is the winner? Well, as odd as it may seem to say as a big fan of the MCU … Shazam! wins by a good amount. There’s just a lot of genuine heart to it, with subtle ideas and concepts the characters get to explore mixed with a lot of laughs and spot-on acting. If you have kids, I’d recommend Shazam! hands-down over Captain Marvel.
I mean, like I said, Captain Marvel isn’t bad. It’s good. Just not great.
And Shazam!, meanwhile, is great, and I had fun at both, Shazan! would be the one of the two I’d see again.