Spurious lightning and stars.

A Tale of Two Captains

The history of the comics industry, with all its twists and turns, contains fewer stories more convoluted than that of Captain Marvel. A plethora of characters have held that title across multiple publishers, and there’s no way to tell the tale in a straightforward fashion. There’s even an extension to the Captain Marvel story that ropes in a British copy called Marvelman, comics’ greatest writer, and a slew of hard-fought court cases.

Given all of this complication, there must be some cosmic synchronicity at work in two versions of this storied character having their movie debut within a month of each other, in the form of Marvel/Disney’s Captain Marvel and DC/Warner’s Shazam! It might be a little spurious to compare the two movies, but it might also be a little fun and tell us something about the seemingly bloated state of the superhero movie genre right now.

Besides, when has being spurious ever stopped this blog before?

Releasing second of the two, Shazam! is the story of the original Big Red Cheese, a successful competitor to Superman during the 1940s, who dwindled into obscurity as a result of a copyright lawsuit from DC Comics and changing fashions in the industry. As a result, the character never changed with the times and even in his new movie feels like a throwback to a more innocent age: a young boy granted superhuman powers by a mysterious wizard, facing off against an evil scientist. For all that its setting is modern, this is a determinedly nostalgic film, harking back to a cinematic era before today’s grimdark seriousness and violence.

In contrast, Marvel’s Captain Marvel has a period setting but is determinedly modern in feel. Marvel grabbed the rights to the character name when DC (who bought out the original Captain Marvel’s publisher) let the trademark lapse. Having a character named after their own company made sense, but experiments with multiple versions of the character over the decades generated limited success. Only in recent years did a female version of the character, Carol Danvers, grab the audience’s attention, and she’s the one featured here, giving Marvel a long overdue female-led film.

Shazam!, with its kid-friendly cast and message of finding your place in finding a family, might be expected to be the less mature of the two, but it’s also far darker in places, with several gruesome scenes that smaller children might have problems with. That jars with the generally lighter tone, which sees Zachary Levi play the adult (and never definitively titled) superheroic alter ego of teenage orphan Billy Batson. Levi portrays a boy stuck in the body of an (adult) god with plenty of joie de vivre, and he’s not found wanting when the film faces off against Batson’s feelings of abandonment and loneliness either.

Captain Marvel has its own tonal issues. As with Levi, it has a solid and engaging lead in Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, who has likewise found herself in possession of superhuman powers. Danvers’ struggle to find her place as her past is exposed as a lie is the driving through line of the film, but as with most of Marvel’s offerings, the drama is leavened with plenty of laughs. Here those laughs come mostly through Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury—a younger, less cynical version of a character familiar from other Marvel movies, who is revealed to be a surprisingly ardent fan of cats. Jackson is evidently having lots of fun playing this version of a character he’s well known for, but his mugging sometimes upsets the tone of the film rather than providing moments of relief from the drama.

We should probably also talk about the 1990s, since they’re a big thing in both movies. Shazam!‘s plot draws heavily from Tom Hanks’ 1988 film Big (something that the movie cheekily references during a fight scene), and it often feels like a throwback to that era of filmmaking. With its focus on family, relatively contained scope, and (largely) child-friendly approach to action and adventure, it could easily have come out in that era, if with somewhat less impressive special effects than its mid-range budget can now generate. Sometimes it can feel a little too pedestrian in its framing and editing, but even that helps to create the notion of a film out of time, something that will probably aid its longevity.

Captain Marvel is, as hinted at above, actually set in the 1990s and acts as a prequel to most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Despite that, it’s a thoroughly modern action film, firmly in the established Marvel mould, and most of its nods towards the movies and music of that era are window dressing only. This is not a bad thing—if Marvel movies adhere to a formula, it’s been an astonishingly successful one—but one misses the days of the earliest movies in that universe, when Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor all felt quite different, or when Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrated that there was a whole universe of comic book source material out there to be explored.

Both films, ultimately, have been deserved successes. Captain Marvel has already surpassed a billion dollars at the box office, and Shazam! has comfortably made back its budget in its first week on release. This may be because they’re both a little different to what came before. In Shazam!‘s case, its kid-friendly, colourful approach contrasts with the previous grim tone of the DC Cinematic Universe (which sees plenty of references), and unlike the similarly colourful but overstuffed Aquaman, it works on a character-based level that will resonate with fans both young and old.

As for Captain Marvel, some critics have found it underwhelming in terms of its plot, with the lack of a massive battle to win at the end. Which somewhat misses the point. This isn’t a standard hero’s journey, with power to be gained in order to overcome a foe. This is a more internal journey, in which the central character learns that she’s not beholden to anyone else for the power she already has, and that bowing to their desire to put her in her place has only held her back. Like Shazam!, with its foregrounding of finding yourself in finding a family, Captain Marvel never loses sight of what its story is all about, and that strength of writing is perhaps the best thing about both films.

Two captains, divided by history, arriving on the big screen within weeks of each other and demonstrating that this era of superhero films still has room to grow. Nice to see.

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