Where’s Walter Lawson, Monica Rambeau, and Carol Danvers?
“Chosen from among all others by the immortal Elders—Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, Mercury—Billy Batson and his mentor travel the highways and byways of the land on a never ending mission: To right wrongs, to develop understanding, and to seek justice for all! In time of dire need, young Billy has been granted the power by the immortals to summon awesome forces at the utterance of a single word, ‘Shazam!’ a word which transforms him, in a flash, into the mightiest of mortal beings, Captain Marvel.”
Here’s a relic of the 1970s if there ever was one. A live action series from Filmation, Shazam! aired on Saturday mornings starting in 1974, and it is very much a product of its time. The clothes, hair, vehicles, and colloquialisms all mark this as mid-’70s. Every episode of the series, spanning two seasons, is on this three-disc set from Warner Archive.
Through circumstances never fully explained, six ancient gods, called “Elders,” have chosen young Billy Batson (Michael Grey) to have the powers of Earth’s mightiest mortal, Captain Marvel (played in the first season by Jackson Bostwick, and John Davey in the second). With his mentor, appropriately named “Mentor,” (Les Tremayne, North by Northwest) Billy travels across the country helping others in need. During a crisis, he can transform into Captain Marvel by uttering “Shazam!”
Typical episode: Billy and Mentor engage in tedious comic relief banter when this weird-ass computer thing on their motor home’s dashboard starts beeping, a sign that the Elders want to talk. Billy sounds like an idiot as he chants, “Oh Elders, fleet and strong and wise, appear before my seeking eyes.” This transports him to some sort of cave, where the elders, appearing in (barely) animated form, offers Billy some ambiguous words of advice. From there, Billy and Mentor meet the kid-in-crisis of the week, some local podunk who’s made a bad decision or who merely needs some advice. Billy tries to help, and realizes how the elders’ advice applies. Some sort of danger occurs, such as a car without its brakes or someone’s leg trapped under a fallen log. Billy says “Shazam,” transforms into Captain Marvel in a flash of lightning, and saves the day. Everyone learns a valuable lesson, and roll credits.
Remember those “Knowing is half the battle” PSAs that used to run at the end of old G.I. Joe cartoons? If you took one of those and stretched it into an entire episode, you’d end up with this show. It’s all about promoting simple family values and moral messages. One two-part episode introduces a villain in the form of a bottom-feeding drug dealer, but Captain Marvel mostly performs simple rescues rather than fight any evildoers. Watching this show when I was a kid, it was frustrating that Captain Marvel spent all his time in backroads campgrounds instead of cities, and that he was teaching kids to resist peer pressure instead of fighting giant robots. Revisiting the show on these DVDs, reasons for this are clear. One, the show had a budget of about 40 bucks per episode, and two, the creators’ intent is to emphasize the morals, not the superhero action.
Will today’s kids enjoy this show? If they dug the blockbuster thrills of Marvel’s The Avengers, then I’m going to say no. Kids will likely find this show stodgy and cheesy, mostly because it is stodgy and cheesy. There’s no shortage of unintentional comedy to be found, from Billy’s exclamations of “Holy Moley!” to the ridiculous animation on the elders, to the hilariously wooden acting by the weekly guest stars, to the special effects of Captain Marvel flying, which look the exact same effects that made George Reeves fly as Superman a good twenty years earlier, and so on.
No one’s going to call this acting great, but at least it’s enthusiastic. Billy is eager to learn and do the right thing, Mentor is kindly and warm, and Captain Marvel manages to be stoic and authoritative despite running around in red and yellow tights. The reasons why they switched actors to play Captain Marvel vary depending on which scandalous internet rumor you read, but both play the character pretty much the same way. As for the various young guest stars in any given episode, the kindest way I can describe their acting is…flat.
Let’s called a lightning-powered spade a lightning-powered spade here. This being a Warner Archive release, the target audience is not kids, but grown-up nostalgia fans who remember watching the show back in the day. How the show will stack up to your childhood memories, I cannot say. When I was a kid, I thought Shazam! was hokey, and after rewatching it this week, I still think it’s hokey.
Picture and audio are mediocre, with occasional short trips into terrible. As usual with these Warner Archive discs, what we lose in tech specs we gain in being able to own these relics at all. Warner Archive even adds a bonus feature this time around a chance to view episodes with or without the additional “moral” segments. These are little 30-second spots in which Captain Marvel talks to the audience and repeats the moral of the week, just in case you didn’t get the point from the episode itself.
Shazam! is best enjoyed as a time capsule, and not as a superhero epic. If nostalgia is what you’re after, give it a shot.
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