MOVIE REVIEW: "Superman/Shazam! The Return of Black Adam" (2010)

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

The title of this DVD is misleading because instead of primarily being a Superman-Shazam teamup, it's actually a collection of four DC showcase animated shorts about Captain Marvel, The Spectre, Green Arrow, and Jonah Hex. These mini-features show 2nd-tier DC characters in their own adventures, an interesting idea that DC will hopefully show us more of.

Showcase is an old DC anthology comic that launched the careers of a number of characters, including the Challengers of the Unknown, the Doom Patrol, and the Flash. DC has recently been releasing animated movies that resurrect the old anthology comic idea. I think this is an excellent idea, which allows DC to make use of the endless characters in its vaults. One of the things I liked about the recent animated series Justice League Unlimited and The Brave and the Bold is all the obscure characters that crop up in the episodes.

The first 18-minute short combines the origin of Captain Marvell with the return of Black Adam, his archenemy ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Adam ). Early in the episode we see the life of the impoverished young teenage orphan Billy Batson, who will become Captain Marvell, but is now an ordinary youth living alone in a falling apart apartment. He’s such a nice guy he even feeds the rats in his apartment complex. When he sees three punks robbing a homeless man he tries to help him, even though he’s only a kid and gets slapped to the ground for his trouble. The homeless man calls Billy "the Captain" because he's always trying to do the right thing.

It turns out that Billy is having breakfast that morning with Clark Kent, who is writing a story about homeless and hungry kids.

Black Adam, who has the same magical powers as Captain Marvell, is Billy’s moral opposite. In his first appearance he slams into the earth like a meteor and with complete indifference kills two innocent teenagers. Black Adam attacks Billy and Clark, but Billy at this point doesn’t know that he is destined to become Captain Marvel. Black Adam tells him you are marked by the wizard's energy, but before Black Adam can kill Billy and eliminate the person destined to become his rival, Clark Kent distracts him.

It’s an awfully lucky coincidence that Billy is having breakfast with Superman’s secret identity at the exact second that Black Adam attacked unless the wizard Shazam magically arranged for Superman and Billy to be together, and that’s hard to believe because the wizard admits later that he thought it would take Black Adam longer to return to Earth and attack. Then again we’re probably not supposed to think too hard about plot logic.

Kent changes to Superman, and the rest of the episode involves well-animated, exciting fight scenes between Superman, Captain Marvell, and Black Adam. Superman gets turned into a punching bag because of his vulnerability to magic and also to make CM necessary. After all, if Sups could stop BA why would we need Captain Marvell?

The short covers a lot of ground in 18 minutes, giving us the traditional origin of CM in the middle of the fast-moving fight scenes. When he’s on the verge of being killed by Black Adam, Billy is transported onto a magical subway train and journeys to a secret cavern where he walks past statues of the seven deadly sins (Greed, Hate, Laziness, etc.) to see the wizard Shazam who’s about to die (although his ghost will return to help Billy in future episodes).

Shazam tells Billy that Black Adam was his greatest mistake. He made BA Earth’s protector 5,000 years ago (a rather big mistake for an all-wise wizard), and the villain set himself up as a despot who followed the seven deadly sins instead of good. Shazam banished Black Adam to the most distant star in the sky, and it’s taken him 5,000 years to return to Earth. Shazam tells Billy that he’s been looking for the perfect protector for Earth for the last 5,000 years, and Billy is that hero. Despite being an orphan and a victim of tragedy, Billy has protected his perfect heart. If Billy says “Shazam,” he will turn into Captain Marvel, although the wizard oddly enough doesn’t tell Billy that rather important fact. Billy discovers that he needs to say Shazam! to gain his powers only when Black Adam is chasing him around with lightening bolts.

Much of the remaining episode contrasts Captain Marvel and his antagonist, Black Adam, who is a Nietzschean Overman that believes might makes right. BA tells Billy that just as it’s not immoral for a human to step on an ant, it’s reasonable for someone with the power of a god to do whatever he pleases to the human race. Billy, on the other hand, is willing to sacrifice his own life to protect the innocent.

Overall, the short provides an effective modernization of the Shazam story and would make an excellent animated series. I’ve always felt that the Captain Marvell story was an excellent wish fulfillment fantasy: you say the magic word and suddenly you’re not an ordinary 12 year old any more, you have the power of Superman.

The 2nd episode, the Spectre, is a dark, noir piece that gives a good depiction of the avenging spirit. A movie producer is murdered, and The Spectre kills and punishes the murderers in appropriate, horrifying, and gruesome ways. For example, one murderer, a special effects Master, is killed by his own creations, dummies of werewolves, vampires and other monsters. The Spectre relentlessly punishes the guilty for their crimes, making the short a good combination of the horror and the superhero genre.

The Green Arrow story is well done as well. GA is going to the airport to pick up the love of his life, Black Canary, but while waiting in traffic he sees his old enemy Merlyn. The Queen of a small country has arrived at the airport, and Merlyn plans on assassinating her. Green Arrow manages to save the young monarch with an eventual assist from Black Canary. The short is action packed and involves an excellent battle between Merlyn and GA, as well as good fight scenes with the hoods.

The last DC Showcase focuses on Jonah Hex. The ten minute or so cartoon gives an excellent depiction of the scarred face bounty hunter, much more effective than the full-length movie released earlier this year. He rides into town to discover that a crooked prostitute and her followers have already killed his bounty. The prostitute and her lackies rob and kill men, then throw their remains into a cave. Hex leaves the prostitute at the bottom of a hole with all her victims, providing as always rough justice.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?

If you like DC characters and animation, you will. It’s not breaking any new ground or doing anything profound, but it’s an enjoyable hour and fifteen minutes. It’s not well suited for kids because the Jonah Hex short has a prostitute and a saloon and is hardly a fount of traditional values. The Captain Marvell and GA shorts would be good for kids. Any of these stories would make an excellent animated series; in fact, I’d like to see Showcase turned into a series with different heroes every week much like The Brave and the Bold. Actually, I think Captain Marvell would make a particularly good animated series that would be accessible to kids but also enjoyable to adults.

Robert Bee is a freelance writer and a non-freelance librarian. Check out his column here on Republibot every Thursday!

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