Thursday, November 10, 2011

Watching cartoons with Lily: Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam

I suppose I've been in a bit of a funk lately, and my productivity has fallen off. So, in an effort to snap myself out of it, I'll try to post more regularly, though these posts may be shorter than usual.

I've been watching a lot of cartoons with Lily recently. My friend Eric recommended Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam and it's a pretty solid story. I streamed it through Netflix.

It's a retelling of Captain Marvel's origin. (And there's a whole convoluted thing here. The title is Superman/Shazam, but the hero in question is actually named Captain Marvel. Shazam is the name of the wizard who gives him his powers and the magic word he yells to assume his super-powered identity. Shazam is an acronym for 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.)

Anyway, prepubescent Billy Batson wakes up in his ratty apartment, then hustles off to meet a mild mannered reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper, who is writing an expose on the lousy conditions faced by homeless kids. On the way there, Billy encounters some bullies shaking down Tawny, a homeless man. He stands up for his friend and gets a black eye for his trouble.

When he gets to the diner, he digs into the breakfasts Clark Kent bought for him. Kent notices the bruise and asks about it, and Billy says that he's beginning to think that being good isn't worth the bother anymore. Clark admits that being good is hard and being bad is the easy route.

As if in answer, Black Adam floats down outside the diner and shatters the window with a clap of his hands. I really like Black Adam. Arnold Vosloo, probably best known as Imhotep from the Mummy movies, oozes alien menace. He reminds me a bit of Zod in Superman II. He doesn't know much about this alien world in which he finds himself, only that he is destined to rule it. A phrase that leaps to mind is that of a cultured brute. That brutishness extends to his appearance. Superman is a lot sleeker than he's usually depicted in DC animation and I'm convinced that's in order to contrast him with Black Adam's stocky build.

Anyway, Adam moves in on Billy, and Clark orders him to leave the boy alone, and then gets smacked through several walls. He picks himself out of the rubble, takes off his glasses and pulls open his shirt to reveal the Superman shield.

Cut to Black Adam's implacable pursuit of Billy through the streets. Just as Adam is about to kill the boy, Superman shows up and rescues him. Black Adam gets all the good lines and while Superman's dialogue is a little weak, I think it still gets the meaning of what it is to be Superman across loud and clear.

Black Adam: You fight for the Wizard?
Superman: I fight for those you can't fight for themselves!

They spar a bit, and seem evenly matched until Black Adam realizes that Superman is especially vulnerable to his magical lightning. And this is what I mean when I say the feature understands Superman. Here he is, outmatched, with the life of just one little boy at stake. But he never wavers, even when his foe hits him hardest where he is weakest. Black Adam burns him with the magical lightning, then buries him hundreds of feet underground by driving Fawcett City's version of the Washington monument on top of him.

Billy runs, finds the Wizard and is granted his powers. I was never a huge fan of Captain Marvel (though I always had a bit of a crush on Mary Marvel and that cute little skirt of hers), but I like that they exist to oppose the seven deadly enemies of Man. There's something about a hero who fights against the worst part of human nature that's really appealing to me.

Back in the real world, Black Adam has defeated Superman. Billy shows up, transforms into Captain Marvel, and his characterization here is great too. His absolute joy as he learns his now powers is infectious.

Superman rallies, the pair face off against Black Adam. Adam is taking a beating so he triggers a flood, and Superman has to disengage to stop it. Marvel chases Black Adam to the city, where he takes a hostage, and if there was one thing I didn't like about the movie, this was it. The hostage is the only woman in the movie, and all she does is whimper.

Danica McKellar is credited as Sally, and I don't even know why they needed a real voice actor for the part.

That aside, it's a good scene with a great exchange:

Captain Marvel: Put her down!
Black Adam: You want to be a protector? Then protect the soul. Revert to your mortal form and I will prove a benevolent deity.
Captain Marvel: And then you'll just kill me.
Black Adam: I will.
Captain Marvel: Shazam.
[turns into Billy]
Billy Batson: Now put her down.
Black Adam: See? Like an ant.
[Black Adam throws woman into the sky]
Billy Batson: No! Shaz...
Black Adam: [covers Billy's mouth] Your last breath wasted on the wrong word.

You get Billy's decency there and Black Adam's alien menace. He made that choice with full understanding of the consequences. It's so good, I'm almost willing to overlook the Byrne hold. As Black Adam is just about to kill Billy, Superman lances him with heat vision and descends with the woman in his arms. Billy transforms and makes short work of Black Adam. Captain Marvel picks him up out of the crater and prepares to finish him off and there is another exchange that I like.

Black Adam: It changes you, does it not? The power.

Superman: That's enough.
Captain Marvel: No, I have to. To protect them.
Superman: How? By being like him?
Captain Marvel: By being stronger than him.
Superman: Then be strong. Be good.

Tawny shows up, and threatens Black Adam with ten thousand year exile. Unable to bear the thought, and having just spent the last five thousand years flying back to Earth, Adam cries Shazam and reverts to his human form, aging five thousand years in an instant.

And that's the end. Clark's story hits the paper, and things seem to be improving for Billy and other kids like him. The bullies from earlier see him and push him against the wall. They taunt him and dare him to say "...just one word."

Billy looks up, smiles and the camera cuts away as he begins saying something. Lightning arcs across the sky and the credits roll.

Lily liked it. It's a little more violent than Jen would probably be comfortable with, but I was watching it with her the whole time, and she followed the plot pretty easily, and changing into an adult superhero is such a wish fulfillment fantasy for a kid that she loved it. At the end, I didn't need to explain to her what Billy said. She mouthed the word right along with him when he said it.

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