Ron Seifried | On 15, Sep 2014
The comic book film genre may have reached a turning point this year with a delicate mix of tired story’s and clever originality. The battle between Marvel Entertainment and DC Comics is a convoluted web of varying states of intellectual ownership that includes Sony and 20th Century Fox controlling several Marvel characters on the big screen. The disconnect is clear when comparing this year’s four main comic-based feature films, all Marvel creations produced by three very different conglomerates.
Marvel itself is owned by Walt Disney, which released two critically acclaimed movies that up until now, can be considered two of the genre’s best: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. Each production has been carefully crafted to fit into Marvel’s second initiative.
Fox on the other hand has at best, a hit and miss run with their Marvel properties: X-Men and The Fantastic Four. Nine films have been produced by the strained Fox/Marvel “partnership” in the last 14 years, with a tenth coming out next year, The Fantastic Four reboot. Fox’s track record includes at least four films (depending on who you ask) that are almost unwatchable: X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and both Fantastic Four films. The relationship has become so tense, that Marvel did not release any X-Men related merchandise to coincide with this year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past and has practically cancelled most Fantastic Four comics.
Sony is continuously producing Spider-Man vehicles that generate white-hot hype until the release date, only to have the temperature drop to luke-warm reviews and mediocre fan reaction after viewing. Planned Sinister Six and Venom films may not be enough to preserve the Sony/Marvel relationship if the scripts remain subpar.
Across the comic book aisle, DC Comics does not have to share their characters with other studios. DC and Warner Bros. have a comfortable enough relationship to carefully mold their cinematic universe for the inevitable crossover films and Justice League team pics. The problem is DC may be too cautious.
The first entry into the DC/Warner shared experience was Man of Steel, Zak Synder’s attempt to cram an origin story wrapped around an intergalactic war of the worlds that delivered a plethora of empty punches with questionable character development. The follow-up will be Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (March 2016), DC’s long gestating next step into a superhero partnership feature, complete with Wonder Woman and Cyborg cameo’s.
DC and Warner’s have announced eight additional release dates for unspecified films. We only know of three definite films: Justice League of America, Wonder Woman and the recently confirmed Shazam.
After months of speculation and endless online teasing, Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, has confirmed he will be appearing in the New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. production of Shazam, but somewhat surprisingly not as the hero, but the anti-hero Black Adam.
Darren Lemke has been hired to write the screenplay, and one hopes it will turn out better than some of his other work, specifically DreamWorks Animation’s Turbo and the forgettable Jack and the Giant Slayer.
Shazam’s origins traces back to the 1940’s as Captain Marvel, the decade’s most popular comic book
The Origins of Shazam and Black Adam
In 1941, the first feature film featuring a comic book superhero was released. Surprisingly it wasn’t Superman or Batman, but Captain Marvel, a somewhat forgotten fictional hero in the glossy contemporary comic book movies and television era of recent years. After decades of legal wrangling over copyright infringement and the eventual return to publication, Captain Marvel was rebranded Shazam a few years ago and is about to get a big screen makeover.
Shazam’s origins can be traced back to 1939’s first publication of Captain Marvel by Fawcett Comics. Based on the alter ego of a homeless 12-year old boy Billy Baston, Captain Marvel became the best selling comic of the 1940’s, but the recurring theme of orphaned boy guided by trusting adult has a somewhat seedy beginning.
Baston is led by a mysterious stranger into a secret subway tunnel, then into a driverless subway car, before a time when “don’t talk to strangers” became a mantra for children. Baston is led to the lair of the wizard Shazam, who grants the trusting boy powers to transform into the caped muscular adult, Captain Marvel. Moments later, a stone crushes the wizard, who transforms into a ghost and completes his Superhero Origins Class 101.
Billy must speak the wizard’s name to ignite a bolt of lightning and transform into Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name is actually an acronym for six legends: Solomon for wisdom, Hercules for strength, Atlas for stamina, Zeus for power, Achilles for courage and Mercury for speed. Most of these figures derive from Greek mythology, with the exception of Mercury whose origins trace back to Roman mythology and Solomon, who was the King of Israel and the son of David.
After decades of dormant placement because of similarities to DC Comic’s Superman, Fawcett finally licensed Captain Marvel to DC in 1972, at which point the character was revived as Shazam!, because in the interim Marvel Comics created their own Captain Marvel. The return of the rebranded Shazam included reprints of the original 1940’s series and new stories including a rebooted origin.
One of these rebooted characters was Black Adam, created by Otto Binder & C.C. Beck in 1945. Originally conceived as a villain, Black Adam was an ancient Egyptian enemy of Captain Marvel and friends, but has been reimagined in the 21st century as a corrupt anti-hero on a quest to clear his name. Think The Fugitive meets Catwoman. Black Adam, as envisioned by Jerry Ordway, Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer at DC, has been featured in several recent publications to a level almost equal to their main superhero properties.
The Future of Black Adam
These attributes may be the main characteristics that attracted Dwayne Johnson to the part instead of the title role. Taking on a character not completely evil, but but an antihero partially corrupt with inner-demons and flaws instead of the recurring themes of every superhero film of the past fifteen years will be a challenging task for even the best actor. Johnson is no Heath Ledger, so the task at hand will be great. The decision to tackle this within a lesser known entity may work in Johnson’s favor. The buzz from DC/Warners has been around almost every other property instead of Shazam, keeping the hype at bay and mainstream audiences less vested until opening weekend.
Shazam has the potential to become the DC Comics version of Guardians of the Galaxy, a lesser known comic that is on its way to become the biggest hit for 2014. This is what DC Comics needs: a sleeper hit as defined for the comic book movie category. The genre has become saturated and unsurprising. More buzz is generated by onset photos instead of the actual feature film. The powers that be have become lazy with story development, overloading films with too many heroes and villains that have turned once venerable franchises in cacophony messes.
The two Spider-Man franchises are perfect examples of convoluted plotlines and character development, sacrificing quality for quantity.
I advise the creatives at DC/Warners to carefully review the Marvel initiatives conduct internal town-hall meetings and write their own thesis. By analyzing what Marvel is doing right (and wrong) is the best way to succeed with their own cinematic universe. Ignore what is going on with the Marvel properties at Sony and Fox; they are not Marvel. These conglomerates are only temporary lease holders and are only vested with the bottom line.
Marvel has a detailed game plan for the next 10+ years. They are carefully vested with their creations and want to succeed not only today, but a decade from now. Sony has been shuffling release dates and titles like a deck of cards, and Fox has only two film slated for release.
Instead of taking on the hero Shazam, Dwayne Johnson has been cast as the antihero Black Adam