By Chaz Lipp
(Article first published as DVD Review: Shazam! The Complete Live Action Series on Blogcritics.)
Between 1974 and 1976, Filmation Associates produced 28 episodes of the live-action series Shazam!. The half-hour show focused on DC Comics’ superhero Captain Marvel, always ending with an “after school special”-type message. It remains corny, nostalgic fun for anyone who was a kid at the time or for those who caught it during its frequent re-airings over the years. Talk about a time capsule piece. Ultra-earnest teenager Billy Batson (Michael Gray) travels around in an RV with the appropriately-named Mentor (Les Tremayne), a kindly old gentleman who serves as Billy’s caretaker.
Billy encounters all sorts of troubled youths as he and Mentor tool around throughout California. When he needs to spring into action, he calls out “Shazam!” and magically transforms into the adult Captain Marvel (initially Jackson Bostwick, with John Davey taking over in the second season). The word itself, it should be known, is an acronym for Billy’s immortal elders: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, Mercury. These elders do appear in the episodes, albeit quite briefly, as primitively animated characters.
“The Brain” is a typical episode. A young nerd named Jim is coerced into dangerous behavior by the “in crowd” kids just to prove his worthiness. By the end, when one of the “cool” kids is in mortal danger, it is Jim who manages to summon help in the form of Captain Marvel. The message is, of course, that no one should ever be peer pressured into doing something stupid just to be accepted. At the end of each episode, a character would come out and deliver the “moral” directly to the camera. Sometimes the moral was delivered with none-too-subtle peeks at cue cards off screen. As a bonus feature, the DVD includes the option of playing the episodes with or without these “moral” segments.
As slightly creepy as he could be, Jackson Bostwick makes a more convincing Captain Marvel than his rather frumpy and surly replacement, John Davey. Bostwick simply looked the part. But honestly, Shazam! isn’t especially impressive from an acting standpoint. It should be mentioned that Les Tremayne had quite a career as a radio voice actor in the 1930s and ‘40s. His melodious delivery is certainly an indicator of that illustrious past.
Though technically three seasons, Shazam!’s production runs were irregular. The first season was the most robust by far, with 15 episodes airing in late ’74. The second season contained only seven episodes in ’75, followed by six for season three in ’76. Production values are uniformly shoddy, but that only adds to the nostalgic charm at this point. It should be pointed out that Warner has done nothing to restore these episodes. They’re in relatively rough (but watchable) shape, with lots of scratches and dirt. Anyone who wasn’t there for Shazam! the first time around probably need not apply. Parents attempting to capture the imagination of their kids, good luck. Warner Archive is certainly to be commended for issuing all 28 episodes as a three-DVD set, but youngsters accustomed to modern television productions are very likely to snicker at it.