REVIEW: Shazam! The Complete Series
Growing up, Saturday morning television meant cartoons and nothing but cartoons. By the 1970s, though, live-action bits crept in, starting with Christopher Glenn’s In the News interstitials on CBS along with silly things like The Banana Splits and H.R. Puffenstuff. In 1974, though, Filmation cleverly blended the two as it took the Big Red Cheese from comics to television. Shazam! debuted in the fall of 1974 with Michael Gray as Billy Batson, charged by the animated gods with their powers to fight crime in the adult body of Captain Marvel.
Last year, Warner Archive released the complete series on DVD and it is as charming as ever in its simplicity. In a mere thirty minutes, Billy and Mentor (Les Tremayne) rode the highways of California in their RV and when danger struck, the magic lightning let Bill become the hero (Jackson Bostwick). The effects were little better than when George Reeves donned the red and blue costume as Superman twenty years earlier. Both fought evil with similar solemnity and everything was put back to order by the time the end credits rolled.
Throughout the 3-disc, 28-episode collection, nary another character from the comics are used, divorcing it from the source material, which is a shame since it could have used a Dr. Sivana or animated Mr. Talky-Tawny. Also, the wizard Shazam is absent and Billy gets advice directly from Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury.
Bostwick was an earnest and likeable Captain Marvel and when he was replaced by John Davey, it’s fairly seamless. Gray’s Billy is easily five years too old to be a convincing youth but he’s very likeable while veteran character Tremayne does a fine job with little material.
Unfortunately the series aired from 1974-1976, a time when parent groups pressured the networks into cleaning up the level of violence the precious children were exposed to which undercut what could have been a fine kid’s action series. There’s fun stuff going on but a lot of missed opportunities as each case became a teachable moment instead of a thrilling thirty minutes of action. Still, the show was a cut above its competition which is why it is so well remembered. There’s a crossover with Isis (Joanna Cameron), who helmed a spinoff series of her own that was collected some time back and worth seeking out.
It would have been nice to have some extras but the Warner Archive program brings things to smaller audiences at the cost of no money invested in such bonuses,. We do, though, get a lovely cover from artist Jerry Ordway, who did a memorable run with the character in the 1990s.