NOTE: For the purposes of this review, we will only be covering works penned by Geoff Johns in which the character of Captain Marvel/Shazam was the focus. This means the character’s New 52 origin story (as told primarily through backups in the 2011 “Justice League” series), as well as Issues 1-11 and 13-14 of the most recent “Rebirth” series. We will not be covering JSA, Justice League, “52” or any other story penned by Johns that included the character, because in those stories he was not the primary focus; he was either a guest star or a supporting player. Likewise, Issues 12 and 15 of the Rebirth series are absent as they were penned by (or, in the case of Issue 15, will be penned by) writer Jeff Lovense.
Part One: The Origin Story
When we first meet young Billy Batson in the New 52 continuity, it seems like we’re getting a classic interpretation of the character in a modern setting. He talks about hot chocolate and reading books, comes off as generally polite if stand-offish, and seems ecstatic when he hears Victor and Rosa Vasquez would like to foster him.
Then the Vasquezes leave, and Billy proceeds to call them a "couple of idiots.”
It’s a jarring moment, and the intent is clear: this is not the Billy Batson you’re used to, and it’s a decision that ends up dragging the rest of the story down with it.
Let me back up.
I’m a firm believer that you can alter many things about a character (backstory, costume, supporting cast, etc.) and largely be okay as long as the “core” remains intact. It doesn’t matter if Superman’s a teenager or if the Kents are still alive or if he’s dating Lana or Lois or a mermaid; as long as the “core” of “saves as many lives as possible, instills hope in others, and believes in the best for all of us” remains intact, he’s still Superman. Batman can wear his bright blue costume and talk about using the “Hammers of Justice” to fight criminals from his bi-pedal Bat-mecha, and it’ll still be Batman because, as Mark Waid once put it, the core of Batman is making sure “no one else dies.” Billy Batson’s core is a selfless desire to do good and bright, borderline-cheesy optimism, regardless of his circumstances as a poor orphan living on the streets. The “Return of Black Adam” animated short put it best: in spite of enduring countless hardships, Billy somehow managed to protect his “perfect heart.”
New 52 Billy Batson…is none of those things. This is the Billy who didn’t protect his heart. This Billy is cynical, mean-spirited, selfish, spiteful, and generally distrustful of anyone he meets. He makes a little girl cry, and when he gets called out on it, replies with “so?” There are a lot of changes made to Billy and his mythos during this run, many of which the character could survive, but the core has been altered to such a degree that he might as well be a wholly new, original character. This is not Captain Marvel, this is Shazam.
And changes there are a plenty of! Some of these are changes that were expected (Captain Marvel will forever be the superior name, but the ongoing legal issues meant DC had to change it to something else eventually), and some are even legitimately great (Billy’s extended foster family, Sivana’s more sympathetic portrayal), but the majority are just kinda…there. From Billy now living in Philadelphia instead of Fawcett, to Freddy now being a blonde instead of Elvis, there are many changes in Billy’s New 52 continuity that don’t really add or subtract anything from the story…they’re just changes made for the sake of being changes.
The most emblematic of these is the addition of a hood to Billy’s costume. The hood is…just kinda there. Billy only actually wears the thing maybe 2 or 3 times across the entire run, once in the film, and only a handful of times in comics outside the Geoff Johns run. For the majority of the costume’s existence, Billy wears the hood down as an extension of the cape. It doesn’t subtract anything from the costume, sure, but, at the same time, it doesn’t really add anything either. Billy rarely uses it, so why even have it? It’s a change made for the sake of being a change, and it speaks to the idea that, for the New 52, Johns was more interested in making Billy as different as possible from his than he was in respecting the character’s core.
Now, I’m not saying Johns needed to have Billy be ridiculously corny, and act like a character from the Golden Age, and go around shouting “Holey Moley!” everywhere while fighting sentient fireballs and the Dragon-Men of Saturn. I mean, that would have been awesome, but that’s not the point. Realism has its place (yes, even in the franchise about the young boy who meets a subway wizard and gets the power to turn into an adult superhero and have flying adventures with talking tiger-men). The issue here is that if you’re going to make changes, you should have a reason for them. Johns made changes, but there appears to be no real reason for them beyond “to be different.”
Including the added cynicism.
Indeed, everything in the New 52 origin seems to have been touched by that mean-spiritedness. Billy’s foster siblings all have tragic backstories of their parents either abandoning them or being in prison. Billy gives the Wizard a speech about how there are “no good people” because the world is cruel and drags everyone down (something the book portrays as correct and profound despite Billy living in the same world as Superman). Later on, Billy saves a woman and asks for money, proceeding to largely help people out of personal gain than any sense of morality. The woman who runs the orphanage Billy is staying at admits she’s only doing it to get money from the state (in fact, basically every adult Billy meets in the story not named Victor or Rosa is portrayed as selfish and cruel), the Council of Eternity the Wizard was a part of is portrayed as paranoid and distrustful, and, near the end of the book, Sivana weeps in the snow for someone to help him save his family, only for those pleas to be ignored as the Shazam family flies off. Even the artwork is dark, with Gary Frank leaning heavily on the shadows and grime. There’s a very rough-hewn, “gritty” feel to everything on display, making the world look just as mean and ugly as the people who inhabit it.
I suppose one could make the argument that Johns is trying to go for a more “realistic” portrayal of what a superpowered orphan would be like, and that’s fair…except, even taking that into account, Billy’s arc here is just dull. It’s the “jerk who learns to be less of a jerk” storyline we’ve seen a thousand times in superhero stories (even by Johns himself in books like “Booster Gold”), and there’s nothing new here. It hits all the beats you’d expect, and Billy goes through the motions until Christmas morning when he’s now slightly less of a jerk (he still thinks he should tell Darla Santa Claus isn’t real, though, because I guess making her cry earlier in the book wasn’t enough).
Are there good parts? * Yes! * The expansion of Billy’s supporting cast to include new characters Darla, Pedro and Eugene was a smart one, even if we don’t really spend a lot of time with the characters so they came off as “arch” in their personalities (ie, Darla is the “happy one,” Pedro is the “quiet one,” and Eugene is the “smart one”). Likewise, giving Sivana a sympathetic backstory of trying to save his family adds some much-needed depth to the character. And while I may have criticized Gary Frank’s artwork earlier for how dark it is, his renditions of Black Adam, Sabbac and the Seven Sins are suitably terrifying, while the action all looks impressive and the Rock of Eternity is gorgeous.
Unfortunately, all that good gets swallowed up by just how surly and unlikeable Billy Batson is here. A story can survive a lot of bad elements, but it can’t survive a bad main character.
Next time: We enter the Seven Magic Lands as the Geoff Johns run finally begins in earnest!