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The Complete
Live-Action Series

After so many decades gone, it's back at last. Just like the first time, when Captain Marvel had been a dim cultural memory and "Shazam!" had become just something that Gomer Pyle would say -- the Big Red Cheese has made it to home video, courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.

The first live-action attempt by Filmation Studios (which did some great animated series in the 1960s), Shazam! took the bare bones of the Captain Marvel concept, mixed it with moral lessons, and threw it on Saturday mornings from 1974 to 1976. And you know what? It still works fairly well.

Producer Lou Scheimer tried to keep some things, and episodes make really really vague references to the comic book adventures of Billy Batson and his adult alter ego, Captain Marvel. Those would have required much bigger budgets.

Instead, Captain Marvel was put into a standard television trope -- the road series. Billy Batson (Michael Gray) travels the U.S. in a Winnebago driven by "Mentor" (Les Tremayne). Though it's never spelled out explicitly, they're on an endless vacation from Billy's day job as boy broadcaster on TV station WHIZ in Fawcett City and mostly driving around Southern California. (Billy does occasionally reference it, but really, it was a sop to the few people that would have had any idea who Captain Marvel was.)

In their travels, they stop and help troubled youths, usually after getting a psychic message from "the Elders," six barely animated mystical figures who every episode set Billy up with a moral quandary, a task, and a literary quote. These Elders, of course, are who give Billy his powers as Captain Marvel -- Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. The wizard Shazam is conspicuously absent.

Perhaps Mentor was meant to be Shazam, though in 1976 when DC adjusted the comics to reflect the TV series, they had Uncle Dudley Marvel grow a moustache to match the TV show and serve more formally as Billy's mentor. And yes, it probably wouldn't play as well in a series today, but in the 70's, it worked.

And the morals still work, too. It's a little heavy-handed, and just in case you missed the message, the end of each episode would feature Captain Marvel flying down and addressing the audience directly. (You can play the DVDs with or without moral lessons; for some reason, the original elements on these little stingers are in much rougher shape than the rest of the series.)

Yes, there are very cheesy elements. Filmation clearly had a limited amount of locations to film, but it doesn't repeat much more often than Smallville did. And it's kind of interesting to watch a show which, while it took such pains to make sure that Billy was cool and hip in appearance while very earnest in behavior, really isn't full of beautiful people. The kids that Billy helps look like real kids, not just the best-looking headshots. We've lost a little something there.

After the second season, Jackson Bostwick was replaced as Captain Marvel by a friendly enough guy, John Davey. Though the scripts got marginally better in Davey's episodes, he himself just isn't as cool a Captain Marvel. He seems more a football player just past his prime, as opposed to Bostwick who seemed to play the character like Andy Griffith with super powers. Whether Scheimer intended it or not, he does come across as the purest definition of Captain Marvel -- the idealized father figure that Billy wants and himself hopes to be.

But it really is Gray's show, and despite a lot of trappings of the time -- reaction shots that last just a few seconds too long and dialogue that repeats a lot of points just in case the kids missed the moral issue -- he still works as a teen really trying to help, everybody's big brother.

The DVDs don't come with any extras, which is a bit of a shame. It would have been nice to have an interview, if not commentary, from Scheimer and Gray. But this is Warner Archives; they know they're taking a risk putting this package out there and seeing if anybody remembers.

Hey, we do. And Warner? Thanks for remembering, too. The episodes are still in pretty good shape and man, it has a great opening credits sequence. For just a moment, I was eight years old, back on the playground and shouting that one magic word...

Derek McCaw

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