In the early 70s kids were overjoyed to see Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends cartoon, starring their favorite superheroes each and every Saturday morning, but over at rival animation house Filmation a half-hour live-action Saturday morning program, featuring the adventures of Captain Marvel, was being produced, and to say the results were something less than heroic would be a vast understatement. Sure as a kid from the 70s I ate this show up with a spoon – we didn’t have a lot of options – and at the time I’d never read a Captain Marvel comic so had no basis to measure it’s accuracy to the comic book character – and the Christopher Reeve Superman movies had yet to appear in theaters – so back then us kids were more easily impressed. Looking back now with adult eyes this show is rather quaint with its low budget effects and almost complete lack of action.
Filmation’s Shazam! was not Captain Marvel’s first live-action appearance as he’d made his debut on the big screen back in the 1941 serial Adventures of Captain Marvel for Republic Pictures, making him the first superhero to do so, and though that incarnation of Captain Marvel veered wildly from the comic book – as in comics Captain Marvel didn’t murder bad guys left right and center as he did in that serial – but this Filmation incarnation ditched even more of the elements found in the pages of Fawcett Comics. There would once again be no appearances of Captain Marvel’s comic book enemies like Dr. Silvana or Black Adam, instead Billy Batson and his superheroic alter ego would deal with kids joyriding or committing acts of vandalism, and one would have to admit that these were not really crimes you’d think would require someone who has wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and speed of Mercury to solve.
This series would ditch most of the trappings from the comic and would instead follow Billy Batson (Michael Gray) as he and his pal Mentor (Les Tremayne) as they traveled around the country in their motorhome, until a blinking orb in their vehicle would notify Billy that the Immortal Elders needed to speak to him. And why exactly was Billy hanging out with this old dude you ask? Well, the character of Mentor may have been loosely based on the comic book character of Uncle Dudley, though no family connection is mentioned, and his sole purpose seemed to be in driving the motorhome and using the mobile phone to call for help on occasion. We do get one throw-away line of dialog in the first episode where Billy mentioned being on vacation from his job at the radio station – which comic book readers know to be Billy’s actual job – but we never get a clear definition of his relationship to Mentor.
When the “Eterni-Phone” rings – that’s what the blinking orb was called – Mentor would pull over so that Billy could go into some kind of trance by uttering the phrase, “Oh, Elders, fleet and strong and wise, appear before my seeking eyes.” We would then see live action actor Michael Gray superimposed over a fairly static cartoon image of the Elders, and they would then give him a heads-up on what current crisis he was to deal with – such as a teen facing peer pressure to steal a car or cheating in school – and then the “gods” would quote Shakespeare or some such thing to lay out today’s moral message. Billy would then pop back into his body to inform Mentor what their mission of the day was and the two would proceed to drive around until they literally ran into the particular trouble the Elders were talking about.
Note: The wizard Shazam, who gave Billy his powers in the comic, is completely absent from this series in favor of the Greek pantheon making personal appearances.
In the first episode “The Joyriders” a group of teens thinks it would be cool to borrow a car, but one of them thinks it’s a bad idea – it being a crime and all – and despite being called “chicken” this particular kid refuses to go along with his pals. It’s at this point that Billy and Mentor arrive, which causes the stolen car full of idiots to peel off in one direction while the other kid hoofs it in the other, with Billy in hot pursuit on foot. Could this be a job for Captain Marvel?
Watching this pilot episode one quickly comes to the conclusion that we are not going to be getting much in the way of actual superheroic action. Captain Marvel ( played by Jackson Bostwick in the first two seasons and John Davey for the third) appears about once an episode and thus the twenty-two-minute running time of the show consists mostly of Billy and Mentor lecturing whatever stupid kid they encounter that week. What may seem a bit odd is that the writers of this show never gave much thought as to how creepy it would appear to have two dudes traveling together who constantly hunt down kids to give them a “life lesson” from their motorhome base. At one point the peer-pressured kid we met in the pilot has his bike stolen – his idiot friends having kidded him about locking it up – and Billy and Mentor offer to give the kid a ride to the police station in their aforementioned motorhome. I think today’s lesson shouldn’t have been about peer pressure but instead about getting in a van that belongs to two dudes you don’t know.
I know the 70s were simpler times, and the fear of pedophiles snatching your children off the street wasn’t as much in the public consciousness as it is now, but looking back at this show with modern eyes the creep factor is pretty high. Later the Shazam! show became part of the Shazam/Isis Hour, which paired episodes of Shazam! with Filmation’s other live-action kids show The Secrets of Isis, which had a similar structure, but instead of having two guys driving around “helping” kids that show’s main character was female, thus a little less threatening, also she was a school teacher and not just some random stranger in a van.
Being that both Shazam! and The Secrets of Isis were produced by Filmation Captain Marvel and Isis would make cross-over guest appearances on each other’s shows, which of course made the “crisis of the day” seem in even more ridiculous for needing two beings with godlike abilities to sort things out, and most of the cross-overs involved Captain Marvel just moving the odd boulder around while Isis dealt with the kids more directly.
Seeing Captain Marvel lift those boulders and fly into the air like Superman was certainly enough for most kids of that era – myself included – but the lack of actual action makes it harder to watch now. The main factor that hampered these shows was that both it and the Super Friends cartoons were under the watchful eyes Standards and Practices, who would not allow “kid shows” to include any real violence – you know, punching and stuff – but at least with the Super Friends you had a wider variety of heroes to watch, not to mention that the Batmobile and Wonder Woman’s invisible jet was certainly cooler than Mentor’s creepy motorhome. The entire run of Shazam! has been made available through Warner Archives but the nostalgia factor is probably not worth the price they are asking.
The Shazam! show got the costume right but ditched pretty much everything else fans of the comic book would have wanted to see, and with each episode ending with a PSA spelling out “today’s lesson” it’s almost laughably quaint, but the lack of actual super hero action will leave most viewers bored.