Superman/ Shazam: The Return of Black Adam

The DC Showcase folks tackle a troublesome hero and do a fine job with his origin story. So fine, in fact, that it becomes painfully obvious how little they did past that. When ancient Egyptian superhero/sorcerer-turned-villain Black Adam (voiced by Arnold Vosloo) returns to Earth after a 5,000-year banishment, it can’t be good for anyone. Specifically, it’s very bad for a kid named Billy Batson (v. Zach Callison). Billy is a minor living on his own in a building filled with rats and hookers, but he still tries to keep a positive outlook and always do the right thing -- even when it gets him a black eye. That’s why reporter Clark Kent (George Newbern) picked him as the subject of an article on teen orphans. According to Black Adam, though, Billy’s been marked by some wizard to inherit “the mantle of power,” and so... well, it’s lucky for him Superman happened to show up right after Mr. Kent got smacked through that wall. While the hero and the villain fight (and the audience gets that rare joy of seeing someone who can believably bring the pain to the boy in blue), Billy meets up with the aforementioned wizard, an ancient man named Shazam (v. James Garner), discovers his destiny, and finds out that something really amazing happens when he says the wizard’s name out loud. And that’s when the super-smackdown really kicks into sudden death mode.

Captain Marvel’s always been one of those hard-to-deal-with heroes. Is he a kid who turns into an adult version of himself? A kid in an adult’s body? Are they two different people who share some memories? The Return of Black Adam does a great job of settling this confusion without falling back on any of the silliness that often plagued (or blessed, depending on your view) the comics. It also has some nice little winks to that silliness, much of it done in a more serious vein.

If I had to have a complaint about the story itself -- and it’s a nerdy complaint -- it’s that they never go into the origin of the name “Shazam.” Any comic book geek worth his mylar bags knows the word is an acronym. Bonus points if you remember what it stands for.

Really, the only honest problem with this film is that it’s so damned short. Which is why this review is a bit lopsided... As an added bonus, there are also slightly extended versions of three of the Showcase shorts DC’s been scattering on their recent animated releases. Detective James Corrigan a.k.a. The Spectre (v. Gary Cole) investigates a murder in Hollywood and dishes out some eerie, supernatural justice. Picking up his girlfriend at the airport gets very complicated for Green Arrow (v. Neil McDonough) when he discovers there’s an assassination attempt on a little girl that he needs to foil. And bounty hunter Jonah Hex (v. Thomas Jane) kicks a variety of ass in the old west when someone kills the man he’s been trailing.

How much would you pay for all this? Wait! You also get a selection of episodes from Batman: The Animated Series, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and Justice League Unlimited. Each of these shows an earlier -- and often lighter -- adaptation of these characters on the small screen. What’s the connection between Jonah Hex and Batman’s longtime enemy Ra's Al Ghul (a story I loved as a kid, I have to admit)? Why are the Spectre and the Phantom Stranger both watching the caped crusader’s latest case? Why is Green Arrow blowing off the Justice League? And what could make Superman and Captain Marvel come to blows -- and wreck a good chunk of Metropolis in the process?

Yeah, there’s a lot of great stuff in this set. A wide variety, too. Pretty much whatever kind of super-heroics you like, there’s something here that’ll appeal to you. Of course, that’s one of the problems with this set. There’s so much different stuff scattered over the DC character spectrum, and done in such a variety of tones, there’s no real consistency. Some of it’s almost Disney-level family-friendly, some is dark and gritty, and one of the shorts is standing right on the line of being labeled a horror story. Arguably two of them. Heck, one of the Justice League Unlimited episodes is blatantly part of a much larger story arc and leaves a handful of threads dangling.

Which leads right to the second big problem with the disc as a whole. Almost none of this is new material. As I mentioned above, the DC Showcase shorts were on other DVDs already, and some of the bonus episodes were in box sets before the website even existed. The only new material is Superman/ Shazam: The Return of Black Adam cartoon, and sad to say, it’s just barely the longest piece on the disc.

Don’t get me wrong. This is all great stuff, and if you’re a comic book fan you’re going to find a lot to love on here. Thing is, if you’re a comic book fan, you probably own most of it already on the other sets it first came out on. So you’re paying that full DVD price for one story that clocks in at just under 24 minutes, not counting the end credits.