Film Review – Shazam!
In the realm of superhero films, DC and Warner Brothers still have a long way to go to catch up to the success that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has established and fortified. But lately, there seems to have been an interesting change of pace coming out of the DC Extended Universe. Instead of the dark and gritty stories that plagued the likes of Batman V Superman (2016) and Suicide Squad (2016), we are now starting to see properties that are taking a more lighthearted approach. We saw it in the gonzo zaniness of Aquaman (2018) and now with Shazam! (2019).
It’s as though the filmmakers realized that a large portion of the fanbase are kids, and that appealing to them along with adults might be actually be a good thing. The characters we see in suits and capes are meant to inspire, and some can accomplish that without having to be a brooding stick in the mud. In fact, Shazam! operates much more along the lines of a comedy than what we are used to with modern day blockbusters. Screenwriter Henry Gayden and director David F. Sandberg approach the material with a little earnest satire, following the path of a traditional “Hero’s Origin” but doing so with jubilance.
It makes sense, given that the character is a bit silly to begin with. We are introduced to a young orphan named Billy Batson (Asher Angel), living in a foster home with five other orphans like himself. After a series of events, Billy comes face to face with an old wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who bestows upon him the power of the Greek Gods. When Billy utters the phrase “Shazam,” he is magically transformed into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi), fixed with a red suit, white cape, and a glowing thunderbolt on his chest. His powers are near identical to Superman’s – with the ability to fly, have super strength, speed, and invulnerability to bullets. He also has the added bonus of shooting lightening out of his hands.
The interesting twist is that, while Billy is a full-grown man as Shazam, mentally he is still a fourteen-year-old kid. And this is where Gayden, Sandberg, and Levi get to have some fun with the character. The film knows that the body-swapping gimmick will remind us of Tom Hanks in Big (1988) and even goes so far to toss in a clever reference to it. One of the joys of Shazam! is seeing Billy adjusting to, exploiting, and then coming to terms with his newly acquired powers. Levi’s “Gee Golly” performance feels right. He acts just as a kid would, with sincere reactions to everything happening around him. Let’s be honest with ourselves: when we were kids, if we had the ability to pretend to be adults, what would we do? We would do all the things that only grownups could: buy alcohol, go to bars, etc. Some of the funnier moments deal with Billy (as the adult Shazam), hanging out with his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), juggling between figuring out Billy’s powers and going out and doing adult activities.
A surprise element comes within the family dynamic. Billy’s foster siblings (Grazer, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Grace Fulton) along with his foster parents (Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans) all come from different backgrounds, but there’s a tenderness and care that connects them together. While they may bump heads, they do so without any sense of maliciousness. They’re open with each other, and everyone has an opportunity to speak their mind. As the newest member, Billy initially has trouble adjusting to this way of life (understandably), but as his character arc developments throughout the story, the theme of family grows as a motivating factor for him. There’s pretty nice twist that happens that I wasn’t expecting but was glad to see take place. I’ll leave that for you to discover.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a superhero movie, and there are plenty of spectacular feats in which Shazam saves lives just in the nick of time. These scenes are done moderately well, the direction and CGI doing just enough to entertain, but nothing really standing out. None of the set pieces here will go down as some of the best action scenes of the genre. Another unfortunate setback is the villain Sivana (Mark Strong). Sivana suffers from the “Forgettable Bad Guy” syndrome, in which his character works simply as a force for our hero to fight against and nothing more. Strong does the best he can with the character, and admittedly there are some noteworthy details to him – I liked how he is able to summon the Seven Deadly Sins from his body in the form deadly smoke monsters – but besides that, Sivana is just kind of there to be toiled with. Even the tumultuous relationship he shares with his father and brother doesn’t really play out with much significance to his character.
Marvel may be sitting at the top of the superhero genre at the moment, but with each passing year the entries feel more and more attached to “the brand” – adhering to a look, tone, and style that doesn’t leave much room to differentiate. What Shazam! does so well is that it establishes itself unlike most other forgettable superhero movies. It doesn’t reach the heights of Wonder Woman (2017), nor is it as outrageously goofy as Aquaman, but it has an identity all its own. I had a lot of fun with this one, and sometimes “fun” is all you need.