At The Movies - Saying The Magic Word
By Jordan Bosch
Shazam! is the most off-brand DC movie yet. Occupying the same universe as the tiresome grim- dark slogs of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, it’s unbelievable to see them put out a film that’s lighthearted and self-aware to the point of almost looking like a parody along the lines of The Tick.
But to do Shazam! in a serious way would be a mistake given this is a character created in the 1930s (under the name Captain Marvel funny enough), and unlike his contemporaries has not aged as well.
This is very much a campy and ridiculous comic book character, and Shazam! did the smart thing in recognizing that. Even with its fun sensibility and spirit though, this movie has layers to it, and is more than just a superhero comedy.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a fourteen year old kid who’s been in and out of foster homes for adecade, frequently getting in trouble over his increasingly elaborate attempts to find his mother whohe lost at a carnival when he was little.
After being put into one group home in Philadelphia, he’s summoned into an otherworldly realm by a wizard called Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who makes Billy his chosen one, bestowing on him an array of superpowers in an adult body (Zachary Levi).
With the help of his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy tests out his abilities and becomes a local superhero whilst being sought after by scientist Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) who was himself summoned by Shazam as a child and rejected, and has acquired the rival powers of Shazam’s formerly imprisoned Seven Deadly Sins.
While the plot of the movie sounds very much like it’s merely Big with a superhero (not at all a bad thing and something the movie acknowledges with a nice visual reference), the story is actually centred around family issues; and not your typical fare of problems and insecurities either, but real, serious, even toxic stuff that deeply impacts and thematically connects the hero and villain.
It’s refreshing and bold to see these notions usually confined to small studio dramas addressed not just in a mainstream superhero movie, but one with such an otherwise upbeat and charmingly playful tone.
You feel for what Billy’s going through, especially given the harsh road his personal journey takes, as well as for Sivana who, unsympathetically stock Mark Strong villain though he may often be, is established well with meaningful demons. And indeed these starker nuances make the movies’ familiar theme concerning family resonate all the more powerfully.
Of course it helps to have incredibly engaging characters and dedicated actors, and this movie is full of them, even down to minor parts from John Glover and Andi Osho. Zachary Levi is having the time of his life as the immature, irresponsible superhero boy in a mans’ body, emphatically enthusiastic through the whole film and utterly believable even as the stakes escalate; but Asher Angel likewise deserves a lot of credit as the secret identity.
His role requires a heavier grounded performance than Levi’s and he does a fantastic job. Jack Dylan Grazer is a delight too, Freddy being such a genuine and relatable kid often the heart of the movie, and his chemistry is equally entertaining with Levi as it is with Angel.
Their four other foster siblings, though much less developed, are very likeable themselves, with Grace Fulton’s inquisitive Mary and Faithe Herman’s adorable Darla standing out prominently.
Shazam! is shot quite nicely, capturing a picturesque Philadelphia in winter (the film’s technically a Christmas movie). There’s a lush warmth and palpable texture to the world of this film, even when in the dimension of Shazam. It’s also of course, impeccably funny.
The script by Henry Gayden is full of lively humour that’s sharpened by rich deliveries from the actors and an expert sense of comedic timing and effects. Owing to its tongue-in-cheek self awareness and the opportunity inherent in its premise, Shazam! is allowed to really play with the notion of a kid in the twenty-first century inheriting superpowers, milking the comedy therein as much as it can.
But because of this, it can be tonally cacophonous to transition into darker scenes. And there are a couple in this movie that are quite dark. The Seven Deadly Sins themselves are CGI monsters of the Venom variety crossed with John Carpenters’ the Thing (and at least one had to be inspired in a small way by their Fullmetal Alchemist counterpart), and there’s some uncompromising violence in a couple of their major scenes -not entirely surprising considering this is director David F. Sandberg’s first non-horror movie.
There’s also a moment early on that’s extremely hard-hitting and the editing choice immediately following doesn’t quite justify its ironic detachment.
It would appear that, at least for now, gone are the days of DC attempting to be the joylessly gritty counterpart to Marvel, assuming incorrectly that Marvel is merely whimsy and jokes (Shazam! is funny and yet it’s unlike any MCU movie). Most of the shared universe details set up in their early films don’t show any signs of paying off, and the franchise has settled into a much more interesting, diverse, and experimental groove that seems set to continue in upcoming movies Joker, Wonder Woman 1984, and James Gunn’s Suicide Squad.
Shazam! is really thrilling and fun, exceptionally effective, and astonishingly honest; a comic book film that caters to a kids’ power fantasy while enthralling adults as well.