For those who thought Aquaman was still too dark and scary for their delicate sensibilities, the latest from the DC Comics cinematic universe, Shazam!, should be enough of a safe space for you to enter into without fear of pooping your pants. Although it clearly takes place in a world in which a kid could grow up hero-worshipping Superman or Batman as real-world entities, Shazam! exists essentially outside of the pitch-black tones of those worlds and in a place where darkness comes in different, but no less damaging, forms—bullying, parental abandonment, and the general anxiety of being an outsider. These are the things from which most of us need saving.
For a little context, the character once know as “Captain Marvel” (way before Marvel decided to create its own hero with that name) was created by artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker in 1939, and at his peak in popularity, the character rivaled Superman in terms of popularity, thanks partly to the mid-1970s television series “Shazam!”
Working from a screenplay by Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo), director David F. Sandberg (the helmer of such impressive horror entries as Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation) centers his story on 14-year-old perpetual runaway Billy Batson (Asher Angel, star of the Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack”), who is one of those playful punks that is technically a criminal, but he’s so cute doing it, you find it tough to fault him. After getting caught once again, he’s put into a supportive foster home parented by Rosa and Victor Vasquez (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews), but that doesn’t stop him from plotting his immediate escape. It turns out that Billy is searching for his long-lost mother, whom he remembers escaping his sight in a crowd as a child, and he assumes she’s been looking for him as long as he’s been looking for her. He sticks around the house long enough to form a tentative attachment to Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer of It and Beautiful Boy), a disabled kid with comedic timing and a fixation on the world’s superheroes that comes in handy later.
Seemingly by random (but more like an act of desperation), after saving Freddy from some schoolyard bullies, Billy is zapped to a place called the Rock of Eternity by the ancient Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who is close to death and barely holding back evil forces (based on the Seven Deadly Sins) that threaten to break free and do some horrible things to both his world and ours. Somehow Billy is selected because of his pure nature, and all he has to do is say the wizard’s name and he becomes a towering, ripped figure of a man named Shazam, played by Zachary Levi (“Chuck,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), who seems almost born to play a role like this—bursting with personality, innocence, electricity and muscles. Returning to earth with powers he hasn’t even discovered, he enlists Freddy’s help and the two attempt to unlock the secrets of Shazam’s powers and purpose on this planet.
The film—and by extension, Levi’s performance—borrows heavily and knowingly from Tom Hanks work in Big, and that works to its advantage. The scenes of the Shazam and Freddy figuring out Billy’s superhero powers don’t push the plot in any direction, but they get to heart and spirit of the two characters. Billy thinks his new adult body is perfect for buying beer, but Freddy knows a superhero when he sees one and nudges his new friend to do some good in the world, even if that good is finally finding his mother.
Deciding on what direction to take these new powers is made easier when the film’s villain pops into view via the presence of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who, as a child, was originally chosen by the Wizard to be Shazam, but upon failing the tests was sent back to earth without powers. Sivana has spent his entire life since then searching for a way to get back to the Rock of Eternity and acquire the Shazam powers once and for all. But by the time he arrives, only the powers of the Seven Deadly Sins are available to him, and they zap into his body via his right eye. Strong’s portrayal of Sivana is a little too on-the-nose bad guy material, but his mastery of his powers forces adult Billy to put aside his selfish endeavors and get to saving the world (or at least the city of Philadelphia).
There’s a vibrant energy and recklessness to Shazam! that is certainly different than the current crop of superhero films from any studio, and it matches the tone and personalities of its characters just about perfectly. Although this approach does undercut some of the drama and stakes of any given scene, it also makes it clear that the movie is going for little more than pure fun, which almost seems like a novelty in the current cinematic culture.
Not that everything is perfect about Shazam! The Seven Deadly Sins as villains seem so low rent and generic, you almost want to abandon the film as soon as they show up; and Dr. Sivana isn’t much more of an improvement, although at least Strong knows how to chew scenery with the best of them. And don’t even get me started on our hero’s costume, which I never liked and doesn’t get the overhaul that every other DC hero has in recent years. If ever there were an image that needed an upgrade, it’s this one. I’ll allow the giant lightning bolt on the chest if you never show me that pop-collar on the cape again in my life.
Still, there’s an inherent kindness to Shazam! that you have to appreciate, if not celebrate. In the film’s final act, an element is introduced that I simply wasn’t expecting, and it wonderfully underscores the idea of what a family truly is, especially in the life of a kid who has grown up without one most of his life. Whether it was by choice or because tonally it didn’t feel right, I’m glad these characters are placed within the realm of other DC heroes without immersing them in it. Maybe down the line, this would be a good idea, but Billy Batson and his super-powered alter ego needed to establish their own environment and playground first. I’m genuinely excited to see where DC takes this character next and in what ways they attempt to preserve what makes him special. Or in what ways they ruin what makes him fun. I’ll attempt to be optimistic here. Shazam! may not change your world, but it wants little more than to put a smile on your face and a little voltage in your system.
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