A review by Sarah and Peter
It is a tribute to the magic of superhero movies how Shazam! can exist in 2019. It is an origin story of one of the first and most classic of superheroes, one of the most popular of the Golden Age, yet also one that has struggled to struggled to maintain his relevance today.
Fourteen-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been bouncing from one foster home to another, as he searches for his biological mother. He soon moves in with Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) and their five foster kids: Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Mary (Grace Fulton), Pedro (Jovan Armand), Eugene (Ian Chen) and Darla (Faithe Herman).
After escaping school bullies via a subway train, Billy finds himself transported to a magical realm where he encounters an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). The Wizard bestows him the special ability to transform into a godlike adult superhero (Zachary Levi) by uttering his name. Billy must then learn to grasp his new powers and use them to defeat the villainous Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who aims to steal the power of Shazam for his own.
The Wisdom of Solomon
The savvy move comes from recognising that there is still room in the crowded superhero film medium of today for a largely faithful adaptation of the New 52 reboot of the character, while still embracing the fantastical goofiness of the original.
The other wise choice of the movie is to cast some of the most earnest up-and-coming actors as Billy Batson’s foster siblings. Even as the adult actors get the bulk of the screentime, the kids can hold their own too. As the self-appointed superhero ‘manager’, Freddy, Jack Dylan Grazer is an excellent audience surrogate – especially for those of us who revel in our superhero fandom. And as the youngest foster sibling, Darla, Faithe Herman truly lights up every scene she’s in, and we wish she had more. While Mary, Pedro and Eugene don’t receive as much screentime, we do get a sufficient glimpse into their respective personalities that set them uniquely apart from each other. Indeed, the kids are all right.
The only exception to the great casting is Zachary Levi himself as the titular superhero. He simply doesn’t bring any true depth to the character, just performing the bare minimum one would expect of a fledgling superhero. In this case, it includes slipping into the childlike mannerisms necessary for his role of a kid in an adult’s body with believable ease. Perhaps that was all he was asked to do?
The irony of Levi’s seeming inability to deliver more to the role is that Asher Angel plays an amazing teenage Billy Batson. Angel is given the task of shouldering most of the emotional gravitas that Billy experiences, and he does a commendable job of it. There is genuine joy in seeing just how much Angel is capable of bringing to his role, despite being all of 16 years old.
The Strength of Hercules
Dr. Sivana as the main antagonist started out solid. Mark Strong, like in so many of his previous roles, pulls off the Menacing Bad Guy vibe spectacularly. His best scene actually comes in the first act, where, after being endowed with magic from the demonic Seven Deadly Sins, he brutally confronts the source of his miserable upbringing. The buildup is appropriately unsettling; the entire sequence and especially That One Shot shows off director David Sandberg’s horror moviemaking skills.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to see more of what allowed Sandberg to breakout in the film industry, and Dr. Sivana’s menacing starts to falter soon after. The character slowly regresses to a typical over-the-top, almost campy villain with unclear long-term motivation and dwindling conviction. We start to take him less and less seriously as the story reaches the climax; a jarring inconsistency from what we see in the beginning.
There is a Villain Monologue in the third act, which in itself isn’t a problem, but Sivana’s was recited in such a cartoonish dramatic fashion that it’s all too easy to forget how life-threatening he can really be. It is a shame that Strong’s stint as Sinestro in Green Lantern (2011) still remains as his strongest (pun unintended) DC Comics role.
The Stamina of Atlas
Shazam! is proof of the resilience of the wider DC Extended Universe (DCEU) and is easily the most interconnected. But that’s to be expected when you have five- sorry, six movies before it.
References and merchandise galore with respect to previously established superheroes are littered throughout. (Keep an eye out for Freddy’s T-shirts!) There are also a few tributes to fans of the classic Golden Age, with easter eggs often hiding in plain sight for those in the know. For one, you’ll smile at the tiger references.
The Power of Zeus
And on the subject of visuals, we do applaud the wonderful creative decision to set the final battle against a night backdrop, much like that seen in previous movies Batman v Superman (2016) and Wonder Woman (2017). When you have flashy powers or weapons, the glow is contrasted beautifully against a dimmer setting at night than in daylight. Some of the CGI of the Sins do seem a little wonky at times, but they hold up alright overall, given that Shazam! has the smallest budget out of the DCEU movies so far.
Unfortunately, the movie simply doesn’t deliver as well when it comes to the soundtrack. After Hans Zimmer, Junkie XL and Rupert Gregson-Williams from the ones that came before, the original score here by Benjamin Wallfisch sounds almost generic and forgettable. It does little to uplift the gorgeous accompanying visuals of what are essentially epic and climatic scenes. Shazam! therefore has to depend on pop songs and musical homages to classic movies to be even the least bit musically memorable.
The Courage of Achilles
Despite being a decidedly just okay movie, the greatest strength of this story is how it handles the Family of Choice theme with such heartwarming ease.
Found families are a staple of the comic book superhero medium, what with countless orphans, ragtag teams or just leaving your home paradise to fight for world you never knew. Shazam! doesn’t shy away from how foster families in general are negatively viewed by some either – “fake mom” and “not your real siblings” are callously thrown out, to the chagrin of the main characters.
Here, foster families are validated for having ties no less strong than biological families. The Vasquez family is undoubtedly the heart of the movie; from the empathetic parents to the adorably supportive siblings. Their love for one another feels sincere and keeps you invested, such that the payoff is well worth it. Billy is ultimately moved by his new family’s efforts, and when he accepts them wholeheartedly after spending majority of the movie trying to put distance between them, you cheer alongside him.
The movie takes a step further by showing that biological relations can even be the ones that hurt you the most. Look no further than the opening scene of a young Sivana being viciously berated by his older brother and father for not meeting their standards of masculinity. It is this contrasting family situation that shapes the outcomes of our protagonist and antagonist. We also have to commend the choice to address toxic masculinity right off the bat.
The Speed of Mercury
Aside than that, there aren’t any other thought-provoking concepts or deep, transgressive issues the audience needs to pay extra attention to wrap their heads around, as expected from the whimsical premise of a teenage white boy achieving the ultimate power fantasy.
You actually breeze through the 132 minute movie quite easily, and once again, Sandberg has to be credited for managing to keep the pace consistent. It’s his longest movie to date, and as someone who cut his teeth on short movies, the concern was always on his long-form storytelling ability, but he manages well enough.
Other than the horrific designs of the Sins that might unsettle much younger viewers and the shockingly graphic violence in the first act, Shazam! is an otherwise safe, amusing and light-hearted movie that will undoubtedly entertain the whole family.
If anything, the movie does do a good job of making you feel like yelling SHAZAM! after the credits roll.
I know I did.
There is one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene. Sneaks begin this weekend while the movie officially opens on April 4.