I’ve watched almost every Superhero film that’s come out since I was born. My affinity for the genre which is now in my opinion the new “Western” is extreme. Everything about heroes and villains fascinate me. Wave arrived at a time where technology can now match our expectations for translating these incredible works from the comic book page and to the big screen. The genre has grown particularly in the past 20 years to show the range of storytelling and the potential for diversity within it. Whether it’s a small vigilante actioner like Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass”. James Mangold’s Wolverine finale in “Logan”. Or one of the biggest ever and a true spectacle that is Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War”.
What a time to be alive.
Now, I didn’t not mention DC films on purpose. I’m a DC fanboy and I’m rather favorable toward the 6 films that have been released by WB and DC since Zach Snyder’s “Man of Steel”. The DCEU is unique and has the resources to be fully on par with Marvel Studios and the MCU. I also recognize that the critical and box office perception is warranted and its astounding how much WB claims to be hands off yet meddles so much that most of their films have had very problematic production issues. However, things are taking a turn for the better. After the underwhelming box office of “Justice League” WB and DC had to change course and I think they’re off to a tremendously good start. Most recently, James Wan’s “Aquaman” over performed and while it was not a Best Picture contender, the film knew what it was and never took itself too seriously. Its pure action and popcorn fun and had me that much more excited for David F Sandbergs “Shazam!”
“Shazam!” was risky from the jump. Being developed in the middle of the production drama wrapped up in “Justice League” and being produced by the smaller studio from WB, Newline; it seemed this film could’ve been lumped in with what a lot of people were unjustly calling crap. I fell for that 1st trailer last year and the casting before it was a bold choice that ultimately paid off.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a teenage orphan boy in search of his long last mother. He’s street smart, resourceful and knows how to have a good time even when it comes at the expense of the local cops. His investigative skills, while good; gets him in trouble and lands him back at the City of Philadelphia department of human services where he’s being taken in by a new foster family. He’s played this game before and is content to keep being on his own and find the best opportunity to run away so he can achieve his goal of getting his real family. A diverse group of characters make up this family and his new roommate turns out to be a comic book loving superhero fanatic, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). The 2 don’t hit it off initially but that’s no biggie to Freddy. The prospect of friendship and a brotherly connection is all that matters regardless of how long it takes. Unfortunately, that connection doesn’t come quick enough as the school bullies terrorize Freddy one day after school. Without Billy’s help the bullies go to town on him until a comment strikes Billy to act. A chase ensues, and Billy narrowly gets away. A moment of a relief however, shifts to wonder as Billy is magically transported to a mystical cave to an elderly wizard who tasks Billy with becoming his champion an inheriting all his power. A reluctant Billy grabs his staff and utters the wizard’s name to become, Shazam! Billy is now a hulking adult imbued with immense power and has no idea how to use it. With the help of his foster brother Freddy the 2 set out to test his new abilities in some hilarious ways. Later, envy, pride, and stubbornness cause a rift between them and at the worse time when a new threat arises. The evil Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) who was once a chosen prospect by the elderly wizard, has now been tempted by the Seven Deadly Sins and manifest all their supernatural powers that he now uses to cause chaos and exert his dominance on those who have wronged him. The only being on earth capable of stopping him is Shazam! The 2 confront and Billy is easily handled and runs away at the fear of losing everything he has. He doesn’t want to lose a fight he has no interest in winning. At his lowest Billy runs home and his foster family presents him with new clues to his mother’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, that leads him to her not far from where he is and a reunion that reveals her absence was the result of abandonment. A moment to sit on this helps him realize the family he was in search for was the home he refused to make. That gets emphasized even more when he gets a call from Freddy’s phone and its Dr. Sivana on the line. Billy Leaps into action with renewed vigor and fearlessness to take him head on and defend his family. A huge battle intensifies and Dr. Sivana uses the Seven Deadly Sins to overwhelm Billy until he realizes his greatest strength isn’t his flight, or speed, or lightning hands, but his brothers and sisters at his side. They band together and similarly grab on to the elderly wizard’s staff and call out Shazam! Magic transforms the entire family as it did for Billy. With the help of his Superhero counterparts the Shazam Family Defeats Dr. Sivana and the Seven Deadly sins to save the world.
Billy Batson embodies everything we hope to be. More so, everything we hope to happen to us. Not that getting superpowers is the true desire for us or him but having something of significance change our circumstances and give us the power to make a change to our daily life. The changes we make are left up to the person making them. Whether they are good or bad or whatever. David F Sandberg uses Freddy to ground us though, where we really can relate to him more. Being weaker, lonely, un-liked. Seeing something good happen to someone other than ourselves and having to deal with it. And when that person or group abuses or doesn’t value that power or just takes it for granted it frustrates us to our core. We righteously express how if we had what they had we can do it or be better. That sounds a lot like envy. How fitting to have a villain in this film to be a manifestation of Envy itself. Many of the sins our heroes are fighting are representative of the conflicts in their own lives and in ours.
The direction in this film is clever and the script is sharp. However, there’s a touch of disconnect I’ve heard and seen on screen between Asher Angel and Zachary Levi’s performance. That must be a bi-product of the direction. The 2 are never on screen together as they can’t be and the direction of the 2 characterizations don’t always seem to mesh. Asher plays Billy a bit dower, with a touch ham. Zachary is all ham and never has dower moments until his confrontation with Sivana. It never bothered me, but it was noticeable and could be a result of the actor’s choices but that’s something that could’ve and should’ve been caught by the Director.
The performances all around in this film are great. The standout of course is Jack Dylan Grazer. His wit and timing are almost perfect. He shows so much range and is never too much which is rare with characters like his. That disconnect between Angel and Levi is absent compared to Grazer and his Super hero counterpart, Adam Brody. Total shock that I didn’t see coming to employ the Marvel/Shazam! family from the comics and adapt them on to the big screen. Brody is as jovial and in wonder as Grazer and it works amazingly well. The rest of Billy and Freddy’s family are sweet portrayals and show honest diversity and representation.
The Vasquez family are a perfect representation of what we can be. A family that has come together from different places and different walks of life but have plenty of things in common that don’t always look apparent on the surface. Primarily their abundant love for one another shines through every scene. Darla Dudley’s (Faithe Herman) capacity for acceptance of Billy and her sweet performance on screen is infectious and when her character gets a super hero upgrade of her own you’re rooting for her the entire time and in as much awe and wonder of her new abilities you can’t help but smile from ear to ear.
As in most Super Hero films there’s other performances from minor characters that leave much to be desired. The bad red head doctor who’s conducting a fronted Mass Hysteria study. Dr. Sivana’s older jerk brother who seems to hate him just because he’s a geek. I guess a lot of the characters surrounding Dr.Sivana seem to be a little problematic. I’m not saying that the villain doesn’t work in this movie. Uniquely, the choice to make his origin story the first sequences of the film was bold. It also introduced us to the tastes of Sandberg’s style. We get a really intense car crash that is shot very well. This style matures as does Dr.Sivana after being turned away years ago and when he has the power and ability to punish his father and brother, a Board Room Massacre scene gives us one of the many memorable moments in the film. It also gives us that taste of Sandberg’s horror roots so much I had to cover my daughter’s eyes. The Seven Deadly Sins come to life and gruesomely tear into board members of his father’s company. It all starts with Dr. Sivana himself picking up and throwing his brother from his chair out the window of a skyscraper.
In the case of Mark Strong who is far from a minor character he plays Sivana in a classically tropey way. Unsure if that’s a choice or the direction, but it did play uneven sometimes and was taking himself way more seriously compared to that of Levi’s performance of Shazam!
Keep in mind, this is a Super Hero film, so I tend to give a longer leash to some of those choices. For the budget I didn’t mind some of the CGI that’s not as expertly pulled off compared to productions boasting a $200 plus million-dollar budget. I dint mind the look of the Seven Deadly Sins, aside from the bright glowing red eyes. The suit worked surprisingly well throughout the film except when in flight. That’s nearer toward the end of the movie and imagine the budget was running dry. It was rough and not much it could do to cover it up. Additionally, some of the exposition dumps at the beginning of the film, primarily by Djimon Hounsou’s Wizard was a little clunky and even though it didn’t turn me off, I can see why it wouldn’t work for others.
However, what helps cover up some of the warts in this film is the comedy. The timing all around is impeccable and I literally laughed out loud several times. The first time we’re introduced to Billy he’s pranking the local Philly PD and snags a Gino’s Steak while at it. The crown jewel comedy moment in this film had to be when Billy takes his training to the streets with Freddy and attempt to stop a robbery at a gas station. Unsure of Shazam’s full range of abilities, hes shot at. Freddy whips out his phone and tells the bad guys to determine if he is indeed bullet proof and not just his suit, “shoot him in the face.” I couldn’t contain myself. Timed perfectly; delivered perfectly. The script for the most part works and when it does its clever meta-commentary on the genre is dispensed with the right touch. This film, the more I thought about it has some biting comedy that feels like a better pg-13 version of Tim Miller’s “Deadpool.” A lot of the movie feels that way and plays similarly to that smaller scale grit and veneer. Not being as polished as a “Batman v Superman” really helped this movie charm the pants off the audience.
Shazam is full of heart, family, fun, action, horror, monsters, and is fantastic. It embodies some of the boldest horror elements to be introduced to the genre. While keeping its scale small this film still captures the wonder of becoming a hero, imbued with powers and just trying to keep your head on straight. Shazam tackles identity and what the family unit really means. The themes dealt with are poignant and delivered exceptionally without losing focus on the story. A diverse cast with a couple of stand out performances help anchor this film as a unique work in the DCEU and as one of its best!
KOLBYTOLDME RATING- 8/10
Director: David F Sandberg
Writer: Henry Gayden, Darren Lemke
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer
Run Time: 132 mins