I skipped Aquaman back in December of last year, not out of any special disregard for it, or for the product that DC are putting out with their movies: it’s fair to say I have a higher opinion of them than most, even if that might be a marginal thing in some cases. But James Wan’s movie may well have been the moment of exhaustion for me with the genre, when the idea of paying money for another round of super-powered battles and CGI maelstroms simply didn’t appeal. I recovered enough in time for Captain Marvel, but yes, fatigue has set in.
I was struggling to muster any enthusiasm for Shazam!, not being terribly impressed with its marketing (notwithstanding my love for the Justice League Unlimited episode “Clash”, when he was called Captain Marvel. Part of me, perhaps, was thinking I should save what time I am willing to dedicate to this genre going forward to Avengers: Endgame (all three hours of it). But then, partially on a whim, partially because people I trust tell me Hellboy is to be avoided, I did decide to give Shazam! a shot, taking in a 4DX screening, God help me. Was it, like my experience with The Sisters Brothers recently, a good move, or am I right to be looking past superheroes finally?
14 year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) keeps running away from foster homes in search of his real mother, disregarding the loving surrounds provided by his latest would-be family and their host of would-be siblings, among then the superhero obsessed Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Things change very quickly for both when Billy is selected by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to carry the sum of his magical powers, transforming into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) whenever he says the word “Shazam”. With such power comes opportunities for adoration and profit, but also the attentions of Dr Sivanna (Mark Strong), embittered by rejection from the same wizard, and carrying with him the terrible power of the Seven Deadly Sins.
DC has been slowly moving away from the Zack Snyder vision for its “Extended Universe”, through the less serious approach of Suicide Squad, the radically different Wonder Woman and, I have it on good authority, the colorful adventurous world of Aquaman. Well, David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! blows them all away on that score. It is the most MCU-like film that DC has come out with in the modern era, and though I have warned against the homogenisation of this genre in the past, the glib, somewhat jokey and over-the-top tone of Shazam! is not only appropriate, it makes the film a triumph, though a dangerous one: we can expect more of the same from DC going forward.
If you had to compare Shazam! to a peer, it would undoubtedly be the MCU’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. Both focus on American high-schoolers getting superpowers and not being entirely sure what to do with them, both of them have protagonists with parental trauma and superhero-obsessed sidekicks, both have a young, diverse supporting cast backing them up, and both maintain a comedic tone. As I said when discussing Homecoming, it’s an exception to my usual thoughts on the overuse of comedy in superhero movies, since that kind of tone is totally correct for the characters and the setting. Shazam! takes that advantage and does wonderful work with it. Yes, the characters are glib, sarcastic and prone to dumb one-liners, but they are nearly all teenagers, in many cases socially ostracised teenagers. When the Wizard tells Batson that his name is “Shazam”, his answer is a chuckle and “For real?”. It fits.
That humour and sense of fun is a big reason why Shazam! is as good as it is. Batson is introduced in a recurring bit, capturing a cruiser from a couple of clueless police officers, more concerned with him taking their lunch; in line with the premise, there’s a fabulous nod to the movie Big, replete with Mark Strong coming in to ruin it; Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” accompanies the inevitable training montage; Billy and Freddy visit a real-estate agent in order to try and source “a lair”; at another point, Billy takes advantage of his alter ego to visit a strip club, promptly leaving, broke, two minutes later (“They were very persuasive” he pleads as an excuse). Henry Gayden has done a great job with the script.
The central figure of Batson provides that refreshing glimpse of a superhero who actually wants to, and enjoys being, a superhero, testing out powers, using them for personal gain, and only slowly realising that he may have actual responsibilities he now needs to look after. Between the general jokey tone and this repeating expression of joy and light-heartedness, Shazam! becomes a really endearing ode to the superhero genre, since, at its heart, it captures what we all felt when we first got into the idea, when, as kids, all wanted superpowers too. It pokes fun at the general idea as well of course, but always in a way that is tongue-in-cheek, while remaining a bit reverential. Proof of that is how Shazam is essentially Superman, and Supes gets a bit of a going over here, but never in a way that is cruel or overly-done.
Asher and Levi do a great job in the lead role, where they have to balance super-powered hijinks – after realising he has an adult form, Batson’s first task is to buy “your finest beer”, as he says to a store clerk) – with a genuinely touching emotional backstory, Batson’s search for his mother managing to ground the character enough that he doesn’t become a total cartoon. It is, of course, a coming-of-age tale for him, and Shazam! never lets the fun completely mask the dramatic necessities. Freddy, forced to use a crutch for an unelaborated upon injury adds a nice mix of comedy and drama too, with it not hard to see the root of his obsession with superheroes. Together the two – or three I suppose – keep the film ticking over very nicely despite its lengthy running time, in a series of “fun and games” set-pieces as Batson tests the limits of his powers (Freddy encourages robbers to shoot Batson in the head to see if he has bullet immunity; later he sets him on power during a nominal teleportation test), and both go down the sordid path of enriching themselves with the new powers (taking money for selfies), at least for a time.
The other side of things is Strong’s Sivanna, and Sandberg does give him some time, but at the end of the day he’s a shallow enough character, who initially wants evil powers because of latent bitterness towards his douchebag father (John Glover, returning to DC after playing Lionel Luthor on Smallville) and then once he has them…wants to take over the world, maybe? Sivanna’s endgame isn’t fleshed out all that well, and the Seven Deadly Scenes are just CGI monsters of little recordable personality. Like, say, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Shazam! sacrifices the possibility of having a top-notch antagonist force in favour of an extended band of protagonists, and that can be OK while still being viewed as a bit regrettable. Sivanna is just the cipher for Batson to use his powers for good, and to come to the inevitable conclusion that he and his new family are stronger together than they ever were apart.
That supporting unit, and cast, is great, with Sandberg and Hayden making sure a small army of “Marvel Family” members manage to get enough time to mark themselves out. There’s Mary (Grace Fulton), smart, capable, but insecure about heading off to college; Eugene (Ian Chen), educated, confident, but maybe a bit too eager to show off; Pedro (Jovan Armand), quiet, maybe insecure about his weight, but with a hidden inner strength; Darla (Faithe Herman), precocious, loving, but unable to stop expressing herself when maybe she shouldn’t; and Freddy of course, who hides deep held feelings of self-resentment with a sarcastic exterior. It’s a diverse and memorable collection, and Sandberg does great work in giving them all a little bit of spotlight individually, as well as focusing on the unique kinship they share. The genre has never been one to shy away from orphans as subject matter – arguably the three most well-known superheros – Superman, Batman and Spider-Man – all lost parents young – but Shazam! puts the reality front and centre with the majority of its cast, constructing an underlying theme of how you react to such loss being a crucial indication of your moral centre.
Things come together very nicely for all these characters by the end, as those familiar with the source material will realise. Others too are quite decent in a uniformly well-acted production: we might wonder why Djimon Hounsou needs to be “aged up” to ply a wizard but he’s still fun, while Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews have some scene-stealing roles as Billy’s latest foster parents.
Sandberg’s production is a fun, inventive one, that straddles the line between mind-bending ancient temples and downtown Philadelphia. The visual inspirations could be traced to anything between MC Esher, Ghostbusters and Doctor Who for the sequences focused on magic but Philly looks good too, a urban landscape that is at least new for this genre (and yes, they do go to the “Rocky steps”), where Sandberg finds places you wouldn’t expect to serve as suitable locations. No carnage threshold breached here: a few skyscrapers get some dings, but Shazam! is remarkably restrained compared to some of its other DC brethren, with its finale in the relatively low intensity surrounds of a carnival.
Elsewhere the director manages to find the contrasts: the often uniform, grim and dark locations for Sivanna (an opening flashback for his first encounter with thew wizard is almost noir), warm, richer backgrounds for Batson even as he continues to run away from them (the search for his mother often takes him to uniform, grim and dark locations, Sandberg making his point visually without it needing to be said). For a director with a background almost entirely in low-budget horror, Sandberg proves more than capable at this kind of work.
Naturally, Shazam! spends its final moments setting up a sequel that we will surely welcome to screens in the nest two or three years, with characters even more outlandish than those we spent two hours enjoying (talking caterpillars anyone?). But it has earned such flamboyance. The “DCEU” may have had its struggles with tone and theme, and may yet fall into the trap of just aping what the MCU does, but Shazam! is an entertaining change for this universe. It’s well acted, perfectly paced, diverse and has that crucial element of fun needed in such a teenaged focused film. It’s a movie to make you remember why you fell in love with superheroes to begin with. The only serious flaw may be the customary weak villain, but perhaps Shazam! can do better next time. I’ll be happy to give it that chance. This may not be as momentous as Endgame, but could well turn out to be the perfect tonic. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).