A film review by Craig J. Koban April 16, 2019

RANK: #18


2019, PG-13, 132 mins.


Zachary Levi as Shazam  /  Asher Angel as Billy Batson  /  Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman  /  Mark Strong as Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana  /  Djimon Hounsou as The Wizard  /  Grace Fulton as Mary Bromfield  /  Faithe Herman as Darla Dudley  /  Ian Chen as Eugene Choi  /  Cooper Andrews as Victor Vasquez  / Marta Milans as Rosa Vasquez

Directed by David F. Sandberg  /  Written by Henry Gayden






How is it even possible that a comic book character that premiered to readers just a year after Superman in 1939, sold more comic books during the 1940s than the Man of Steel, and has been a pretty consistently popular entity for several decades has never had a lavish big screen live action film all to his own?  

Nearly 80 years after his introduction in Whiz Comics in February of 1940, Shazam (formerly known as Captain Marvel, but with a much needed name change for legal reasons when DC acquired the character in the 1970s as to not confuse him with the same named hero for Marvel Comics) is finally seeing the cinematic light of day, and the end results could not be any finer.  SHAZAM! is  irresistibly and infectiously enjoyable throughout, and one of the DC Extended Universe's most amusing, sweet natured, and effortlessly engaging installments. 

The film itself remains extremely close and faithful to the classic Shazam iconography and origin story while honing in on modern comic book retellings of his super heroic beginnings.  The first sections of SHAZAM! introduce us to the young teenage protagonist Billy Batson (a standout Asher Angel), who's a troubled youth that's been given a pretty raw deal in life (he's floundered from one foster care home to another throughout his short life and has been dealing with serious mother abandonment issues after losing touch with her at a very tender age).  He finds himself being placed in yet another foster home under the very caring and watchful eyes of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rose (Marta Milans), who, in turn, look after a series of other foster kids, including Freddy (IT's terrific Jack Dylan Grazer), whose physically disabled, yet has a wonderfully dry sense of humor about his own limitations.   



Predictably, Billy doesn't seem to want to really bond very much with his new family, although he does find some common ground with his new foster brother in Freddy.  Fate, as it always does, steps in when the pure hearted Billy (after defending Freddy from some vile school bullies) is magically transported to this centuries old subterranean lair that's overseen by an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou).  Shazam has one goal: To pass on all of his powers to a chosen one so that he can lead the charge of protecting the innocent and fighting evil moving forward (incidentally, his name is an acronym for Greek gods and their super powers: Solomon's wisdom, Hercules' strength, Atlas' stamina, Zeus' power, Achilles' courage, and Mercury's speed).  Of course, Billy is highly skeptical, but when he utters Shazam's name he miraculously finds himself transported into the muscle bound and costume clad frame of an adult (Zachary Levi) that very much indeed has most of the powers that would rival Superman. 

The best way to describe the premise of SHAZAM! is that it's essentially BIG, but with an adult super hero with the mind of an adolescent.  Part of the hypnotic and frankly cool allure of this character is that it's the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy: Every kid that's ever picked up a comic book has yearned to be the heroes they've read and adored.  One of the finer and most engaging aspects of SHAZAM! is in witnessing this man-child super hero - alongside his accomplice in Freddy - going a journey of excited discovery with every one of his newfangled abilities.  There's a brilliantly funny bit when Shazam (as any kid with the body of a man would) tries to go into a convenience store to buy beer, but then is interrupted by robbers, who shoot him in the body, but the bullets bounce harmlessly off his chest (Freddy then hyperactively begs the crooks to try to shoot Shazam in the face to ensure it's not the suit that has "bullet immunity," with predictably hysterical results).  The pair then embark on a series of tests (all shot on Freddy's smart phone and uploaded to YouTube) to see what else Shazam can do.  He can lift massive weights, almost leap tall buildings with a single bound, and can shoot electricity out of his fingers.  Shazam becomes an immediate overnight social media sensation.   

Evidentially, you can't have a super hero movie without a good super villain, and SHAZAM! offers up a pretty compelling one in the form of Dr. Sivana (a well cast Mark Strong), who's revealed to also have a recruitment history with the old wizard himself, with the latter deeming him too impure to take on the responsibility of accepting his inherited powers.  Sivana has his own extraordinary abilities, though, which is complimented by the supernatural powers of the Seven Deadly Sins (yes, those ones) that manifest themselves in hideous gargoyle-like beasts with a thirst for human blood.   In true comic book mythological fashion, there's a intriguing symmetry between hero and villain here, seeing as the birth of Sivana is tainted by his own woes as a wounded child dealing with his own parental abandonment issues.  Both he and Billy struggle with damning notions that their respective parents were never there for them at their most vulnerable of ages.  This all helps round off Sivana beyond the standard obligatory elements of a one-note mad villain hell bent on world domination.  Well, he is mad and hell bent on world domination, but he has relatable motivations, with gives his climatic showdown with Shazam an added layer of complexity; they are both icy reflections of one another. 

The inherent macabre darkness of the Sivana character (so well played for maximum chilling hostility by Strong) and him unleashing the nightmarish powers of the Seven Deadly Sins gives the mostly light hearted and whimsical SHAZAM! an added dosage of torment and horror (contrary to the trailer campaign, this film is arguably a bit too violent and frightening in key moments for very young kids).  But the inviting lightness of approach fostered here by director David F. Sandberg (LIGHTS OUT and ANNABELLE: CREATION) does, more the most part, make SHAZAM! so much more agreeably zippier and free-spirited when compared to most ultra serious super hero fare these days.  SHAZAM! approaches the same satirical and subversive edge as, say, DEADPOOL before it, but is not as cynically hard R-rated in terms of edginess; it's more tender and sincere in its attempts to generate laughs at the expense of super hero movie conventions.  A large part of the success in SHAZAM! is in the pitch perfect casting of Zachary Levi in the Tom Hanks BIG role.  There's rarely a moment in SHAZAM when you doubt that Levi is authentically inhabiting the frame of an adult with the mindset of a young teenager, and the manner that he infuses in the hero a sense of likeable dim-wittedness with a big hearted charisma makes his performance all the more special.  Levi, much like the film around him, never takes himself too seriously in his role and performance, but he never plays things too broadly to the point of high camp.  That's a tricky middle ground to pull off.  

Beyond the standard elements of large scale and massive comic book action set pieces (which are here in abundance) the real emotional epicenter of SHAZAM! lies with the plight of young Billy and him struggling to acclimate to the fact that his mother will most likely never be seen or heard from again, which further leads to him coming to the realization that his new foster family would be a lovely and nurturing clan to live with.  The film does a wonderful job of fleshing out most of the members of this family, and the core relationship between the more sullen Billy and his sardonic foster brother in Freddy feels so natural and organic, mostly because the young performers have such low key and unforced chemistry.  More importantly, the fact that Sandberg is able to adeptly balance the film's action and spectacle with big laughs and a sobering melancholic undercurrent is to his credit.  He somehow makes all of these divergent tones flow fluidly together. 

One thing holds back SHAZAM! from achieving true comic book film greatness.  The final climatic act - which does build towards a key moment in Billy and his foster family's lives together that (without engaging in spoilers) will have die hard Shazam fans cheer with childlike glee - does seemingly and disappointingly go on and on...and on...and has a difficult time coming to a reasonable sense of closure (the film is about 10-15 minutes too long for its own good and could have benefited from some judicious editing).  Still, SHAZAM! is very much the real deal and has proudly and triumphantly emerged as a super hero film of great, innocent, and unpretentious fun that wears its agreeable goofiness like a badge of honor.  That, and it shows that the DCEU - after the superb qualitative good will of WONDER WOMAN and last year's AQUAMAN - is on seriously confident ground moving forward.  It's sort of become the new movie hipsterism to dump on everything DCEU these days, but after three solid home run entries the future of this franchise is as bright as Shazam's tights. 



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