'Shazam' Review (2019)
WATCH IT?: YES
A HEARTFELT HERO AND AN IMAGINATIVE VANTAGE POINT MAKE SHAZAM A SUCCESS EVEN WHEN THE BALANCING ACT BETWEEN HUMOR AND DRAMA FAILS
Ok, first things first, full disclosure, I hate this character. I’ve always disliked him. I grew up at a time when comics were mostly serious. They were fun, they were silly, but they were grounded, in as much as a superhero with magical powers can be. So the very idea of Shazam/Captain Marvel the character is annoying to me. If you’ve ever watched Justice League: Unlimited, there was a story arc involving Shazam and Superman that cemented my disdain for the character. So, I just wanted to make that clear going in.
Aside from my disdain for the character, I thought this movie would suck, based on the trailers. It didn’t fit in with the world DC was living in on the big screen. The silliest and most fun superhero movie from DC so far is Aquaman and it was fantastic. I loved every minute of that movie. When I saw the trailers for Shazam, however, I thought it was a step too far. In my opinion, if you’re not going to do the dark and gritty world of Man of Steel and BvS, then you need play in the world of Justice League, Wonder Woman and Aquaman. Lighter in tone characters like the Flash would be closer to Aquaman’s tone, while more serious films would play in Wonder Woman’s tone. The rest can meet in the middle with Justice League’s tone (although I personally didn’t like the tone in that one either, but whatevs). I have to say though that I enjoyed Shazam for the most part. I still feel the same way about the character and the tone, but as a standalone movie, it was fine.
The character was originally called Captain Marvel. Yea, I know. If you haven’t read our write-up about the name discrepancy, you can do so here. After the dust settled, they weren’t allowed to use the name anymore and the movie has fun with that. He never really has a name in the film. The comics, like the movie go by the name Shazam, but he can’t say that without getting into trouble, so he’s got all kinds of nicknames from Captain Sparkle Fingers to the Red Cyclone. We’ll see how long that lasts going forward but if he ever teams up with more serious minded heroes, it’s gonna be an issue I think.
Our nameless hero is magical in nature. Long ago there was a council for wizards whose responsibility it was to guard the world against the seven deadly sins. Yes, those same ones, just the living embodiment of each. There was a time when a champion would be summoned to receive the power of the wizards, but the last time it happened, the champion became consumed with power (see you soon Dwayne Johnson!). Reluctant to make that mistake again, the wizards would only seek those pure of heart. You and I both know that that’s gonna be a long search. So long in fact that the wizards died, leaving only one, the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). When the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) steals the power of the seven deadly sins, Shazam rushes to find a champion before he too dies from old age. In comes Billy Batson (Asher Angel), foster child. 14.
Billy has had a sad life. After getting lost at a carnival Billy ended up in the foster care system, running away dozens of times in order to find his birth parents. He ends up with a foster family that runs sort of a group home with a very diverse set of young people, mostly pre-to-early teens and one college-bound sister. Attempting to stand up to bullies for his foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), he ends up getting chased. He finds himself on the subway, where Shazam’s seeking spell brings him to his cave. Shazam relays as much information as he can to the boy before bestowing upon him his powers. His abilities, which he doesn’t know yet, are based on the acronym that is Shazam’s name (you see why I hate this cat yet?). “The wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the great courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury”. Sigh.
Scared and confused, the hero (we’ll call HIM Shazam going forward) seeks out the aid of his foster brother Freddy due to his geek-level knowledge of all things superhero (I was triggered). From here they seek to find out what Shazam (Zachary Levi) is capable of. The heart of the film is the relationship between Shazam/Billy and Freddy. That relationship is the lens through which attaining superpowers is viewed and it’s a very interesting thing to see. Two children with nothing and one of them suddenly gets the ability to do just about anything his heart desires. What feelings arise? How do they handle the secret? What does one do with the powers and how does the other one view that? That combined with the backstory of the villain and we see a question posed: What does it mean to be worthy? What is family?
Speaking of the villain, Mark Strong is, as usual, fantastic, and, as usual, just shy of a wasted opportunity. The one thing that plagues most superhero origin films is a weak villain. They’re never really given enough time for you to understand AND become endeared to them or their motivations. This was another one-dimensional villain played by a fantastic actor. There are one or two really good actions sequences and it’s all Mark Strong, all the time. Action isn’t really a good selling point in this film altogether though, so don’t expect much.
So should you see it? Sure. It’s fun, it’s heart-warming, it’s interesting enough. As I said, it works better as a standalone as far as tone. It never quite feels like they’re playing in the same sandbox as the other members of the Justice League. It doesn’t feel like they live on the same planet. I’m interested to see how/if they tackle that. Also they need to do something about his suit. The shoulders especially, are god awful. His colors are gaudy so the flaws stand out more. Even though you can tell there’s padding in places, Henry Cavill always LOOKED like it was his body. Ben Affleck always LOOKED like he was a muscular man wearing protective armor. This guy looks like they used the Superman suit and said “let’s just get a smaller guy to wear it and fill the rest in with styrofoam”. If you ask me, I’d like to see the versions of Shazam shown in Justice League: War and in the DC Short featuring Superman and Black Adam. Hey, what do I know?
Fun, heartfelt storytelling.
A superhero origin story told through the eyes of a child is interesting.
One-dimensional villain played by a fantastic actor.
Tone doesn’t fit the larger World’s of DC narrative.
Action/Drama/Humor balance is way off in spots.