There is a moment in David F. Sandberg‘s live-action adaptation of Shazam (nee, Captain Marvel. No, the other Captain Marvel), where the titular character — played with charming aplomb by Zachary Levi — begs himself to fly, not knowing if it is even one of his abilities.
At the last moment, right before an impact, Shazam finds himself floating an inch above the pavement, amazed, overjoyed, and wildly excited at his newfound ability to hover above the ground. Prior to this moment, the only instance in the formerly-known-as-DCEU where any character exhibited any sort of wonder or amazement at their abilities was in Man Of Steel, during the brief montage in which Superman (Henry Cavill) figures out how to fly.
That sense of wonder and discovery –of actual, honest-to-God “I am actually enjoying watching this!” — permeates nearly the entire run-time of Shazam! (despite it never once feeling its 132 minutes). Adapting the former Fawcett Comics character (who had since moved to DC Comics after that company ran aground) to live action would have seemed an odd choice just three or four years ago, where the “X-TREEM DARKNESS!” style that permeated the early DCEU films would surely have turned this into something…else.
As it stands, it seems that Warner Bros. and DC Films has finally worked out a formula that is yielding results; from Wonder Woman‘s critical and financial success, to Aquaman‘s $1 billion haul, it seems that the key to succeeding with DC’s extensive catalog of characters is to just let them exist as they are, and whether they connect to each other or not is besides the point.
Opening with a prologue set some thirty years in the past, Shazam introduces us, first, to Thaddeus Sivana, who is at first summoned (and then summarily rejected by) a Wizard (Djimon Honsou), who recognizing that his life and power is nearing its end, must seek a champion to whom to pass it on. Fast-forward to the present day, and Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been moved from foster home to foster home, the proverbial thorn in the side of seven prior families. And here we are introduced to him: ripping off pawn shops for petty cash, and running off in police cars.
Thrown into yet another foster family, Billy finds himself suddenly with five siblings (including Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddie Freeman, fresh off his stint in the It reboot, and just as much of a lovable smartass this time around). And while Angel is, by virtue of being the main character, our emotional center, it’s actually Grazer who does most of the emotional work this time around. Freddie walks with a cane, and his quick mouth often gets him into trouble with bullies who have no qualms about beating up a disabled kid; once he realizes Billy’s abilities, it’s not a far stretch to intuit what he could do with something as simple as the ability to walk without support (fittingly, a scene near the climax does incorporate this into the narrative).
Sivana’s (Mark Strong) rejection by the Wizard became a lifelong obsession, as he commits his life to returning to the Wizard’s cave to retrieve the powers and abilities he felt were snatched from him. That incident held larger consequences not just for Sivana, but also for his family, as it drives a wedge between the relationship with his father and brother.
Failing to recover the Wizard’s powers, Sivana settles on being possessed by the Seven Deadly Sins — living gargoyle-like creatures who imbue him with powers and clairvoyance, and manifest themselves in his left eye. Seeking out the power of Shazam, Sivana eventually confronts Billy, threatening his adoptive family.
Levi seems to genuinely relish the part of Shazam. Mixing his hulking physique with a child-like innocence is effectively charming, and his work playing off of Grazer results in great, snappy dialogue. He also manages to channel his inner-14-year-old (as he should); with each discovery of a new ability or power, his face seemed to light up. The film isn’t without a sense of humor as well; during the first confrontation with Sivana, Shazam gets thrown into a toy store. There, surrounded by toy Batman statuettes, the toy activates itself and blurts out, “I’m Batman!” “Go get him, Batman!” Shazam says, throwing the toy at Sivana, where it bounces off harmlessly.
The final super-powered confrontation between Shazam and Sivana stops a few times for quick quips; at one point Sivana stops mid-fight to make menacing threats, and brag about how much he’s going to enjoy killing Billy and his family…only for us to cut away and realize that he’s a good mile from his adversary, who tries to listen but just shouts, “I can’t hear you. I just see your mouth flapping!”
While ostensibly connected to the former DCEU, it doesn’t have the overbearing need to overly connect itself to those films. Yes, Superman and Batman exist, but it’s interesting to see, in this movie, how their images have been otherwise hijacked by marketing professionals and toy and clothing companies; in real-life, it’s easy to imagine something very similar happening. It also allows Freddie’s obsession with superheroes make sense as well: of course someone like him would be attracted to that life. It’s refreshing to see a movie where these characters are aware of each other’s existence without necessarily having to barge in and steal a scene. Aside from a few instances of the Seven Deadly Sins manifesting themselves and biting heads off people, the film is appropriately light, but not without its stakes.
That being said, it seems that Grazer’s Freddie does the bulk of relaying how Billy/Shazam feel, and what their relationship is to both characters. Perhaps the script focuses a bit too much keeping those two characters together (and not unwisely, due to Grazer’s chemistry with both actors), or Grazer has a better grasp of his material (or perhaps just more of it); but, he comes off as the stronger of the two characters, which makes the climax — a wildly unexpected surprise that garnered more than just a few rounds of applause — all the more fulfilling. It’s not to put down Asher Angel’s work (I can’t recall any other work of his that I’d seen, so I can’t compare), but he seemed to suffer from the “tell, don’t show” brand of direction.
Should you see Shazam!? Yes. This is a much more even, exciting, interesting film than we’ve seen from DC Films thus far, and it’s stronger for its tone. Finally, again, there seems to be an understanding of what these characters need to be successful: just let them exist in their worlds, let them be whatever tone they need to be, and let them be whatever genre they need to be. Sure, there’s wizards, and gargoyles, and magic and a boy turning into a super-man, but it works.
Shazam!‘s bright, funny, fun, exciting, and, sure, the score isn’t memorable, and there’s nothing as immediate and iconic as the No Man’s Land sequence…but it’s worth experiencing for being fresh. And, holy crap, any movie that manages to make Mister Mind — of all characters — seem natural, gets a recommendation. And be sure to stick through to the end of the credits. 4/5 Magic Staffs.
Warner Bros Pictures’ Shazam! opens wide Friday, April 5th, 2019