I think perhaps it’s time that the DC vs. Marvel arguments can be put to rest. Whilst the juggernaut that is the MCU have, for the most part, delivered consecutive winners since debuting with Iron Man in 2008, as of late DC have arguably found their footing with Wonder Woman and Aquaman both earning critical and commercial acclaim (the former earning over $800 million worldwide off of a 93% critic approval, whilst the latter crossed a billion dollars at the global box office), more than making up for the shaky (though still ambitious) projects they released out the gate (Batman vs. Superman, Suicide Squad, Justice League).
There’s an element of excitement and bravery that lingers throughout the DC brand, and a title like Shazam! continues the company’s decision to take risks on untested characters and present a product that isn’t necessarily an epic in the traditional sense; the forthcoming Joker with Joaquin Phoenix as the infamous villain also tapping into their bold mentality. Having said that, Shazam! isn’t necessarily the new saviour of DC as it suffers from the standard tropes of comic book filmmaking (weak villains and an overstuffed running time) but it certainly still proves to be an awful lot of fun.
Wearing its heart on its sleeve and approaching its origin story with a more 1980’s family-friendly vibe – one could essentially call this the BIG of superhero films – Shazam! is certainly unique when placed up against its DC counterparts (many of whom also get name-checked here). Director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) has aimed more for the younger market, and I suspect many a pre-teen will eat this up, but a slew of older-aimed jokes help endear this to a broader audience; also, despite being a film aimed for a younger crowd, there are cases where the film is alarmingly dark and violent, adding to the film’s case of its own identity crisis.
After an opening sequence that foreshadows the conflict to come, Henry Gayden’s script introduces us to young Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a trouble teen who has been shifted from various foster homes since he was a young child following his abandonment from his mother. He’s typically rebellious and laced with an attitude, and to him his latest home-stay is merely a temporary pit-stop on his quest to find her. Travelling home one afternoon he is summoned by an ancient wizard, Shazam (Djimon Honsou), who has been seeking a successor to grant his powers to. Billy doesn’t appear like the most obvious candidate, but he reluctantly agrees, and when he states the wizard’s name he is transformed into a hulking adult of sorts (Zachary Levi), complete with superhuman strength, the ability to fly, electrical manipulation, and near-invincibility.
You can’t become a superhero without earning the wrath of an adversary though, and learning of Billy/Shazam’s presence brings forth Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a typically villainous outcast whose own dismissal from being granted the wizard’s power as a youngster has steered him on a course to steal the abilities he believes he deserves. When Shazam! strolls down the typical superhero story path it’s unfortunate to note at how uninspired it all appears to be. Strong as a villain never equates to a legitimate threat, and the action scenes are all standard – it does earn points for placing a nice tongue-in-cheek spin on the villain’s supposedly imposing speech stereotype – but when it aims for heart and humour, it manages to get it right.
The relationship that Billy as both his younger self and as a superhero forms with fellow foster kid Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) is where Shazam! truly shines. Grazer injects Freddy with such wit and enthusiasm that every moment he’s on screen the film is better for it, and due to the character’s fanboy temperament (he has collected a wide array of Batman and Superman memorabilia) he easily accepts Billy’s transformation. Similarly, when Levi is allowed to play it for laughs, his take on the character is particularly endearing, and the moments between the two when trying to discover what abilities he has in his Shazam form are some of the film’s best; Shazam besting a duo of armed robbers in a convenience store ranking as a highlight.
Whilst it’s easy to accuse superhero fatigue of overlapping the current state of cinema, there are still titles within the genre that overcome their boundaries (Avengers: Infinity War and Spider-Man Into the Spiderverse as examples). I can applaud Shazam! for trying something new in its attempt to hone the Saturday-morning-cartoon-feel it’s clearly aiming for, as well as embracing a more comedic mindset, but as a whole product it’s sadly a little uneven to be deemed DC’s best. However, given how inherently likable Levi is, it’s difficult to not want to give the film an ‘A’ for effort.
We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s (Angel) case, by shouting out one word—SHAZAM!—this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult Super Hero Shazam (Levi), courtesy of an ancient wizard. Still a kid at heart—inside a ripped, godlike body—Shazam revels in this adult version of himself by doing what any teen would do with superpowers: have fun with them! Can he fly? Does he have X-ray vision? Can he shoot lightning out of his hands? Can he skip his social studies test? Shazam sets out to test the limits of his abilities with the joyful recklessness of a child. But he’ll need to master these powers quickly in order to fight the deadly forces of evil controlled by Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Strong).
Shazam (M) is screening in Australian theatres from April 4th 2019.