“Shazam!” Movie Review


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     After  a string of dark and overly serious entries in the DC Extended Universe, the crosstown rival to Marvel lightened things up a bit, first with 2017’s “Wonder Woman” and then even more so with 2018’s “Aquaman”.  Noting the success of both of those films, the seventh film in the DCU, “Shazam!”, brings the genre squarely into comedic territory, where not a thing we see on screen is meant to be taken seriously.  Whether that’s the right avenue moving forward clearly depends on the character, but director David Sandberg’s iteration of this magic infused superhero certainly works well, particularly given the ages of the protagonists and the adolescent behavior that drives the action.  

     The story centers around a young boy who is mercilessly antagonized by both his older brother and father.  In an opening scene, he can do no right, all the while just sitting in the backseat of their car playing with a magic eight ball toy.  But suddenly, the toy transports him to a wizard’s lair where he is tested for his heart and compassion towards people.  The wizard (Djimon Hounsou), offers the boy his powers, but first he must demonstrate the ability to turn away from temptation.  Unfortunately, because of his built in lust for revenge, he fails the test and is returned to the backseat of the car.  Fast forward decades later, and Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has dedicated his life to recreating the doorway to the wizard’s world, where he hopes to again be offered the wizard’s magical powers.

     At the same time, we meet Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a middle school aged foster child who has been searching for his real mother by moving from city to city and looking up and verifying every name in the phone book that matches his mother’s name.  When we catch up with Billy, he is being placed in a new foster home lovingly created by Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans) Vasquez.  And with this adding to the long list of homes he has already run away from, there isn’t much motivation for him to get to know his latest siblings, though his handicapped new brother, Freddy Freeman (Jack Grazer), is more than willing to share his room with a potential new friend.  It appears he doesn’t have many of them at school.

     Freddy often falls victim to bullying from two older kids, and the first incident where Billy sees this, he intervenes.  The ensuing foot chase leads Billy to a subway train where he is also suddenly transported to the wizard’s domain once visited by Thaddeus.  But Billy makes the right choice and is given the wizard’s powers, which he is told will be instantly unleashed by simply saying the wizard’s name: Shazam!  This, of course, transforms him into a grown version of himself (played by Zachary Levi), all decked out in a red spandex suit,  white cape, gold boots,  and a lightning bolt on his chest that appears to be the source of his power.  Once Billy finds himself back in the real world getting around in this garb, you have to wonder just how silly it actually looks to people given the fact it is mentioned from the beginning the film takes place in the same DC world as Batman and Superman.  In other words, Shazam shouldn’t exactly be a surprise.

     Many have already pointed out the similarities the story line has with 1988’s “Big”, but the sequences involving Billy in superhero form discovering his abilities with the aid of a very super skills knowledgable Freddy, play like 1981’s hit TV show “The Greatest American Hero” more than anything else.  I’m obviously dating myself, but you may recall in that show aliens endow an unsuspecting school teacher with a suit that essentially gives him the powers we associate with Superman, but there wasn’t exactly an instruction manual, meaning much of what he could do with the suit on needed to be learned on the fly (no pun intended).  And that’s exactly what Billy deals with initially, as he and Freddy go through a series of trials in an effort to figure out exactly what his new found powers are?  Is he bullet proof?  Does he have super strength?  Can he fly?

     Those questions are eventually answered, but the story relies heavily on the everyday kid who wants to be a superhero really bad narrative that was already used, albeit in hard R fashion, in Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass”.  And though the heroes in that film didn’t actually possess any real super powers the way Billy does, the trial and error aspect, combined with plenty of teen angst and school yard problems are generally the same in both films.  Something that takes a bit away from the originality of the direction the filmmakers chose to go here.  Perhaps the fact Mark Strong plays the villain in both films creates a bit too much familiarity for “Shazam!” to pass as something that feels new and fresh.

     The villain played by Strong ends up finding a way to acquire his own set of super powers, as his nefarious actions are controlled by monsters who represent each of the seven deadly sins.  All of which leads to the inevitable third act showdown where we are meant to wonder whether or not Shazam can measure up and defeat Thaddeus.  For how dark that actually sounds, Sandberg never allows the proceedings to delve into the bleak territory that seemed to weigh down Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”.  Instead, screenwriter Henry Gayden ensures the characters are wise cracking from beginning to end, or in other words, acting like the kids they actually are.  The entertainment value this brings cannot be denied.  Much of this works well, as the DCU has managed to create a new on screen hero to pair up with any of the already established superheroes.  With both Batman and Superman in development hell (both actors have moved on), could we be on the precipice of a Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam team up?  GRADE: B