REVIEW: Shazam!

Posted by Matthew Thornton on Friday, May 17, 2019

Director: David F. Sandberg
Writers: Henry Gayden (screenplay and story by), Darren Lemke (story by), Bill Parker (Shazam created by), C.C. Beck (Shazam created by)
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel
Runtime: 132 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13

      The DC Expanded Universe has been an unmitigated disaster from its inception. In an attempt to copy the Marvel Cinematic Universe and create their own shared universe full of the classic DC comic-book characters, the DCEU gave us some truly dreadful movies and forgot to do two important things: (1) present likable and heroic characters who are strongly established in their own right and (2) make a movie with a decent script and aesthetic choices that are not hideous. The Superman and Batman they presented are categorically awful characters in that their motivations are poorly developed, their personalities are bland, and they are immoral and unlikable and do almost nothing heroic. Wonder Woman was not quite as bad but was also thoroughly uninteresting. Everything in the universe is so dark and dour and overbearing in seriousness. It is just not enjoyable for the type of movie it wants to be…so you can guess my surprise when I started seeing trailers for what looked like a DCEU superhero comedy based around the less-well-known and frankly goofy character of Shazam. My expectations were Mariana’s-Trench-low, but I still went after hearing some praise via word-of-mouth. It turns out…
      …this movie is not half-bad. Not only do we get a sympathetic hero but we get multiple likable, understandable characters who are, believe it or not, brought to life primarily by younger actors. Asher Angel superbly portrays Billy Batson, an initially standoffish orphan bouncing between foster homes who is on a never-ending search for his biological mother from whom he was separated as a young kid. Billy is placed into the foster care of the amicable and permissive Vasquez couple (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews), former foster children in their own right, who maintain a harmonious household of a variety of different orphans. Billy’s new crippled and outgoing roommate Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) latches on to and attempts to befriend the aloof Billy. After intervening when Freddy is being tormented by psychopathic bullies at school, Billy is forced on a chase into the subway where he all of a sudden finds himself being endowed with the powers of a mystical and decrepit wizard in a fantastical realm. When he comes back to Philadelphia, he is a jacked adult (Zachary Levi) stuck in outlandish superhero garb and has no idea of the powers he now possesses.
      This movie is sustained almost entirely by the chemistry between Billy (in both child and adult forms) and Freddy. Both these characters are well-written and actually act in a manner that would befit young teenage boys; Zachary Levi does a pretty great job emulating a child’s behavior in his adult performance, and, consequently, I had no trouble believing that young Billy and superhero Billy were indeed the same person. The best stretch in the movie occurs as Billy and Freddy are attempting to determine the full extent of Billy’s superpowers as only two teenage boys would; these scenes are hilarious. Their relationship is well-developed and believable down to the pivotal-albeit-predictable conflict that occurs between them. I was also impressed that the story reaches some points with substantial emotional weight involving these characters and makes profound statements about the meaning of family. Beyond the main characters, Mark Strong has a blast playing the evil Dr. Sivana who is willingly corrupted by The Seven Deadly Sins in exchange for the power they lend him. Shockingly enough, this movie gives a strong motivation to his villainy and even pulls a bit of an unexpected bait-and-switch that is done early rather than late in the film. He serves as a darker foil to Billy and is an intriguing character in his own right. Unfortunately, the other orphans in Billy’s makeshift foster family, who become more and more important to the plot as it progresses, are either forgettable or annoying; I did however like the parents’ humorous performances for the most part.
      Despite all it has going for it, Shazam! has a number of issues that hinder it from moving up a rung on the superhero movie quality scale. After the initial set-up, all of the later conflict is telegraphed as can be which was a bit irksome. The third act drags on and is primarily a bunch of over-the-top, standard-fare CG superhero action that bored me quickly. There is a lot of cheesiness as the film reaches its climax, and everything is pretty ridiculous and simultaneously forgettable during these moments. The weaker actors also really take away from the quality of every scene that they take part in. Aesthetically, a lot of this movie looks kinda cheap; I get that much of the production design is purposefully cartoon-ish but a decent amount of shots just looked like they were from a ten-million-dollar movie instead of a hundred-million-dollar movie. The CG, particularly that of The Seven Deadly Sins, is a bit ugly and reminded me of the most recent Ghosbusters (never ever a good thing) in its quality. The cinematography, editing, score, etc. are all serviceable and entirely unremarkable.
      There is a lot to like in Shazam!, and I think most comic-book movie fans will enjoy this one despite it being a little different than what they might have grown accustomed to. Unlike previous DCEU offerings, the audience can empathize with the main characters, and the hero is both likable and heroic by the end of the story. Most importantly, it is fun: it has an almost-Raimi-Spiderman-trilogy-and-Deadpool-vibe to it versus recent MCU movie characteristics. I was pleasantly surprised by the energy and self-awareness this movie had, and the second act is where it shines. I had a lot of fun watching it and would not be disappointed in seeing a sequel.


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