Image owned by DC, New Line Cinema, and Warner Bros and from What’s after the Credits?
We now live in a world where Wonder Woman, Aquaman and now Shazam (the hero formerly known as Captain Marvel) are more respected and profitable on the big screen than Batman or Superman. It sounds like madness, a joke that the Joker would appreciate, especially because it’s at the former’s expense. We now have a great new superhero sub-franchise that involves a black-haired, super-strong, flying hunk and the fresh new thing to separate from the maligned last son of Krypton is that it’s a kid inside a man’s body without a man’s mind. Yes, it’s definitely Big with superpowers but more so than that, it’s Big for a current era of cinema.
Poor Billy Batson. In the original 1940s comic, he was a strangely successful preteen who lived by himself and ran a radio show when he wasn’t transforming into Captain Marvel and saving the day. Now, in 2019, he’s a relatable yet jerkass teenager living by himself and brought into a foster family’s home when he keeps leaving the orphanage in search of his missing mother. He tries not to fit in, but becomes gradually attached to one of the family’s members, Freddy Freeman, ironically a paraplegic.
One day, after escaping from some bullies bullying Freddy, Billy ends up arriving by subway at the mysterious Rock of Eternity and meets the wizard Shazam, played by Djimon Hounsou. The aging wizard is desperate for an heir, and is forced to go with Billy, as his recent heroics against the school bullies doesn’t mean he is “pure of heart”, as was the requirements he sought after, he’s “good enough”. After all, a past nominee for the powers of Shazam, Thaddeus Sivana, has found his way back after being rejected as a child. He’s made himself extremely powerful and freed the demonic embodiments of the seven deadly sins, who all look like they belong in the anime/manga Berserk. Not that I’m complaining, mind you.
The film’s key strength in making the whole affair work, aside from how absolutely fun and hilarious it is, is the revisionist message of the comic character. Since the original Billy Batson came from a far more “black and white” era of comic storytelling, writing him as being genuinely pure of heart was a given. Sivana in Shazam! however speaks truth when gaining his evil power by saying that no one is. Billy Batson is not a perfect, pure hero. He begins the film by stealing a cop car, albeit for a sympathetic reason: finding his mom.
Sure, the wizard was desperate and near death, but it’s much more interesting not only examining what makes the best hero, it’s how does an immature yet intelligent child manage such power. It’s a much more optimistic Chronicle, even with recorded footage of testing what powers he has via hand camera.
Zachary Levi is utterly perfect as a boy in a man’s body. He intones his voice, personality, and behavior off of Asher Angel’s young Billy so well that I do buy them being the same person. It’s the one component that I had the most concern about actually working across on film and it fits seamlessly into buying the pretty ridiculous premise as being totally authentic. If anything, a boy trying to both understand superheroics and its responsibilities is more interesting for me than Tom Hanks just trying to understand the adult world of Yuppie 80s’ America like in Big.
One thing that surprised, more pleasantly than you would think, is the darkness in the film, and not through lighting and tone. Shazam! is easily the most uplifting and visually comforting DCEU film in that regard. It features some dark moments of violence, character revelation and sense of dire purpose which acts as a congruent counterpoint to the cheerier, innocent tone oddly enough. Not to spoil too heavily, but one minor character’s death comes out of nowhere and it is GRAPHIC and drawn out, though within PG-13 parameters.
The Seven Deadly Sins also look legitimately menacing and malicious which makes the main group of heroes, largely children, all the more noticeable. Mark Strong’s take on Sivana, that of an internally furious child who not only was denied godlike power but has an awful father and brother to boot makes him understandable but still wholly unpleasant. He is a harsh villain all things considered.
I wonder if the intriguing mix of optimism and fun with graveness and shocking moments is meant to be a call back to 80s’ cinema that isn’t simply nostalgic like last year’s Bumblebee. Remember films with child casts like The Goonies, Stand By Me and The Monster Squad? To paraphrase Doc Brown, “You’ll see some serious shit,” and I love it. I like a superhero film like Shazam! to take unique risks and its another way to keep the genre everlasting and into the third decade of the century.
The one weakness is forgivable but still noteworthy. The rest of the foster family that Billy comes to live with are not as developed as I would like, especially with an epic payoff for what development is had.
Aside from Freddy, the most rounded foster kid is little Darla, an exuberant African-American first grader who manages to learn Billy’s secret ahead of the others. There’s also Pedro, an overweight Hispanic student who barely talks. Eugene, a young gamer with obsessive online predilections which does make me apprehensive of the generation succeeding me. And finally, there’s Mary, the eldest adopted child who is nearing her college years. They all get a chance to interact with Billy in some way, but I think a little more time would’ve better cemented the “unorthodox family” theme that is all the rage these days in popular culture.
I have no problem with this trope but I wish there would’ve been as much attention here as there was in the humorous super-antics but it’s hard to really complain with what I did get it out of it. I still cared enough as it stands and look forward to further installments to flesh them out more. Especially while’ll there still young enough to play.
We have had plenty of superhero origin movies about why the hero or like last month, heroine, earns the right to be that hero. What are their motivations? What are their weaknesses? What is the code they go to face their challenges with? Shazam! asks the obvious questions in a way that is both new and almost like an introspection. If one were to be worthy of such ability, as Billy really is not at the start, what do they do to earn it and more importantly than that, where do they go from there?
All of that and much more Shazam! succeeds in relating and it leaves me for the first time viewing the DCEU wanting to see a continuation of a property they have at their disposal. At long last, Marvel should watch out. They have a contender. And that contender isn’t old enough to drink, vote or drive.