SHAZAM! DC JUST GAVE ME ANOTHER REASON TO WHY I LOVE GOING TO THE MOVIES
If both the “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” movies gave DC Comics their first big-screen opportunity to distance themselves away from the grey color palette of the Zack Snyder movies “Man Of Steel”, “Batman V Superman” and “Justice League”. Director David F. Sandberg (“Annabelle: Creation” and “Lights Out”), breaks away from the horror genre and gives us the big screen adaptation of DC’s “Shazam!”.
Sandberg who was not the original choice to direct, back in 2000 comedy director Peter Seagal (“Tommy Boy”, “50 First Dates”) was attached to direct. After Seagal left the project Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”) was interested in directing until Sandberg signed on. Sandberg takes us deep into primary colors with a fun, funny, heartwarming and breezy superhero origin story all in a single bound. “Shazam!” is of modern day but feels like an 80’s charmer with a lovely lightness, both in the visuals and in its tone.
Before the 1940s serials and the 1970s Saturday-morning TV show. “Shazam!” was born within the pages of Whiz Comics, published by Fawcett and later acquired by DC Comics. For those who don’t know the back history of the “Shazam!” character (i didn’t and had to investigate after the movie), used to be called “Captain Marvel”, created by artist CC Beck and writer Bill Parker. “Captain Marvel” was the alter ego of Billy Batson, who transformed into the superhero by speaking the word “Shazam!”.
Making his first official appearance in February 1940 in Whiz Comics, publisher Fawcett Comics soon ran into trouble. As DC Comics alleged that the then known as “Captain Marvel” was a copy of “Superman” and a lengthy legal battle lead to Fawcett agreeing to cease publication of “Captain Marvel” related comics. Not appearing in comics for more than a decade before Marvel Comics had trademarked the name.
Marvel’s “Captain Marvel” created by writer-editor Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan, made it’s first appearance in 1967. Due to Marvel’s trademark, DC couldn’t publish a comic under the “Captain Marvel” name and ended up calling it “Shazam!” instead. I’m sure there is more to the backstory but for now….let’s get to the big screen adaptation of DC’s “Shazam”, which I was able to see two weeks before it officially opens (April 5th). The movie does capture the original comics’ combination of breezy heroism and nutty plotting, transferred from the 1940s to the modern era with great skill. Director David F. Sandberg has crafted an origin superhero film that swirls it’s finger in many other genres, notably the 80s-style adventure films of the era. “Shazam!” is a gem and a pure comic book movie. I left the movie having the same magical feeling when I saw the original Christopher Reeve “Superman” and the Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man”. To simply put it “Shazam!” is the reason we go to the movies.
In the film we find young Billy Batson (Asher Angel), has spent most of his childhood escaping foster homes in the hopes of finding his mother. When a new set of foster parents take him in, he’s got one eye on the door ready to escape again. Despite how nice everyone seems, particularly Freddy (played by Jack Dylan Grazer from 2017’s remake of “It”), a “Superman” fan who’s never without a quick quip or the crutch that helps him walk.
Everything changes for Billy as the wizard “Shazam” (played by “Blood Diamond’s” Djimon Hounsou) summons him and gives him the power to transform into a superhero who will protect Earth against the Seven Deadly Sins. Being able to transform as he says, “Shazam!”, a bolt of lightning magically imbues him with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. While Billy and Freddy try to figure out how these powers work (where a lot of the films great comedy comes from). Even when he changes from 15 year old Billy into a strapping Zachary Levi, the new “Shazam” is still immature Billy inside and this where “Shazam!” plays to the tune of the Tom Hanks classic “Big”.
With every great hero there must be a villain. With the appearance of “Shazam!” it stokes the fury of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (played by “Sherlock Holmes” and “Kick Ass” villain Mark Strong). As the big bad baddie, Mark Strong always makes for an imposing force and I thought his character Sivana to be rather ruthless, especially in the board room killing spree he went on. There are definitely some dark twists with his character and even though he doesn’t elevate into the “greatest of all time” villain spots, he’s got a real presence, acting chops and attitude to make for a fine evil villain.
The evil creatures, known as The Seven Deadly Sins are equally nasty and you may need to cover the little ones eyes when they pop up on screen. Thaddeus does have a better villain motive than most superhero baddies. Unfortunately one of the small downfalls of the film is how Thaddeus is eventually turned into just another generic power hungry villain who is hell bent on destroying his counterpart hero. As a seasoned actor Mark Strong uses his own charisma to remedy those shortcomings.
While Billy is in his red suited puffed up white caped form, he is never explicitly given a superhero name that sticks (this running joke always earns a laugh) as Freddy gives him multiple names throughout the film including Captain Sparkle Fingers. Originally, this was going to be one film with “Shazam!” and “Black Adam” meeting and clashing, but the producers decided to split the film into two origin films for both characters. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who is slated to appear as Black Adam served as producer on “Shazam!”, who is played by Zachary Levi, a role that the former “Chuck” star slips into seamlessly.
Originally the casting choice was Armie Hammer (“The Lone Ranger”) to play “Shazam!”. While Armie Hammer is a great actor, Levi has a frantic physicality and transitions easy from confidence to panic, and his skill of acting as a kid trapped in an adult’s body is spot on. Levi’s body language is constantly inventive, as he plays a tween who still isn’t used to a grown man’s body, let alone a superhero’s. Levi is the only possible choice to play “Shazam!”.
As Billy and “Shazam’s!” superhero advisor Jack Dylan Grazer manages great chemistry with both versions of Billy. Not only does director Sandberg throw in scenes of great comedy and adventure he gives us a heart warming feel within Billy’s foster family who all work together to realistically give a real family dynamic (certainly the best since Mark Wahlberg’s “Instant Family”). The way that Billy resolves his own issues regarding his new family as well as the larger crisis he faces when he transforms in “Shazam!”, makes sense in the context of the script written by Henry Gayden (“Earth to Echo”) and Darren Lemke (“Goosebumps”).
Admittedly, the very lengthy third act of bombastic action at a Christmas themed carnival kind of wears out its welcome, by stretching on a little too long. I did appreciate the fun they poke at the cliched mid-air villain speech, another example of the great comedy featured in the film. This is also where most of the films visual effects play it’s role, as most of the visual effects stick it’s landing. It’s a big step-up from DC’s visual work in their last under sea project.
The writers and director says that both Tom Hanks film “Big” and the Netflix Original Series “Stranger Things” was their biggest inspirations. Hence why it’s not hard to say that “Shazam!” is a cross between “Big” and “Superman”. It’s certainly a huge step-up from DC’s last cinematic outing. Both Sandberg and his team uses a 1940s expression, with an 80’s movie vibe that gives “Shazam!” a gee-whiz exuberance to the movie that makes it stand out with an energizing boot of lightning to the last several caped crusader films.
GRADE: ★★★★1/2☆ (4 & 1/2 out of 5)