Running Time: 132 minutes
Written by: Henry Gayden
Directed by: David F. Sandberg
Featuring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer and Djimon Hounsou
Freddy Freeman:“If you could have one superpower, what would you pick? Everybody chooses flight. You know why?”
Billy Batson:“So they can fly away from this conversation?”
These days, in particular the past five years, it seems like every few weeks there is a new comic book movie released into cinemas, 2019 will be no different, just a few weeks ago the juggernaut that it has turned out to be, that being the latest entry into the MCU, “Captain Marvel” (2019) was released which is coasting its way to US$1 billion dollars worldwide. Now we have a new DCEU movie, “Shazam!” (2019) being released, followed in a few weeks by, what seems like the movie event of the decade, “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) which is already promising to have a US$800 million opening weekend alone. It would be easy to see “Shazam!” as a lightweight movie (even its budget is less than half of the last DCEU entry) especially sandwiched between these two behemoths, but in fact it does offer some nice counter programming as recently the MCU may be perceived as going a little darker, this new DCEU movie is definitely lighter in tone as well as performance which for me was quite welcome. “Shazam!” does benefit from three very important and vital elements, one, it is an origin story which means audiences will be familiar with what is being told, two it has some great comic performances, especially from star Zachary Levi and three, it is more comedic in tone, much like parts of the recent DCEU success, “Aquaman” (2018). It also explores the horror genre more than any other comic movie produced to date, especially for a mass audience which is canny as horror is big bucks now.
Ever since the DCEU launched with “Man of Steel” (2013) there has been a darkness and dourness about each subsequent movie leading directly to “Justice League” (2016) which was laughably terrible, a misfire on all levels, the only element of these movies had in common was that they all made extreme amounts of money for Warner Bros., which was why they kept producing them. The other element they all had in common was that for the most part they were becoming more and more critically derided culminating with that same movie, “Justice League”. In attempting to ape the MCU in linking and creating a shared universe the DCEU had also created a rod for their own back, that was up until the mostly well received and box office hit “Wonder Woman” (2017) which seemed to (temporarily) right the ship. Then last year the DCEU had not only its biggest commercial success yet, but also its biggest critical one as well, which may have been more important as well as setting up a new batch of DC origin movies, which leads directly to this weeks release, “Shazam!”, a new look as well as feel for this franchise which may reinforce this once aimless series of movies with new blood.
“Shazam!” is set in mostly in present-day Philadelphia; Billy Batson is arrested by child services after he lures and traps police officers to assist in his search for his mother. At some point a family, the Grazers, adopts Billy and he shares a room with Freddie Freeman, a paraplegic. While at school, Freddie is bullied by a group of kids. Billy intervenes and flees onto the subway where he is summoned by a being known as Shazam. Shazam explains who his is and has Billy grab his staff and say, “Shazam!”, which transforms Billy into an adult with multiple superpowers.
This is the first DCEU movie that really has been handed over to two untested people in director David F. Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden who both have never been in charge of a movie of this size or complexity. In saying that they both acquit themselves very well as this is an origin story so certain beats must be hit, it is everything else that they must concentrate on, in respect to this movie those things are the casting, the action set pieces, the humour and how all these pieces fit together into an overarching narrative. This is a movie that introduces a new mythology to the DCEU in the use of magical entities, so having Sandberg as the director seems like a great idea as he has directed movies that deal in the adjacent genre of horror, where he has had to deal with already existing mythology fitting a story around that. Here he does that very well considering the history that exists in the “Shazam!” which is confusing and sprawling to say the least. This movie also has a heavy horror element reflected in the seven deadly sins as well as the high body count that exists on a personal level, so shock is required. The screenwriter, Henry Gayden, has assisted here to by streamlining the plot as much as possible so that it is always moving forward, not looking back and helping ease an audience into the story by using humour which is accentuated by the ‘body swapping’ (kind of) narrative that feeds the overall feeling of this movie, the humour and horror are juxtaposed so that the audience never fits with either for too long.
As with the vast majority of comic book movies the casting of the central character is one of the key aspects and sometimes is directly linked to the success of the movie both commercially as well as critically, many DCEU characters have been cast by well known leading actors, however “Shazam!” has the relatively unknown Zachary Levi as the titular character. It is a actually a plus for the character of Shazam to be played by Levi as he brings no baggage to the part at all as he needs to play both an adult as well as a adolescent balancing these two things for the entire time he appears in the movie which he does as believably as one could, think Tom Hanks in the classic “Big” (1988). On the flip side of that equation is Asher Angel who plays the young version of Billy who is exceptionally good in the part who has to be the human face of the movie, doing an excellent job considering he has all the heavy lifting to do dramatically. As far as the rest of the cast goes the are all entirely in support of the main character so they are given limited characterisations which is not surprisingly framed by their ages and physical condition which makes the final act in the movie all the more special. The other major actor in “Shazam!” is Mark Strong playing the villain, Thaddeus Sivana, who while the original villan of the titular hero, here Strong seems a little ill fitted to the role, while looking the part his performance seems not only hollow but a little disingenuous and routine, which is where the movie is really let down, much like many of the new comic book movies in regard to both the DCEU and MCU.
It must be obvious by now that every Superhero has an origin story, telling how they gained their powers and decided to fight crime. It may be revealed in their first appearance, or not until an eventual flashback. But once established, it sets ground rules for which tropes are applicable to that particular superhero. The in-story explanation may be that the ultimate source of the hero’s power is magic, Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, or Weird Science. Of course “Shazam!” has a magical base, so it also has magical or mythical villains, in the seven sins, which to an extent help flesh out the universe but they also complicate matters by arbitrarily glomming on to the main villain Thaddeus Sivana. The abilities of Sivana seem to be similar to our heroes but at times we do not know if that is because of his association with the seven sins or if they are with him because of his taking of a mystical energy ball. It is not until the third act that his weakness bears out but that to seems like a on the spot fix made in the editing room and fixed up with reshoots which is a major let down as I felt our hero deserved more than some CGI battle seen a million times before.
This is a very good movie to see in cinemas, it has a healthy does of scares fitting its mystical setting, as well as quite a but of humour with some good performances from the entire cast and unlike many movies it does not give away all its surprises in the trailers that have been released, unlike a certain MCU movie released only a few weeks ago. Not only that but this movie links into the wider DCEU in a few ways, a couple done very subtly, one not so much but still welcome in the overall narrative arc. If you want to take the entire family to a standalone comic book movie that has a lot of heart as well as some lessons then “Shazam!” is for you.