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SHAZAM! (2019) review

April 3, 2019

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written by: Henry Gayden (screenplay/story) and Darren Lemke (story)
produced by: Peter Safran
directed by: David F. Sandberg
rated: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material)
runtime: 132 min.
U.S. release date: April 5, 2019

 

After grossly mishandling Superman and Batman over the last five years, Warner Brothers/DC Entertainment scored a hit with 2017’s “Wonder Woman” and then the surprising “Aquaman”, which made a splash (heh) last December. Both of those superhero movies serve as much needed course-corrections in the right direction, getting the tone and feel just right for their titular characters for a chance and proving that dark and gritty doesn’t have to be the default setting for these mythic heroes. Now we have “Shazam!”, focusing on a character that may be the trickiest DC Comics character yet to successfully transfer to the big-screen, but director David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”, “Annabelle: Creation”) succeeds by injecting the movie with a fun sense of humor, yet applying an impressive balance between light coming-of-age laughs, hard life lessons and a darker creepiness. It’s a welcome hard left turn from the awful dourness that was the “Justice League” debacle.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a trouble-making Philadelphia 14-year-old who was orphaned at a young age and has managed to elude authorities while doing his best to dodge social services and avoid foster care. That ends when Billy is caught using police computers to assist in his never-ending search for his mother. He’s placed in the care of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans) Vasquez, a caring set of foster parents who provide a home to five kids of varying ages. A reluctant Billy is introduced to the household – consisting of college-bound Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton), talkative tech-savvy gamer Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), shy Pedro Pena (Jovan Armand), the precocious Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman) – by the outgoing and sarcastic Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) a disabled superhero geek who is often picked on at school (we just have to incorporate school bullies). Despite the inviting warmth he’s presented with from this new home, Billy is hesitant to open himself up to the family, certain his mother is somewhere out there.

 

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One day, Billy finds himself pursued by bullies after defending Freddie and winds up boarding a subway car that magically takes him to the cavernous home to a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou, last seen in “Aquaman”) named Shazam. This old figure is has been hanging out at the Rock of Eternity for a long time (kind of redundent, I know) waiting for a worthy candidate to fill the boots of the “Champion of Eternity”, someone “pure of heart” that he can pass on his Greek-inspired superpowers to. Billy skeptically accepts the challenge and immediately turns into a physically fit thirtysomething man (Zachary Levi), after reciting “Shazam!”, yet maintaining his teen mind. Completely freaked by his sudden transformation – a bright red suit, gold boots and a white cape – Billy turns to Freddy, hoping that someone who knows superheroes can help him figure out this new body he’s inhabited. The two strike out to figure out what Billy’s capabilities are in order to determine how best to use them.

The pair become friends as they bond over the secret they share of Billy’s newfound abilities, with Freddie uploading test run videos that become a viral sensation. This attracts the attention of Dr. Sivanna (Mark Strong), a physicist with ties to the wizard and possessed with the powers of the Seven Deadly Sins who sets out to steal the powers of Shazam for himself. In over his head and navigating the typical naiveté, arrogance and frustration that comes with the teen years, Billy must learn to rely on Freddie and his new family if he has any chance of stopping the threat of the nefarious Sivanna.

Although its present day occurs one year after Steppenwolf’s “Justice League” invasion, “Shazam!” opens in 1974, introducing viewers to the young boy who would become a key antagonist for our hero. For a movie that will soon proudly wear its comedy on its sleeve, there’s some heaviness to be mined here. For those well-versed in the comics history of Shazam (who’s real name is Captain Marvel, but that name is never mentioned here, chiefly because of the obvious reasons this movie doesn’t go by that name), it’ll be apparent why screenwriters are providing an origin for Sivanna to coincide with Billy’s journey. We’re also privy to a telling flashback scene which shows us how (and why) Billy was separated from his young mother at an early age. The way certain truths are developed as these past events are revisited again later on in the movie is refreshing for a superhero movie, offering sobering realizations for the characters we’re following. Again, while there are some story elements that will be familiar to those who know the character (even those who don’t), what will become most absorbing is how the movie goes about incorporating those elements.

 

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Much of the movie’s infectious draw and certainly its laughs come from the fact that, despite his outward appearance, this new “Champion” is still a teen and only a few people know it. That makes for some entertaining storytelling, the likes of which owes itself to Penny Marshall’s “Big” (which receives a clever nod here), as Billy must contend with the responsibility these powers bring as well as his own selfish arrogance. He may have been chosen for his purity of heart, but he has much to learn, which can certainly be a relatable aspect to the feature. It also makes for some thrilling moments considering the insular nature of the teenage brain, which is typically not thinking of the big picture, much less the ramifications of their actions. Billy, of course, has to learn this before he inadvertently hurts or kills someone and considering the movie’s target audience, that’s a good lesson to walk away with.

Speaking of lessons, “Shazam!” is a movie which touches on some heavy themes which the young characters (even arch villains) have to contend with – and I’m not just referring to bullying. With Billy constantly searching for his biological mother, we’re as unprepared as he is when he’s smacked upside the head with the reality of where she is in life and why she’s remained apart from him. Screenwriters Henry Gayden and Darren Lamke do a fine job at including these relatable themes with the humor and frightful tone they balance so well. While some of the themes, like making yourself available to family, are easy to predict, the movie arrives at these beats with a sincerity and honesty that’s refreshing.

Ultimately, there’s no way this movie could work without the right cast and thankfully the actors cast in their roles here are uniformly spot-on. It goes without saying that the big sell would have to be how Billy and his Champion alter ego are portrayed and Angel and Levi do a fine job at conveying a young man who’s already dealing with a lot before he’s granted magical god-like powers. Of course, Billy acts different when he’s in the body of a superhero. Wouldn’t you? What I like is how the movie makes room for Billy to figure out the kind of hero he should be. Doing what’s right is always better than doing what you feel like doing.

 

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Audiences haven’t seen a superhero portrayed in such a way before, so this concept could’ve easily tanked, but there’s a degree of truth that is brought to the main character that’s integral in winning over viewers. Much of that is thanks to Levi’s child-like exuberance. Levi has fun as a teen who is suddenly transformed into a brawny adult with amazing abilities and that’s fun to see play out. Playing the villain in a superhero movie isn’t really a stretch for Strong, but it’s a nice change that his Sivanna is given a relatable backstory. We see how his father (John Glover, returning to the DC universe) dismissed him, as did the Wizard, which built a good deal of hurt and resentment over the years as the character would grow to commit himself to prove others wrong. The movie takes enough time to develop Sivanna as a flip side to Billy in a manner that is well timed and appropriately earned.

There are other actors that play some key roles, but mentioning who they are and what they do would ruin what transpires in the story’s third act. I’ll just say that it’s best to go in cold and steer clear of the movie’s merchandizing, but if you’re currently reading the latest volume of Shazam comics from writer Geoff Johns, then you have an idea what I’m eluding to and it’s a blast to see play out on the big-screen.

There are surprises to “Shazam!” that many won’t see coming and that’s very cool considering the tendency to complain about superhero movies being very repetitive. How the movie balances a story of loss to one of household support (a subplot that develops throughout the film), while including funny displays of superpower experimentation and big action sequences is impressive. It’ll be interesting to see where WB/DC goes from here and a delight to see how audiences will embrace “Shazam!”.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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