Review – Shazam! (2019)
Director: David F. Sandberg
Starring: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews, Djimon Hounsou
The deeper we get into this era of superhero movies, the more studios have to move away from the household names. Despite having been one of the most popular comic book heroes of the 1940s, Shazam is not a name that means anything to most moviegoers today (and let’s not even get into the confusing fact that for much of the character’s existence he was known as Captain Marvel). But that anonymity might change. David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! finds its own space in a crowded marketplace with is comedic, joyful tone, liberated by Warner Brothers and DC’s shift towards prioritising the distinctness of individual films over a consistent tone across their storytelling universe.
Locked in the eternal struggle between good and evil, the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) must find a champion, strong in spirit and pure in heart, to take on the responsibility of keeping the seven deadly sins, here depicted as ogre-like monsters, at bay. After many have been tried and found wanting, the Wizard has run out of time and must settle for fourteen year old Billy Batson (Asher Angel). Just by saying the word ‘Shazam’ Billy is bestowed 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. In other words, he becomes a superhero (Zachary Levi playing the super form). And being a superhero is a lot of fun… until you meet a supervillain. The evil Dr Sivana (Mark Strong) knows the origins of Shazam’s powers and is determined to take them for himself.
Shazam! is pure wish fulfilment, playing out the fantasy of every kid who dreamed of becoming a superhero. The film is at its most fun and engaging in the second act when its generic superhero plot mechanics are put to one side in favour of watching Billy and his superhero-obsessed foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) giddily experimenting with Billy’s new powers and workshopping different superhero names. They are kids playing with a new toy, but the toy is Billy. Fittingly, for a Gen-Z superhero, Shazam emergence into the public consciousness comes not through being snapped by a news crew or written up by a journalist, but through Freddy’s publishing videos of their experiments on YouTube.
A riff on Penny Marshall’s Big, it is Zachary Levi’s performance as a boy in a man’s body that sells it (though it should be noted that he rarely seems to be playing the same character that Asher Angel is). At a time when so much effort is made to ground superhero stories in reality, Levi is cartoonishly barrel chested, and his costume – a red leotard with a gold-trimmed white cape and large illuminated yellow lightening bolt – is generically superhero in a wonderful way. It is a refreshing change to see a character who is genuinely enjoying being a superhero, and doing so in such a childlike way, rather than it being a burden or the outplaying of some deep trauma. Levi is clearly having fun, but there is an absolute sincerity to his performance. He captures the innocence and giddy excitement of the character. But when things get hard, we also see the childlike fear, the desire to run away and to hide.
Like many other contemporary blockbusters, Shazam! wears its indebtedness to the Amblin films of the 1980s on its sleeve. This Amblin influence means that, while this is definitely a family oriented film, it is not afraid to go quite dark. Sometimes that darkness means being scary – director David F. Sandberg has a horror background and leans into that on occasion in moments that will challenge younger viewers – but mostly that darkness is more emotional and sad. Both Billy and Dr. Sivana’s stories revolve around absent or abusive families. Billy is a jaded teenager who has spent his childhood bouncing from foster home to foster home, who must learn to embrace the makeshift family that he has, rather than continually pushing them away in search of the family he has lost. Sivana was rejected by his father in favour of his brother and, after years spent trying to prove himself, has determined to have revenge on both. The tonal contrast between Shazam!’s light moments and its dark is quite significant, but there is enough logic behind it that it doesn’t feel inconsistent.
Given the real strength of Shazam! lies in those early moments of discovery, in Billy’s excited experimentation with his newfound powers, it is difficult to imagine what a satisfying sequel – because you know there will be one – might look like. Regardless, the film has arrived at just the right time. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe reaching the zenith of high stakes seriousness, Shazam! is a suitable foil. While not always as funny as it wants to be, it does succeed in reminding us that through the eyes of a child the idea of being a superhero is just a whole lot of fun.
Review by Duncan McLean
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