Just Say The Word
David F Sandberg
In the mid-70s a young Thaddeus Sivana is summoned and tested by a wizard named Shazam [Djimon Hounsou], found unworthy of his power, Thaddeus is returned to his regular life and in trying to get back to prove himself, causes a car crash that nearly kills his father and brother. In the present day, the adult Thaddeus [Strong] has invested countless funds into gathering information on how to get back to the wizard’s lair with the help of information from fellow unwilling applicants. Finally making progress, Thaddeus confronts the ageing Shazam and unleashes the demonic seven deadly sins to wreak havoc on the earth. At the same time we are introduced to Billy Batson [Angel], an unruly orphan who is searching for his mother but is forced into a foster family. The family themselves are very welcoming but Billy, being a troubled teenager, has no intention of bonding or staying with them. One day after school, Billy is evading an altercation with some particularly sadistic bullies when he finds himself in Shazam’s presence. Desperate, the wizard has little choice but to imbue the young man with his powers, pushing him to his full physical potential whenever Billy speaks the name Shazam, transforming him into a caped adult superhero [Levi].
Before discussing this movie, we need to briefly take stock of the last two decades of superhero films, specifically those released by DC.. more specifically, we need to talk about the looming presence of Batman. Superman dominated most of the 20th century but Batman took the reins as DC’s most marketable film property from the late 80s onward. But Batman is very different from a lot of other DC properties for its dark and sombre tones. This came to a head in the late 90s when the colourful mess that was Batman & Robin hurt the brand and it wasn’t until Nolan’s gritty, grounded reboot, Batman Begins that people started having faith in these releases again. But starting with a Batman title dictated the course the company would take for years and characters like Superman, a beacon of hope, got the flat Superman Returns and the divisive Man Of Steel. WB/DC then doubled down on being the gritty superhero franchise to counter Marvel’s winning whimsical formula and somehow made a Justice League film that made less than their Superman solo film released four years prior. But with films like The Dark Knight being such a fan favourite, it became the standard by which everything that followed was measured against but for a Shazam feature, the only fair comparison is Richard Donner’s Superman and I believe that tonally and as a representation of the comic, this film is a more than worthy successor.
Not only is this feature simple and fun, it feels surprisingly effortless, as if it was always entirely possible for DC to “make a Marvel movie” – which it was, they just wanted to feel different. The first feature that comes to mind is Spider-Man: Homecoming, for the general vibe, mix of humour and action and representation of adolescent wish fulfilment that remembers one of its key demographics is kids. Sure, it may feel a little trite and rote but Shazam revels in what it means to be a hero, leading to some truly entertaining and funny sequences. Everything about this film seems to be a statement about stepping in a new direction – there’s even a child smashing Batman and Superman action figures together, only to witness Shazam fighting Thaddeus outside of his window and drops the iconic characters to the floor, engrossed in what is happening in front of him. The cinematography and production design are incredibly good, both leaning in to the lush colourful costume designs but also bringing the seven deadly sins to life as pretty monstrous creations that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Guillermo Del Toro feature. The threat is real, the horror is real, the magic is dangerous but throughout all of it, there is an overriding sense of mirth and revelry. Of course there are strong themes of family and responsibility but these quiet introspections and analyses of what a superhero is never get in the way of the initial contract between the audience and the storyteller: we are going to show you a superhero doing superhero things.
But a great deal of this success lands at the feet of the cast, who have astounding chemistry. Levi is a magnificent choice as Shazam, given plenty of opportunity to mess around and be remarkably silly, whereas Angel as the younger Billy brings a pleasant amount of heart and maturity to the character and his relatable teenage struggles. On top of that, the diverse cast of supports and extras is equally wonderful, with each of the Marvel family displaying their own distinct personalities and traits. Without the opening sequence adding an entitlement and semi-sympathetic motivation, Mark Strong’s antagonist would be a touch two dimensional but I think there’s just enough there to make him interesting and compelling as a villain riddled with arrogance, entitlement borne of a sense of injustice. Without spoiling the end of the film, I have extremely high hopes for where this cast could go and what is possible.
I will happily admit that I have something of a bias toward this character. I have always felt that the big red cheese was a DC character that felt neglected when it came to reboots and adaptations. All the powers of Superman with all the wise-assery of Spider-Man, it’s a winning combination. But, as with the comics, the stories presented have often been a little flat and while I enjoy this origin tale, it doesn’t do a great deal to forge new ground or territory. One of its few defining traits is the use of Billy’s family but even with this, it still tells a rather predictable, humdrum story. I would also add that one of the areas where DC films excel is the musical scores, crafting stellar and memorable themes but Benjamin Wallfisch doesn’t really hit the right stride, producing something a little forgettable with a big triumphant theme but one that doesn’t really stick with you. Which is genuinely baffling as his work on films like A Cure For Wellness, Blade Runner 2049 and Hidden Figures were extremely impressive.
This film won’t be for everyone. It makes multiple points about wanting to turn a page on the last ten years of bleak, desaturated features and nowhere is that more present than the end credit sequence which is silly, cartoony and reminds us that this film wants to have fun with these heroes, like a kid with access to one of the biggest toy boxes. In a way, Shazam achieves the same progress that Bumblebee made, aware of the limitations and criticisms laid at the feet of its predecessors and tries to counter with something clearly shot, nicely written and well-acted, while still following the exact same formula we have come to expect. And I for one would very much like to see more.
5th April 2019
The Scene To Look Out For:
As weird as this may sound, the first thing that leapt to mind when highlighting one standout scene was Billy and Freddy skiving off school. As they try and sneak out they are stopped by a security guard who explains that unless a parent is physically present, they cannot go. At which point Billy sneaks off, transforms into Shazam and returns to claim the kids. The setup is simple but the delivery is what makes it really nice. Adult Billy rambles, saying, “Ah! Here I am to collect my child and other child that just left. You must be that security guard that everyone talks about and respects so much.” But before the compliment can be processed, Freddy magnificently undercuts with, “Nah, that’s the other guy. This one is a dick.” It was just.. really funny.
While the supports do a fine job, the symbiotic role of Billy/Shazam by Angel and Levi is too commendable to pass up. All the emotional weight is rested on a young actor who is clearly very capable and the silly indulgence is taken by Levi, who channels the immaturity in a very charismatic way. Having said that, Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy interacts with both actors seamlessly and steals so many scenes that he can’t not get a mention.
“My brother I applaud your choice today. Gold shoes, white cape.. it shouldn’t work but it does!”
In A Few Words:
“Vibrant, upbeat and full of heart, Shazam is a welcome break from the recent spate of morose superhero outings”