Just For Fun, by Bob Connally

7 Apr

It seems almost impossible to remember that there was a time – relatively recently – when superheroes were considered by the public at large to be for children. While there were always people who took issue with that assertion and there were movies that proved adults enjoyed a good superhero story too- the Superman films of the ‘70s and ’80s and the Batman movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which were outliers in their respective eras- the idea of superhero movies truly being geared towards adults is still a fairly recent one. From the darker DC films to even the more lighthearted Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings which have all earned their PG-13 ratings, and of course the R-rated Deadpool movies and Logan, superhero movies of the past two decades have become increasingly adult oriented. This makes the environment that Shazam is being released in an interesting one. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a true kids’ movie, it feels like a step in that direction. This is especially surprising when considering that it’s the latest entry in a cinematic universe that opened with Zack Snyder’s dour, miserable nightmare, Man of Steel.

Shazam’s early scenes feel as though they are setting up a typical DCEU film. An opening sequence set in 1974 begins and ends in literal and figurative darkness, while it is followed by our introduction to teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who is in the process of breaking into a police car to look up information on the birth mother he hasn’t seen in several years. Despite his history as a troublemaker, Billy is taken in to a group home by foster parents Victor and Rosa (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans). His new roommate is another boy about his age, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a relentlessly talkative disabled boy who is obsessed with superheroes, who in the world of this film, are already known to be real.

After Billy stands up to some bullies who assault Freddy (yes, they actually start beating up a disabled kid), they chase him into the Philadelphia subway tunnels. Billy escapes onto a train which lets him off into the lair of Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), a dying wizard who needs Billy to take over his powers, in spite of Billy not truly being “worthy.” When Billy takes hold of the magic staff and says the magic word, he transforms into the new Shazam (Zachary Levi), a super-powered adult, complete with costume and cape. This is when the real fun of Shazam begins and we get a superhero story that feels more childlike than what audiences have become accustomed to in recent years.

While the character was first introduced in 1939 (funnily enough under the name Captain Marvel) and was evidently the first superhero to ever grace the screen (in a 1941 Republic serial), Shazam has not had the extensive or notable history in film or television of other famous DC characters. Before this film the title Shazam was primarily associated with a mid-‘90s movie that never existed starring Sinbad as a genie. (My false memory includes Home Improvement’s Zachery Ty Bryan as the kid, for what it’s worth.) So for a general audience, unlike Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, there were no preconceived notions of how Shazam as a character should be portrayed or what the tone of a Shazam film should be. How faithful screenwriter Henry Gayden and director David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation) are to the source material will certainly be debated amongst comic book enthusiasts, but for the rest of us Shazam is an entertaining and funny movie focused on character.

In subtle ways, it feels different from many typical superhero origin movies. Gayden and Sandberg are primarily interested in telling the story of how a 14-year-old orphan grows as a person by accepting love and embracing family for the first time in his life. They are also more interested in exploring the idea of how that 14-year old kid handles having superpowers being bestowed upon him than they are in seeing him turn into a full-blown superhero. The funniest scenes in the film involve him and Freddy trying to figure out what powers Billy has exactly and how they all work. Not surprisingly, two young teens left to their own devices attempt some remarkably stupid and dangerous things but to hilarious results. All the while though, there’s a well-written and developed character arc that shows the positive and negative aspects of Billy’s newfound powers.

Zachary Levi is, not surprisingly, positively perfect for the role of Shazam. Anyone who watched Chuck’s five season run knows that Levi possesses a goofy charm that makes him incredibly easy to root for. He brings that to his role as a teenager trapped in a thirtysomething superhero’s body. Obvious comparisons to Big were made in the buildup to Shazam’s release and Levi definitely fits that late ‘80s Tom Hanks mold. As young Billy, Asher Angel proves a very talented young actor who gives the character real vulnerability. For his part as Freddy, Jack Dylan Grazer has terrific chemistry with both Levi and Angel. Because of the character’s love of superheroes and his wish that he could have the powers Billy received, Grazer’s job is really to represent the audience and he does it splendidly.

As the film’s villain, Dr. Sivana, Mark Strong is solid but his scenes often feel like they are in a much darker film, one that would be genuinely disturbing for younger viewers who will probably enjoy the rest of it. For teens and adults in the audience who can handle it, it just feels like a jarring tonal shift. Shazam would have likely benefitted from a more scenery-chewing over the top kind of villain, one I have no doubt Strong could play wonderfully. It would have worked here in a way it wouldn’t have in the majority of recent comic book films, be they DC or Marvel. There really is something to be said for the colorful ’80s-‘90s villain who enjoys being evil that we almost never see anymore. If we can’t even get that in Shazam then I don’t know where else we possibly could.

Some tonal and villain issues aside, Shazam is quite likely the exact movie you were hoping it would be based on its marketing. We get a delightful star-making turn from Zachary Levi and it feels like an honest look at how a kid would handle getting superpowers. It also thankfully doesn’t bog itself down in trying to fit in with the rest of the DCEU. The overall universe is there to simply give the world of this film some flavor, which is just right for this movie. So before you go see all three emotionally draining hours of Avengers: Endgame in a few weeks, have some childlike fun with Shazam.

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