A quick note before I dive into this review. I just wanted to apologize for the lateness of this particular post, as well as the relative radio silence over the past few weeks. There are some changes coming to the site, one of which will be rolled out in my next post, and I’ve been juggling some other issues at home that have forced me to back burn the writing. I’m still seeing movies – this is the first of three reviews coming in the next few days – and I’m certainly still committed to this blog. Just had to sort a few things out. Hopefully the new features coming soon will be exciting and fun for you all, and as ever, I thank you for even giving my space a passing thought.
We now return to our regularly scheduled criticism.
Part of the reason I didn’t like Captain Marvel as much as others was because a) I thought the movie leaned too hard into the humor side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe equation, given the title character’s gravitas as the expectant savior of all, and b) all of her powers basically activated in the final act, turning her from a human infused with some alien power (evidenced by the fireball hands) to essentially a god who can fly at light speed and survive the vacuum of space. It was too much too fast and tried too hard to be too funny, which in some cases works (Ant-Man, for example), but not for the level of power and prestige Captain Marvel herself is supposed to have and put on display mere weeks later when Avengers: Infinity War comes out.
However, with the new Shazam! the original Captain Marvel from DC Comics (among many other monikers he’s had over the last 80 years or so) makes a winning introduction using fairly similar tactics. I’m sure someone will dismiss my endorsement here as some misplaced accusation of sexism, but I couldn’t care less about the hero’s gender. The reason Shazam! works and Captain Marvel didn’t is because here, the stakes are much lower and the atmosphere much more campy, so the buddy comedy aspects are in proper context. Also, given this hero’s array of powers, the film lets us and the characters have fun exploring what they can and can’t do, instead of just hand-waving for three seconds while the protagonist goes from zero to invincible. It’s basically the same recipe, but presented differently, in a way that makes more sense, and in doing so gives us the best DC Extended Universe film this side of Wonder Woman.
The film rather smartly begins by showing us how the villain of the film becomes who he is. In 1974, young Thaddeus Sivana (a delightful scenery-chewing Mark Strong in adult form) is verbally abused by his older brother and father on the way to a family holiday. In the middle of his being mocked during the car trip, he is magically whisked away to a hidden cave in another dimension, where a wizard (Djimon Honsou doing his best Dumbledore impression) tells the young lad that he may be a chosen champion to protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins (essentially gargoyles that make for some really cheesy-looking CGI minions when released from their stone prisons). All he has to do is pass a test and not grab a shiny ball while the Sins try to goad him on. He fails, and the wizard casts him out, saying he’ll never be good enough to be a champion.
Jarringly returned to the real world, Thaddeus tries to explain where he just was, until his annoyed father diverts his attention from the road, causing a crash. The father is crippled, and the brother places the blame squarely on Thaddeus, who grows up with a mountain of murderous resentment that manifests itself in a research program where he tracks down other “failures” of the wizard’s test until he can figure out how to reopen the portal to the cave. Once there, he takes the ball, which replaces one of his eyes, frees the Sins, and takes revenge on his family, literally throwing his brother out of a skyscraper window and letting one of the gargoyles eat his father alive.
Now, this is all really silly and stupid, but the movie leans into it. It’s an oddly specific origin story for Sivana, and his unique brand of violence teeters ever so joyfully on the precipice of the PG-13 line. Hell, even the central mythology makes no sense. The wizard Shazam and his eventual heir protect Earth from the Seven Deadly Sins, but the name itself is an acronym for other mythological heroes who – with one exception – have nothing to do with Judeo-Christian stories (he is named for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury). But the cartoonish nature of Sivana’s villainy is played for just the right amount of laughs to balance out the menace. And honestly, no matter how over-the-top he is, when he finally confronts the wizard, he brings up a good point. What good did he honestly think would come from telling a fragile young boy that he’d never be good enough, never be worthy of anything? I mean, Sivana’s a dick, but he’s right.
Anyway, back fully in the present, in West Philadelphia, neither born nor raised, on the streets is where young Billy Batson (Asher Angel of TV’s Andi Mack) spends most of his days. He’s an abandoned orphan who uses artful dodges and subterfuge to research women with his last name in hopes of finding his mother, from whom he was separated as a toddler. As such, he’s been scooped up by police and shuffled in and out of foster homes for the better part of his life. After his most recent attempt at maternal reunion, he is taken in by a group home, where each of the children is of some diverse background. Eldest daughter Mary (Grace Fulton) is the de facto den mother, Pedro (Jovan Armand) is the strong, silent type, and also overweight. Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer from It) is partially disabled. Eugene (Ian Chen from Fresh Off the Boat) is a hardcore gamer. And little Darla (Faithe Herman) is overly affectionate and just goddam adorable. As Stewie Griffin once noted on Family Guy, it looks like Billy has been adopted by a Benetton ad.
Billy bonds with Freddy the fastest, though it’s mostly to steal his comic book memorabilia in order to hock them for more mom-finding funds and resources. One day, when Freddy is literally run over and beaten up by dickish teens, Billy swoops in to his defense, getting a few licks in and getting the bullies to chase him onto a SEPTA train (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority – Philadelphia’s public transportation system). Once safely out of reach, Billy is summoned by the wizard Shazam into the Rock of Eternity to be the next champion, as the wizard is on the verge of death and no longer has time to be choosy. With a touch of the wizard’s staff and the uttering of his name, the power of Shazam transfers to Billy, who is literally transformed into an adult, muscular caped hero played by Zachary Levi, who – given his time on Chuck – is absolutely perfect for the part.
Since Freddy is an expert on comic books, Billy in his Shazam form consults with him to try to figure out what the hell is going on, which is perfectly natural, and a side to modern superheroes you don’t often see. Regardless of age or origin, most supers already have some kind of latent talent or skill that makes the discovery process a nonexistent exercise. Not only does it seem proper here, as Billy is only a child (and therefore curious and inquisitive), but the film seizes the opportunity to get some great mileage out of the concept. Think about it. If you suddenly became some kind of superhuman, wouldn’t you instantly want to know what happened and what you can now do that you couldn’t before?
For some reason, almost every other superhero movie dispenses with this and goes straight for the derring-do. But in Shazam!, it’s essentially the entire second act. Billy and Freddy systematically go through the paces of figuring out what powers Billy does and doesn’t have, recording everything and uploading it to YouTube (again, a completely believable course of action for adolescents despite being played for laughs), which makes Billy famous (and Freddy jealous). Gradually, Billy discovers his powers and performs a few heroic deeds, mostly by accident or for further exposure. This is what eventually leads him to his confrontation with Sivana, and the realization that he is way out of his depth.
Are some of his skills a bit too convenient for the moment? Of course, but again, the movie is self-aware enough to make light of it while still making it seem magical. The biggest example is flight. At first, Billy can’t even jump. Then he can jump higher than the average person. Then he can almost leap a tall building in a single bound. It’s only in his first fight with Sivana, as he’s hurtling toward the ground at terminal velocity that he is finally able to stop himself inches from death and hover, before finally flying like Superman. Convenient? Yes, but at least there was a logical progression leading to this point. Peppered throughout this process are several spoken mantras of “I believe I can fly” that I have to imagine were heavily edited to avoid a direct reference to R. Kelly given recent developments.
From an emotional standpoint, the movie can at times drift into the maudlin and oversimplify things, including a few predictable turns in Billy’s search for his mother. But what the film gets right, oddly enough, is the parallel between Billy and Sivana, in that both of them just wanted somewhere to belong. Sivana was denied that in cruel fashion, both from his family and from the wizard Shazam. Billy, naturally, ultimately finds that in a somewhat unexpected way, via his adopted family and the film’s climactic battle at a holiday carnival. But in the end, the quest was the same, and because of that, despite the camp value and the myriad jokes (most of which land, including a brilliant moment in the air that would make Billy Batson excellent at CinemaSins), there is some genuine pathos behind both the protagonist and the antagonist, and in as low stakes a film as this is, it’s oddly refreshing that they were able to get that bit right.
The DCEU has suffered greatly over the last few years thanks to the dark, gritty motif that Zack Snyder laid on the franchise, which at best only worked in small doses. Since his departure, the series has decided, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” and pivoted to more lighthearted superhero fare, a la the MCU. This latest entry, because of the malleable nature of the character, and because it never takes itself all that seriously, is a work of pure entertainment. Shazam! is far from a perfect movie, but there’s something to be said about just letting loose and having some fun. And that’s what this film is. It’s just fun, and sometimes that’s all you need.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you getting superhero fatigue? Are you a Geno’s or Pat’s type of person? Let me know!