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Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Review: SHAZAM! - finally, another great DC movie!

When your favorite film critic was 9 years old, the character then known as Captain Marvel was his absolute favorite superhero of all time. There's just something inherent in the concept that really appeals to little guys. The idea that with one magic word you could turn into an adult, one with super-powers no less, and fight monsters and aliens and crooks of various stripes, it was the ultimate imaginary playset really.

But, thanks to a lot of business decisions and legal maneuvering, there wasn't a lot of opportunity to experience the character, short of one amazing spurt in the early 90's when Jerry Ordway and Peter Krause's Power of Shazam! was on the stands. But other than that, he lived on in my mind as this amazing memory, even after a name change (and subsequent comics reboot), and a ridiculous internet urban legend involving the comedian Sinbad.

And then, like magic, a movie starting getting made, and then it came out, and my friends let me tell you...it's quite the ride. A good one at that.

Basically adapted whole cloth from the Geoff Johns/Gary Frank run in the comics (that aforementioned reboot); Shazam! centers on Billy Batson (Asher Angel) an orphaned wayward youth who gets into nothing but trouble until he's finally paired with the the Vazquez family (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) and the quite sizable adopted clan that comprise that unit. There's the superhero obsessed Freddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), college-bound Mary (Grace Fulton), video-game playing Eugene (Ian Chen), the quiet Pedro (Jovan Armand), and the glue that holds them all together in Darla (Faithe Herman). If nothing else, and only because the film underlines this in magic marker, it's a movie about family and what comprises it. Another much smarter critic than myself has already whipped the Shoplifters comparison in the centralized theme, but this is a sort of populist take on that general idea. It's the family you choose rather the one you're borne to, and in these troubled times where for many the holidays are things to dread rather than embrace, it's well within the zeitgeist.

After defending Freddie from a pair of bullies, Billy escapes into a subway train that then magically transports him to the Rock of Eternity, where an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hansou) is desperate to impart his powers unto someone he deems worthy. Though with the rising threat of Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a former Shazam reject as a child whose obsession with obtaining the magical force that he once held in his hands drives him to outright villainy, the wizard isn't too picky. And so, minorly juvenile offender Billy is granted the power to transform himself into a beefcake, adult version of himself (Zachary Levi) with an array of superhero abilities.

The first 15 minutes of so of Shazam! isn't great, jokes don't really land, the need to establish Sivana up-front, while also laying down the concept of the wizard himself is somehow both too cheesy and too dark, and while Asher Angel is an effective enough, if flat, lead - once Levi takes center-stage, everything suddenly clicks into place and it's as if the entire production somehow becomes super charged by his presence alone. Levi, who has never really done much to win me over, is like a whole new actor here. Or at least is connected with the kind of role that's best aligned with his outsized persona, that of a giant kid. And yes, Shazam! plays up all of its Big connections to the hilt. Levi and Grazer are a remarkably funny pairing, and pretty much carry the first two-thirds of the film on their wonderful comedic chemistry, particularly when they're trying to mark Billy's debut as a superhero. 

Of these most recent DC-related big screen outings, they've been marked by their dour tones or have wrapped themselves up in the myth of their characters to a degree that it's been difficult to actually find anything resembling a character underneath all of the strum and drang. The most recent example, Aquaman, for all its candy-coated camp, contained an arc that was barely even existent "I guess I shouldn't have killed that guy, maybe - guess I'll go become a king". Shazam! is an outright about-face from that approach, as it oozes character and personality from the outset, and it's the first of their efforts where the humor actually lands and doesn't appear as a forced additive that's a consequence of studio notes in order to get some of that Marvel appeal. It's a wonderfully organic effort, even the cheese factor feels apropos given the intrinsic nature of the character. He's the "Big Red Cheese", after all.

(I should also add that there's no small amount of vindication here for Geoff Johns, the past President and Chief Creative Officer at DC Entertainment, whose work has recently provided the backbone for a few of these features - Aquaman most notably - Shazam! is the first outright adaptation of one of his comic book storylines, and that it works so well in straight translation has got to be quite a personal victory.)

While Shazam! is pretty on course throughout, its antagonist does pull things a bit awry. Strong gets to deliver some awesomely hilarious one-liners, almost salvaging the character through his charisma alone, but otherwise Sivana is kind of a nothing character, with simple black and white motivations. And really, any scenes that are intended to build the menace of the character are where things start to drag a hair, especially when he's strapped to these dodgy looking cgi horrors The Seven Deadly Enemies of Man. Still, it's the first one of these where the third act, while overlong, really works and lands all of its marks. Given where we've been, that's a victory in of itself, but on the whole, Shazam! is a greater triumph than that. It's the first real sign that WB can make this superhero thing work within a context that isn't just (badly) aping the success of their competitors or grafting the Batman tone onto everything, instead its the humanist kind of blockbuster we see all too rarely nowadays.

Make sure you see this one.

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