We got to see Shazam! a couple of weeks before its wide release and encourage you to just say the word.
We usually don’t do formal reviews on the site, we’re typically trying to focus on why film works or doesn’t. That said, we usually don’t see the films until after their wide release. So, for this one, I’m going to give you a little, spoiler-free review of Shazam! before we get into the real meat of the article. If you couldn’t tell from the snippet, I liked it a lot.
Though director David F. Sandberg’s horror work doesn’t exactly lead one to believe that he’d be suited for a superhero comedy, there is one horror film that comes to mind when watching Shazam!:
Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke’s script bleeds of the respect for youth found in the Black and Dekker classic. Not only this, it is a love letter to its genre. In Shazam!, children and young adults are not treated like clowns, nor are their unique quirks ignored. They are recognized as the complex, emotional people they truly are. Shazam! respects heroes of all ages, and quickly makes this the element that drives the film. Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Glazer provide wonderful performances, along with the other members of the young cast.
They are complimented by Zachary Levi as Batson in his super-form and Mark Strong as Dr. Sivana. Levi maintains the tone set by the younger cast and pulls off the daunting task of playing a child trapped in an adult’s body. Though he certainly took some notes from Tom Hanks, I would argue his performance is as strong, or stronger, than the now classic Big. Maybe this wasn’t the hardest thing to pull off either, the suit he wears bleeds superhero and the kid inside of him must have been ecstatic. His counter-point is the brutal and devious Thaddeus Sivana. After an unrealized turn as Sinestro, Strong comes back to the DCU and provides one of the best super-villain performances in film, continuing a trend started in Aquaman. DC may be developing a nice edge villain-wise on their competition.
I highly recommend Shazam! for both young and old.
Now, on to the spoilers!
As I mentioned, the film is centered around this respect for youth. Sivana’s entire malicious drive stems from his childhood rejections, both by his father and by the wizard Shazam. However, it is conscious decision to embrace the Seven Deadly Sins. This is a decision that he makes, by his own account, as a child. This creates a logical and simple motivation which avoids the plot contrivance that so often plagues villains in action movies. The villain represents a deliberate and powerful evil. Sivana is evil by his own choice and the children he fights are heroes by their will as well.
The complications come in Billy’s journey, one where he seeks to find his true family. It is only after he gives up hope in his biological mother that he is able to do so. This in itself is a ingenious element of the film, as the majority of adult influences in Billy’s life are positive and warn him that what he is seeking may not exist. This doesn’t come off as defeatist, but as part of a consistent message of being thankful for what one has. Once Billy realizes this, evil can be defeated.
Taking notes from the New 52 Shazam family, something Christiaan and I discussed in the podcast (yay us for being right), Shazam! moves itself away from the Captain Marvel days in incredibly satisfying fashion. You may have noticed that in the non-spoilery section, I never referred to Billy Batson as Captain Marvel or Shazam. That’s because they make it clear that he is neither. “Shazam” becomes the driving force behind a team of young heroes, all of whom can transform into champions of justice. It is the magic word, but it is not who they are. That said, this also leads to some wonderful nods to the original Marvel Family. If I acted like I didn’t get a little teary eyed when I saw Adam Brody and Michelle Borth as the contemporary Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr., I’d be the liar this film inspires one not to be.
Shazam! takes the most unique elements of the property, properly exploits them and creates versions of the characters with real legs. It utilizes diversity not to preach to its audience, but to create a relatable narrative driven by the themes of justice, hope and love. It’s not a “children’s movie” but children will enjoy it, along with the adults.
Shazam! is not the big, Earth shattering superhero film that many of its contemporaries are, and is better for it. The focus on the emotional core of the story does more than a disaster ever could. All of these elements create a unique superhero film that may well push others to innovate as it has. Oh, and it takes place at Christmas too! They really do pull it off.
With one magic word.