Review: Shazam!

Review: Shazam!

by Alan Grant
article from Thursday 11, April, 2019

THERE’S A CLEVER running gag throughout Shazam! about the protagonist’s inability to settle on exactly what his superhero name should be. While those who are new to the DC universe or the superhero milieu more generally might dismiss this as a simple surface joke about a boy-turned-instant-gown-up it actually references the background of this particular set of flying muscles in tights and needs to be understood in order to fully get what’s going on in the film.

Older fans, especially those with a more passing understanding of comic ephemera, will doubtlessly be confused as to why the protagonist of Shazam! doesn’t go by the name given to him in most conversations and in the comics that carry his likeness – Captain Marvel. Presumably, this lack of clarity also extends to include questions about why a film was released earlier this year by that name, starring Brie Larson, whose similarities to the character in the red spandex end at their shared names.

The subject of DC’s Captain Marvel and how he relates to Marvel’s Captain Marvel (who was originally an alien called Mar-Vell) is a really long and complicated matter of intellectual property and copyright that could form its own essay but essentially the DC one came first but Marvel won the rights preventing DC from using the name in print hence the Shazam!  moniker but the enduring familiarity of Shazam! as Captain Marvel.

Essentially, the red Captain Marvel can still call himself that in everything apart from the title of his books and movies while the red and blue, Carol Danvers version can use it whenever she (or occasionally he) likes. Hence why this 2019 addition to the DC cinematic universe is called Shazam! Readers looking for a more thorough understanding of the politics and property rights behind this odd set up should consult the video, Captains Courageous (The Big Picture) by Bob Chipman – it’s as deep as needs be without presuming, assuming, or hypothesising too much. Basically, other than being intertwined in terms of ownership of the name, the two characters have little in common overall and this extends into Shazam!

Our plot follows teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a serial runaway foster kid, who is taken in by an experienced set of new foster parents (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews) as he continues to search for his birth mother. Billy’s troubled life is complicated further when he is endowed by the ageing wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) with the powers of the six immortal elders in the form of a muscled hunk (Zacharay Levi) (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury – hence Shazam!) in order to do battle with the evil Dr Sivana who himself draws his powers from the mythical manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins. When Sivana hunts down Batson, the boy must learn to use his powers (activated by saying the word “Shazam!”) to defeat his enemy and save his new-found family, and the city of Philadelphia, from the threat.

The differences between Captain Marvel and Shazam! are evident and numerous but ultimately the most prominent of them is that Marvel’s Captain Marvel had an ok movie made about her while DC’s Captain Marvel has had an excellent, perhaps event universe-saving, movie made about him. Finally, the DC stable of films has a great movie.

(N.B. Wonder Woman is often cited as great. It’s not. It’s good… but it’s not great.)

Shazam! is a big, rambunctious, ambitious film that packs in so much stuff – including some genuinely frightening jump scares and heart-thumping thrills – but it is fundamentally an action comedy, and a very successful one. The jokes work, the one-liners are snappy, and the cast of well-developed characters balance their comedic and action responsibilities brilliantly. The continuity between Levi and Angel is excellent and both work really well with Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy, Baton’s disabled foster brother who helps him get to grips with his news powers and, in one really powerful exchange, his responsibilities. The script is super-tight, the characterisation works, and the stakes are raised slowly and effectively right up to the absolutely amazing ending!

While the performances are excellent and the direction and production are top-notch; what works so well in Shazam! is its tone. Where previous DC movies have cranked up the gritty realism and grim, dirty-faced, scowling men standing on rooftops looking serious and taking themselves seriously; Shazam!, perhaps owing to its smaller scale and budget, eschews aping the Christopher Nolan or Frank Miller school of telling superhero stories in favour of reminding us that these tales are supposed to be fun. I know, right? A universe in which Space Jesus and a billionaire mental patient with a rubber fetish get dressed up and have outlandish fights shouldn’t need to be reminded to keep the tone light but that’s the lesson Shazam!succeeds in teaching. From opening titles to the (two shhh!) post-credits sequences, the adventures of Billy Batson and pals is all about having fun. As someone who has had quite enough of films trying to be discount Watchmen  (the best superhero movie out there – you heard me!), I’m a fan.

If there’s anything that doesn’t work in Shazam!it’s that it has a bit of a tough time with its villain. Mark Strong is fine in in the role, no surprise to those of us who remember his great job as Frank D’Amico in Kick-Ass, but his character feels more like a plot device than anything posing a legitimate threat. However, this is often the case with origin stories, where the goal is to establish a new version of the character in the minds of audiences, and can’t really be held against Shazam!if we’re being fair on it.

Usually, when I recommend a film, I do so with some kind of reservation or qualification but not this time.Shazam!is well worth the price of admission for pretty much anyone and has something to offer everyone. Whether you’re new to comic book movies, a beleaguered fan of DC comics waiting for a good movie, or somewhere in the middle, you’ll find something to like about Shazam!and owe it to yourself to go see it. It’s really that good.


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