Just say the word.
There’s a scene in Shazam! where 14-year-old foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) — who can turn into a thirtysomething costumed demigod by shouting the word ‘Shazam!’— and his superhero enthusiast pal Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) realize they can (very easily) buy alcohol. They’re as excited as a couple of kids in a candy store. And that’s exactly how I felt while watching DC’s latest, a heartfelt, incredibly funny, anarchic, and sometimes frightfully twisted throwback to the old fashioned family-centric days of Amblin — think of it as the dark superhero cousin of Tom Hanks’ Big (1988) mixed with the cheeky irreverence of 84’s Gremlins. I’ll say it, Shazam!, the seventh film in the DCEU, is their best effort to date — yep, it’s even better than 2017’s Wonder Woman!
Created by Bill Parker and C. C. Beck back in 1939, Shamaz! made his comic book debut in Fawcett’s Whiz Comics mag under the tag Captain Marvel, who, let’s face it, was always going to be a cheesy-looking B-grade Superman knockoff whose red, white and gold costume was just as tacky as his name. The character was eventually acquired by DC and renamed Shazam! in their New 52 Rebirth in 2012, due (part and parcel) to Marvel having trademarked the name. Irrespective, DC’s ‘Captain Marvel’ is a much better movie than Marvel’s Captain Marvel; heck, I had so much fun watching Shazam! that it honestly felt as though all my geeky Christmases had come at once.
Speaking of the Ho-Ho-Holiday Season, Shazam! opens with a rather grim prologue that takes place on a snowy road in Christmas 1974, where an eight-year-old boy, Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto), who’s traveling with his nasty father (John Glover) and brother, is transported via a Magic 8 ball to a different realm called the Rock of Eternity. There a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou) tests him to see if he’s pure of heart and worthy of becoming the next ‘champion,’ but the young boy fails, falling victim to the temptations of the Seven Deadly Sins, powerful demons who, years ago, were imprisoned in stone and are now guarded by the keeper of the mystic cave.
We then flash forward to present-day Philadelphia, Christmas season, where we meet cocky teen Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who’s been going from foster home to foster home, searching for his real mom (Caroline Palmer), whom he got separated from at a festive season fair when he was younger. Although not a bad kid, Billy is a little bitter about his rough situation, convinced that he’s better off going it alone. After getting in trouble with the law, Billy is adopted by foster parents Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans respectively), who live in a warm, cozy home with a bunch of orphaned multicultural misfits they’ve taken in — there’s ‘den mother,’ and the eldest of the crew, Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton), tech-savvy Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), shy, pudgy Pedro Peña (Jovan Armand), scene-stealing lil’ sis Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman), and Frederick ‘Freddy’ Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled superhero expert/ fanatic that knows everything there is to know about the in-universe Justice League, who pop up in headlines almost every single day.
After sticking up for his step-bro Freddy when a couple of bullies threaten to beat him up at school, Billy is chased onto a subway train and is mystically transported to Hounsou’s lair. Out of sheer desperation, the flailing sorcerer bestows him with the power of the six ‘immortal elders’— the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury, the aforementioned spelling out the acronym ‘SHAZAM!’ — transforming Billy into a ultra-buff, spandex-wearing adult (Zachary Levi) whenever uttering the magic word. Unfortunately, the wiz does a vanishing act, leaving poor Billy to figure out the specifics of his brand-new body all on his lonesome — on a side note, it’s never quite clear exactly ‘why’ Billy is chosen to be the new ‘defender,’ but I guess this might have to wait for the follow-up.
Being a foster kid who’s struggling to find his place in the world, Billy knows nothing of heroes, let alone how to be one, so he turns to his roomie Freddy who enthusiastically decides to test Billy’s new found strength and abilities, filming the process, then uploading it online, making The Big Red Cheese a YouTube sensation; Is he fireproof? Check. Bulletproof? Yep. Can he shoot electricity out of his hands? You betcha. Can he fly? Hmm, we’ll get back to you. Realizing every kid’s superhero wish-fulfillment (quite literally), these bits — some of which are accompanied by the jazzy sounds of Queen’s retro power-pop anthem ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ — are immensely satisfying, incredibly funny and an out-and-out joy to watch.
Of course, none of this would matter — or even work — if it weren’t for the key friendship at the heart of the narrative, and the performances that bring this union to life. Self-proclaimed ‘man-child’ Zachary Levi from television’s Chuck (2007-12) is downright perfect as Billy’s beefed-up alter ego Shazam; sure, there are times where Levi doesn’t feel like he’s the same person as newcomer Asher Angel (who plays teen Billy), but it’s a small blemish on an otherwise unsoiled performance. While donning the giddy getup (complete with a gaudy lightning bolt at its center) Levi, in the role he was born to play, displays pitch-perfect comedic timing, he’s sweet and charming, and completely believable as the boy in the super bod, his exchanges, banter, and all round chemistry with co-star Jack Dylan Grazer, It (2017), wholly genuine and palpable. Similarly, Grazer is solid as Billy’s mentor and friend, with the young performer able to render the character’s (tragic) second-hand excitement, wishing he was the one bestowed with the spandex super-suit.
You see, while Billy and Freddy are doing silly things like trying to acquire a cool ‘superhero lair’ via a real estate agent, they’re slowly growing into bona fide brothers, the script, penned by Henry Gayden, Earth to Echo (2014) — with story assist from Darren Lemke, Goosebumps (2015) — stressing the fact that, ultimately, it’s the way we treat others that’ll have the most profound effect on a person’s life. Additionally, there are keen observations on perception and the power of childhood memories, with Gayden’s screenplay pinpointing that, sometimes, what we truly need to ‘soar’ might not necessarily be what we’ve been searching for, and, more often than not, can be obtained without any fantastical intervention. On top of all this, we get the usual ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ spiel.
As the saying goes, a hero is only as good as their villain, and boy does Mark Strong, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017), do an amazing job as the film’s big bad, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, a cruel, spiteful inventor/ industrialist who, after having grown bitter at losing the chance of acquiring tremendous power, has spent the better part of his life trying to return to the enchanted realm he visited as a child. Once he discovers a way back, he steals a magic eye and releases the Seven Deadly Sins — monstrous versions of Pride, Envy, Greed, Anger, Sloth, Gluttony, and Lust — who, apart from doing his bidding, grant him unimaginable power. Needless to say, Sivana is one helluva black-hearted bastard, determined on stealing Shazam’s power of the Gods for himself. His evil ‘introductory scene,’ which takes place in a boardroom meeting at his father’s skyscraper, is truly nerve-racking stuff, with Sivana unleashing his icky goblins onto a number of hapless employees, whom they slaughter and devour (yep, this movie wholly earns its PG-13 rating).
And this brings me to director David F. Sandberg, who gives the flick a dark, satirical edge, having cut his teeth making scary movies for Warner Bros., such as Lights Out (2016) and Annabelle: Creation (2017). With Shazam! Sandberg builds a richly detailed, highly nuanced world that’s inhabited by relatable characters. What’s more, Sandberg has a blast sprinkling the film with in-jokes, meta moments and Easter eggs that connect his world to DC’s newly minted ‘Worlds of DC’ (think Batman and Superman toys, t-shirts, trinkets, etc.), along with other winks and nods to various pop culture figures — look out for Sandberg’s wife/ regular collaborator Lotta Losten who plays Dr. Lynn Crosby, a psychologist that works for Sivana.
Although there’s a lot going on in Shazam! Sandberg conveys the CG-laden action with surprising clarity, the key set pieces layered with real stakes and an emotional core — the highlight being the climactic clash set at a Christmas carnival in Philly. Just like cult sensation Sam Raimi, who, following the success of The Evil Dead (1981) and its sequel, directed 2002’s Spider-Man, Shazam! makes another very good case for horror-filmmakers-turned-superhero-directors, proving that these guys might be the best types of people for the job — remember Aquaman (2018) director James Wan also helms from a background in the macabre, as does James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), who formerly worked for Troma.
A riotous, sincere post-modern superhero crowd-pleaser, Shazam! possesses such a childlike sense of wonder that it’s hard not to walk out of this one grinning from ear-to-ear. Packed with big surprises (this movie constantly goes where you want it to), a poignant message on the importance of family and the true meaning of the word ‘home,’ and some first-rate performances, Shazam! is a tremendously entertaining action-adventure, and possibly the best superhero romp since Raimi’s original live-action Spider-Man (even if the landscape’s changed considerably since then). Spread the magic word, people, Shazam! is absolute lightning.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Mr. Movie