Shazam! – Light, Silly, and Super?

Much like its awkward teenaged protagonist who magically assumes the appearance of a grown man with godlike abilities, Shazam! is a very big-hearted and sweet-natured movie that tries to act like the more complex and sophisticated superhero epics that populate the big screen nowadays but comes up a little short.  Yes, that is a bit of a criticism, but it is also one of the best things about the film.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a mischievous kid stuck in the adoption system, sabotaging every foster home arrangement he gets placed in, while he searches for his mother.  His latest placement, with the good-hearted Victor and Rosa (Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans) finds him with five new foster siblings, all of them uniquely lovable.  He forms a quick bond with foster-bro Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a superhero-obsessed nerd who collects bullets that have bounced off Superman, the same way others collect trading cards (this movie takes place in the same universe as Man of Steel and Batman v Superman).  One selfless act of heroism and one surreal encounter with an ancient wizard (Djimon Honsou) later, Billy, upon reciting the word, “Shazam,” finds himself looking like a muscle bound 35-year-old man (Zachary Levi), endowed with super powers and wearing a bright red costume, white hooded cape, and a glowing lightning bolt on his chest.  Of course, trouble eventually finds him, in the form of Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a malevolent creep powered by the Seven Deadly Sins, who wants Billy’s powers.

The film Shazam! instantly draws a comparison to is 2002’s Spider-Man, for both good and ill.  Its best scenes are those where our young hero is discovering his amazing abilities for the first time, eyes wide with wonder, disbelief and, ultimately, joy.  Levi and Grazer are brilliant together; they milk these scenes for all their comedic value, as Freddy feels like he has walked into the best kind of candy store, and Billy acts like he has just won the lottery.  But like that earlier movie’s Green Goblin, the villainous Sivana, as characters go, is a bust; he lacks the compelling viewpoint of a Magneto or Killmonger, and possesses none of the mischievous charm of a Loki or Joker.  He is just a petulant, insecure jerk, a pouty man-child who wants someone else’s shiny new toys.  For all his displays of terrifying power, he is one-dimensional and the story’s dramatic momentum suffers as a result.  And as for the Seven Deadly Sins, who both aid Sivana and goad him on, the stone creatures are uninspired CGI designs which recall some of Jim Henson’s less successful work like Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal.

Also sucking the air out of the story is Billy selfishly enjoying his newfound powers for a little too long.  I was checking my watch at around the point he saved a bus load of people from an accident that he caused with his pyrotechnic showing-off.  Peter Parker’s selfishness was part of an important plot point in that character’s story; here, it’s just another set piece, and Billy learns nothing from it.  And this goes to the film’s larger issue, padding.  The story Shazam! tells is a simple one, and one can predict its every turn.  But we can say the same about most films in this genre.  The point is not in just the story itself, but in how it is told.  Shazam!’s action scenes get redundant, and are not terribly original.  Worse, though, they often feel obligatory, instead of being a necessary storytelling tool.

Having said that, it occurs to me that Shazam! is the rare modern superhero movie that, in truth, cares very little for the grownups’ enjoyment.  This is largely a film for the kids, and you need to look no further for evidence of this than in Billy’s thoroughly wonderful foster family, with two loving parents and five wholesome and utterly non-edgy siblings.  Their interactions are all positive and –  outside of Billy’s habit of running away – drama-free.  And youngest sister Darla (Faithe Herman) sets a new standard for adorableness.  Boiled down to its essence, the film is about two brothers, Billy and Freddy, getting to know each other for the first time, bonding over the things boys bond over. In that way, Shazam! is a very positive and enjoyable film to take your young ones to see.  Not every superhero film needs gravitas; sometimes light and silly saves the day.


Raised by a TV, schooled in the deadly art of Sketch Fu, and fueled by a thirst for justice, and Newcastle, HeroMonsterMatt dons his purple cowl and turquoise cape, descends from his belfry and, armed with an iPad and man-bag, dishes out hot takes and trivia on an unsuspecting online community, striking fear into the hearts of trolls and haters everywhere!

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