Following the titanic success of last year’s Aquaman, hopes were high for Shazam!, the latest entry in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). With Ben Affleck (Argo, Gone Girl) having exited as Batman, and Henry Cavill (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) leveraging his return against a bigger payday, could Shazam! manage to get the DCEU back on track?
The character was first Introduced in 1939 as Captain Marvel, a young boy who is granted amazing powers when he speaks the magic word, “Shazam!”. Published by Fawcett Comics, Captain Marvel’s adventures resonated with young readers thanks to their mix of heroics and wish fulfillment. Captain Marvel quickly became the best-selling comic book in America, going on to become the first-ever superhero series adapted for film (via 1941’s Adventures of Captain Marvel). However, the character’s glory days would come to an end when rival publisher DC Comics filed a lawsuit claiming that he was a plagiarized version of Superman, forcing Fawcett to settle, and shut down their comic book division completely in 1953.
RETURN TO GLORY
Recognizing the character’s popularity, DC would ironically end up licensing the Captain Marvel character for use in their own books in the 1970s, albeit under the title, “Shazam!,” to avoid legal conflict with Marvel Comics. From that point, it wasn’t unusual to see Captain Marvel having adventures with Superman, becoming a member of the Justice League, and featuring in major storylines.
By the late 1980s, DC decided to purchase all of Fawcett’s old characters and, in 2012, renamed Captain Marvel “Shazam” once and for all. The new film handily sidesteps this naming headache by going out of its way to avoid having the hero introduce himself at all (lest he change back into a young boy whenever he speaks his name).
The new film centers around Billy Batson (Asher Angel, of TV’s Andi Mack), a 14-year old orphan searching for his birth mother while running away from one foster home after another. Billy’s life changes when he is chosen by the ailing wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, Guardians of the Galaxy) to defend the world from demonic personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins. Imbued with the powers of Shazam, Billy is able to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi, Thor: Ragnarok, TV’s Chuck) blessed with Solomon’s wisdom, Hercules’ strength, Atlas’ stamina, Zeus’ lightning, Achilles’ courage, and Mercury’s speed. To fulfill his destiny as the old wizard’s champion, Billy must face the Seven Sins’ vessel, Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong, Kingsman), while discovering the true meaning of family, and what it really means to be a hero.
LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE
Where Man of Steel and Batman V Superman were exercises in cynical self-loathing, Shazam!’s filmmakers actually take cues from their hero’s core concept, applying an almost-childlike sensibility to the narrative. With Shazam!, Director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Anabelle: Creation) and his team have created the most outright refreshing and exuberant DCEU outing yet, displaying a healthy respect for the character’s origins and heritage in a manner that doesn’t alienate non-fans. Simply put, Shazam! is a superhero story that isn’t ashamed of being a superhero story, committing fully to the character’s comic book world of tights, capes, and supervillains.
Rooted as it is in genre convention, however, Shazam! still manages to be inventive and irreverent, as seen in a hilarious mid-air encounter where a villainous monologue doesn’t go as planned. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is how naturally the humor flows, with jokes borne of characters and situations, as opposed to Justice League’s cringe-y one-liners. Fun is definitely the name of the game here, and the film pulls it off with flying colors.
It can be argued as well that the setting helps. Far removed from Man of Steel’s concrete jungles, Wonder Woman’s mythic locales, and Aquaman’s fantastical underwater vistas, Shazam! is set in a recognizably present-day Philadelphia, making the juxtaposition all the more remarkable when the superhero shenanigans kick off.
GOOD VS EVIL
From his days as TV’s Chuck, Levi’s everygeek charm has been undeniable, and, it is wonderful to see him in a vehicle that presents his talents to a big screen audience. Unlike his wasted turns as a Cary Elwes knockoff in the last two Thor movies, Shazam! has no shortage of scenes for Levi to show off what he can do. While the padded outfit isn’t anymore convincing than it was in the trailers (all superhero outfits are padded, but still), Levi is so endearingly ridiculous, the oversized muscles stop being distracting after a while. Of course, seeing as the old wizard who gave them to him was alone in a cave for centuries, this could just be what he thought Earth’s mightiest mortal should look like.
As Sivana, Mark Strong doesn’t really overstretch himself; having played seething-beneath-the-surface villains in everything from Green Lantern and Sherlock Holmes, to Kick-Ass, Strong could probably have played this role in his sleep. Ultimately, Strong’s character motivations here don’t amount to more than basic megalomania and daddy issues, but when the guy (Jonathan Glover, Batman & Robin, Gremlins 2) playing the daddy in question was also Lex Luthor’s daddy on TV’s Smallville, one has to wonder if Sivana was entirely to blame here.
Inasmuch as heroes are defined by their villains, the same can be said of their supporting casts and, in the case of Shazam, he’s got more than his share. Right off the bat, we’ve got his five foster siblings, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, It), Mary (Grace Fulton, Anabelle Creation), Eugene (Ian Chen, TV’s Fresh Off The Boat), Pedro (Jovan Armand), and Darla (Faithe Herman), each with their own unique personalities and surprising (yet not unwelcome) amounts of plot involvement for a story of this type.
Of the foster kids, the most memorable is Grazer as Freddy, showing much of the same smartmouthed wit that made him a standout in It. In Shazam!, Freddy uses his fanboy knowledge of superhero lore to help Billy figure out his new powers while attempting boosting his profile on campus. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that the interplay between the two boys is the film’s emotional core and, while certainly sentimental at times, it never drowns the proceedings in schmaltz.
After countless superhero movies where the climax involves some sort of portal in the sky and/or armies of easily-defeated identical minions, Shazam!’s final act keeps things at a decidedly more grounded level. Taking place at a local carnival, with Billy’s foster siblings at stake, the ultimate solution to save the day is one that had the cynical journalists at the press screening cheering.
THE BOTTOM LINE
With tongue in cheek and heart on sleeve, Shazam! embraces everything we love about this genre, and injects heart, humor, and an endearing cast to make it something more. This isn’t just a great superhero movie, it’s a great movie, period.
While Warner Bros. recently announced a move away from the shared cinematic universe concept following the largely negative critical receptions of its DCEU predecessors, Shazam! stands as a compelling argument for the studio to reconsider. While it didn’t have all that high a bar to clear, Shazam! goes above and beyond to deliver a rousing, often-touching adventure that nearly single-handedly redeems the DCEU.
Now if that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.
Shazam! opens in Philippine cinemas April 3.