Wednesday, June 12, 2024

‘Shazam!’ Dazzles and Fizzles

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Shazam! is a goofy, sporadically gruesome, sometimes bloated, rollicking good time. A story filled with heart and a grungy but colorful aesthetic. A shaggy dog movie which is comfortable in its distinctive skin. It leans towards shallow amusement, but its own enjoyment of self runs bone deep.

Comic book movies, as a genre, stem from two major studios, Marvel and DC. Oh sure we have some outliers, but as of right now it all but boils down to these two companies. For a while, it seemed DC was doomed to failure if only because it was attempting to copy what no other company, aside from Marvel, had achieved. With Shazam! DC is showing a more daring path, that is the complete opposite of Marvel. A universe unshackled by connectivity and continuity.

The result is a breath of fresh air. David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! doesn’t require homework for us to revel in the tale of young Billy Batson (Asher Angel).  An orphan with an inclination to run away from every foster home he’s ever been in, all in search of his real mother. He is an unlikely hero. Though the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) claims Billy is pure of heart, it takes us a while to see it, much less Billy himself.

Sandberg doesn’t waste precious time in plunging us into the literal magical world of Shazam!. Right off the bat, we are dealing with wizards, embodiments of the seven sins, and mystical realms. The film’s utter faith in us combined with its sheer jubilancy in having its mythology sneered at, grinned at, and looked upon with reverence, coalesces into a childlike fantasy.

Of all the comic book movies of late, Shazam! feels like one aimed straight at the kiddos in the audience, and in ourselves. Whimsy and grisly reality make for strange bedfellows but are at the root of much folklore and mythology. Though admittedly Sandberg and his screenwriter Henry Gayden struggle to find a tonal balance.

Such as when the villain Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) shows up to murder a boardroom full of sycophants and his brother and father Mr. Sivana (John Glover). It is a scene more at home in Kevin Smith’s Dogma than a family movie. Sandberg never glorifies the violence, but it is a tense and somewhat nightmarish inducing scene. I mention it not to finger wag more so as a warning. Not to sound heartless but children should be frightened from time to time in their stories, but every child is different.

No doubt Sandberg intends this to be a children’s movie as well. Why else do adults play such a small role? Much like E.T., the adults are a presence but it is the children who move the plot along, and it is their thoughts and feelings that matter most. A lesser movie would have probably fleshed out Billy’s latest foster parents Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews). Not to say they are not given inner lives but they are not the focal point.

The other foster children are. Cleverly Sandberg and Gayden have only one real adult protagonist, Sivana. The heroes are the children. Technically Shazam (Zachary Levi) is an adult but only when Billy says “Shazam” and transforms into the muscular smiling hero. Personality wise Shazam is still Billy, susceptible to the same ego pitfalls and temper tantrums of any fourteen-year-old boy.

Billy’s guide to this journey is not the ancient, wizened wizard who gifted him his powers but Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), another foster child and Billy’s roommate. Unlike Billy, Freddy is well versed in superhero mythology. He has a bullet which was shot at Superman and a bonafide Batarang. The duo’s relationship is the crux of the story with Billy coming to terms with the notion that going it alone may not always be the best course of action.

Ashen and Grazer work well off one another. But as Shazam, Levi and Grazer’s report zings with a life all it’s own. After stopping a burglary the two pass by an attractive lady. Shazam tries to flirt only to have Freddy undermine him with, “His name is Captain Sparkle-Fingers!” The duo’s rapport work because both believe the other is the straight man and that they are the star.

Levi is tasked with bearing most of the weight of Shazam! on his shoulders. He brings a wide-eyed impishness to the often bumbling hero. He struts and preens with the arrogant pride of a child, which he is. Levi exudes a warmth and a smarminess, a dangerous combo, for if it goes too far in either direction, the character becomes false. He strikes the right balance, though, and incredibly pulls off a performance worthy of a young Tom Hanks.

Gayden’s script is an imperfect foundation to which Sandberg must build his mythos. Billy’s line, “Families are for people who can’t take care of themselves,” gives us insight to Billy’s character. But the script while at times fun, breezy, and sharp suffers from too much froth. Freddie is disabled; he walks with a forearm crutch. But what exactly Freddy’s condition is we never know.

Nor do we know that much about Darla (Faithe Herman), Mary (Grace Bromfield), Eugene (Ian Chen), or Pedro (Jovan Armand). Oh, we know a few things. Little Darla is a hugger, Eugene is smart, Mary is off to college, and Pedro is quiet. Normally all of this wouldn’t matter, after all, as I said, Shazam! is about Freddy and Billy.

But Gayden incorporates the other children in the climax of the movie. They band together to stop the evil Sivana, and Billy learns what a family is. It doesn’t help that as fun and colorful as the movie is it drags its heel towards the middle. What started out a fun and unpredictable film, in the beginning, soon becomes repetitive and stalls. It takes Billy a long while to both learn about family and also learn what a hero is. The two lessons are not learned at the same time.

It doesn’t help that the other kids are granted powers of their own and turn into superhero adults with perfect physiques. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this idea of kids turning into their idealized versions of what a hero is. But the heavyset Pedro turns into a muscular Adonis, and Billy turns into a chiseled beefcake with no disability.

A smarter script, or director, would have used this to show how society makes kids hate their own bodies or feeds into their psyche that who they are isn’t good enough. Sandberg’s previous film was Lights Out a movie that grossly misunderstood mental illness. In that movie, a character suffering from depression saved the day by committing suicide to stop the monster she created in her mind. Whether he meant to do it on purpose or by accident both movies show a trend of Sandberg viewing things such as disability, mental illness, and body issues more as a character trait to be overcome rather than actual everyday realities for his characters.

Scenes such as Billy goofing around as Shazam and accidentally causing a bus to crash are fun and new. The fact that he seems to have learned nothing from having to save the bus show’s Billy’s selfishness and dimwittedness. The film seems to have lost its penchant for gruesomeness as in that same scene there is precious little if any real consequence. The cracks allow boredom to creep in-not a lot-but enough to dampen the high of the first half of the film.

Sandberg seemed to delight in making us squirm with the implied violence at the beginning of the film. But as the movie moves along, it loses its nerve. The aforementioned bus scene has a couple of moments such as when the bus is hanging over the side of the bridge. The passengers fall to the front of the bus landing on the glass. But it’s done to build comedic tension. Billy as Shazam is beneath the bus begging the bus not to fall.

In the end, everyone lives and all is okay. A few scenes earlier we saw Sivana literally throw his brother out of an office window and feed his father to the sin of Greed. Curiously as the movie goes along, it’s grittier and more visceral tendencies grow blunted and dull.

Thankfully Shazam! has blasts of visceral color. Thanks of course to the cinematographer Maxime Alexandre. For while Sandberg seems not to have a style so much as delightful visual functionality. Despite this, Alexandre allows for the blues and red to pop off the screen. The color in Alexandre’s frames is ticklish contrasts to the dull realities of the Philadelphia skyline. He contrasts Sandberg’s lack of penchant for visual flair with an eye for both comedic and dramatic detail.

Moments such as when Billy and Sivana are having a mid-air battle. Sivana gives a grandiose villain speech, and Gayden’s script cleverly punctures his pomposity by ridiculing the whole affair using basic physics. Alexandre and Michael Aller, the editor, shoot and edit the scene to comedic perfection though Alexandre can only do so much.

While the climactic battle is peppered with little differences, in the end, it is still superpowered people punching superpowered people with no one ultimately getting hurt. The fight isn’t boring, but it’s also nothing to write home about either.

It may seem that I am being unduly harsh on Shazam!. If I am it is not because I didn’t have fun or that it’s not a giddy joy at times to experience. But for as much as I had a good time and for as much as I laughed, I was struck by the overall mediocrity of it. Shazam! is fine, if an uneven film, however, is fun it may be. Yet, I can’t help but grin thinking about it. Shazam! has such a big heart it’s hard not to love it, just a little.


Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


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