SHAZAM!
(***Ĺ)

"...turns the DC Extended Universe into a super-charged good time"

Catching Lightening in a Bottle

(040719) You never get a second chance to make a first impression, but you really canít fault the DC Extended Universe for trying. After all, it got off to a pretty shaky start with dark, angsty films like Man of Steel and the punishingly pessimistic Batman V Superman: Dawn of Martha. While Wonder Woman, the first DC film shot in color, looked like a reversal, DC doubled-down with the schizotonic mess Suicide Squad and the hollow, self-important Justice League. Thatís probably why Aquaman, its overdone and bombastic sixth film, seemed like a rebootóa conscious effort to distance itself from the franchiseís past. The trend, however solidifies with Shazam!, a film so bold, campy, and old-school that it has an exclamation point right in the title.

The hero of our story is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a troubled, 14-year-old foster kid. Through a series of random events, he meets an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who gives Billy the ability to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) when he says ďShazam!Ē While Billy tries to figure out his new powers with the help of his comic book geek foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), heís being hunted by the villainous Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), who wants Billyís magic for himself.

There really isnít much more plot to Shazam! than that. Thereís no world-shaking catastrophe. Thereís not really a city to save. Nobodyís trying to become king of anything. There isnít even a giant, mystical laser shooting up into the sky. WaitÖis this even a DCEU movie at all?

It is, but not in the ways you might think. Shazam! makes off-handed references to events in prior DCEU films. And based on the memorabilia in Freddyís room, we know that Bats, Supes are real characters in the filmís universe. Otherwise, though, the film is largely unconnected to any of the movies that came before it. This works entirely in the filmís favor, unburdening it of the DCEUís past baggage and allowing it to thrive on its own merits.

If anything, the closest analog Shazam! has to other superhero films is, of all things, Deadpool. Both films have only a tenuous connection to shared universes, and both are admirably devoted to the tone and feel of their source material. Both have the lowest but most efficient budgets of any film in their franchise. And both are focused entirely on personal stakes that help to speak to the nature of their characters in ways larger films often miss. (Both heroes wear red suits, too.) Of course, one is a profane, R-rated slice-and-dice-fest while the other is a more family-friendly adventure about flying men in capes. But, you know. Similar otherwise.

The most notable thing about Shazam! is how much fun it is. Even when heís transformed into a handsome brick wall of a man, Billy is still a 14-year-old boy playing with all the classic superpowers. There is a heavy degree of giddy wish fulfillment in nearly every scene with Billy thatís more than a little infectious. Itís almost too easy to imagine ourselves into that muscle suit. Even in the filmís weaker moments, thereís an undeniable four-color, page-turning energy to the story.

A lot of this energy comes from Zachary Leviís performance as the adult Billy, a perfectly cast role if ever there was one. Asher Angel is great as the teenage Billy, but itís Levi who truly makes the film glow with all his overblown swagger and innocent, exuberant charisma. Itís clear heís having the time of his life, and he carries the part like he was born to play it. Between Leviís own juiced-up physique and the padded contours of the retro-leaning supersuit, he cuts a delightfully exaggerated figure, truly like a classic comic book hero come to life. He has a perfect sidekick in Jack Dylan Grazer, who geeks his heart out in every scene, a very logic-focused counterpoint to Billyís impulsiveness.

Every hero needs a villain, and Mark Strongís Dr. Sivana gives as good a performance as Levi does. Casting Mark Strong as a villain might be typecasting at this point, but casting him as this particular villain is genius. Sivana is evil. Like legitimately cold, cruel, stoic evil. Strongís tempered approach to the character helps sell the menace he has, and his lack of pomposity makes him all the more terrifying. Sivana is responsible for some shockingly dark moments in the film, but also some of its most amusing. An epic villain speech he tries to give in the filmís climax fails to register because he says it when Billy is too far away to hear him. Itís a moment that allows Strong to stay completely true to both the established character of Sivana and the more comedic tone of the overall film.

Shazam! gets a little greedy towards the end, and it could probably stand to lose 15 minutes from its noisy finale. But hey, it gets the job done. The filmís technical aspects falter slightly from time to time, although overall, things are very competently handled. Chalk it up to the relatively tiny budget, but a few of Billyís flying sequences look downright sloppy, and glowing objects like the energy bolt on Billyís chest or the wizardís staff look like store-bought props. Thereís so much charm built into the picture, though, that these kinds of things are easy to overlook for the most part. They come off more as endearing flaws than unfortunate mistakes.

And endearingly flawed could describe a lot of the movie. Shazam! certainly means very well, and that attitude goes a long, long way to helping make the film as enjoyable and fun as it is. Thereís no pretension here, no posturing. The filmís campy, but it never winks at the camera. It has a sense of humor about itself while also taking its source material very seriously. It contains some strong, highly accessible emotional arcs that are never overplayed. It proudly lives up to its heroís nickname, the Big Red Cheese, without making apologies for it.

Shazam! is the magic word that turns the DC Extended Universe into a super-charged good time.
 

Directed by:  David F. Sandberg
Written by:  Screenplay by Henry Gayden, from a story Gayden and Darren Lemke Based on the characters created by Bill Parker & C.C. Beck
Starring:   Zachary Levi, Djimon Hounsou Djimon Hounsou, Mark Strong
Released:  040519
Length:  132 minutes
Rating:   Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material

SHAZAM! ©  2019 Warner Brothers Pictures
Review © 2019 Alternate Reality, Inc.