Most people believe that given the opportunity, they could be heroes. Given the right circumstances, they would step up and do the right thing. But most people I know wouldn’t step up to water their neighbour’s plants while they’re away on vacation. As for running into a burning building or stopping a robbery? FOH! Director David F. Sandberg’s film Shazam! examines what it means to be a hero by diving headfirst into a world loaded with them. Sandberg combines action, comedy, and a generous helping of heart to deliver a superhero adventure that stands apart from the other films in the Justice League universe.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has serious mommy issues. When Billy was a small child, his mother took him out for a day at the fair, and the two became separated. And that fateful day was the last time he saw her. Billy spent the next decade bouncing from one foster care home to the next, never settling into any one place because he always takes off to search for his mom.
After a run in with the cops, Billy gets another shot at a decent life. He’s sent off to a loving home under the care of two good-natured former foster care children, Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews). Best of all, the Vasquez’s already have several foster children who enjoy being part of their patchwork family.
When a couple of high school bullies rough up Billy’s foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy comes to the rescue. And his act of courage sets off an unbelievable chain of events. Billy gets transported to a magic cave and meets an old wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). Shazam spent decades looking for someone pure of heart and worthy of inheriting his magical powers, and that person is Billy.
Suddenly Billy has the body of a thirty-year-old man (played by Zachary Levi) and the powers of a god. Though, he doesn’t have a clue how to control them – puberty y’all! Billy/Shazam recruits Freddy, a kid who obsesses over superhero factoids the way sports fans scour over their favourite players’ stats. And together they test out his new powers. Shenanigans ensue.
But the boys’ adventure isn’t all fun and games. An evil prick named Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) spent his life hunting the wizard Shazam. He holds a grudge towards Shazam for telling him he isn’t worthy to bear his gifts. So Sivana teams up with the demonic embodiments of the seven deadly sins to kill Billy and claim Shazam’s power.
I’m fascinated by the prospect of examining the world of superheroes through the lens of everyday folks. What’s day-to-day life look like to those who aren’t alien messiahs, demigods, Atlantean royalty, or billionaire ninjas? What’s it mean to the people of Metropolis to see their city torn up over superpowered pissing contests? Shazam! delivers our best look yet.
Freddy, an impressionable teenager, looks at Superman and Wonder Woman the same way that kids look up to Lebron James and Steph Curry. He scours eBay for superhero memorabilia the way sneakerheads track down rare pairs of Jordans. I like that Sandberg gives us a slightly different perspective on the way society would treat actual superheroes, but I still want to see more in-depth explorations of the people on the outside looking in. This movie’s take on such a world means Freddy wears lots of Aquaman tees and we glimpse Batman toys in the mall, which feels like lip service. Also, it’s strange that Sivana’s researcher writes-off unexplained phenomenon like flying saucers as mass hallucinations, considering that hostile aliens visit their planet like it’s an Airbnb.
Shazam! is a buddy comedy masquerading as a superhero flick. First off, the plot’s stakes don’t feel all that high. And second, the jokes don’t stop rolling in. Much of the film (especially in the foster home) tracks more like a TV sitcom than a traditional comic book movie, and Henry Gayden’s script saves most of the mandatory CG spectacle until the end and focuses on the characters.
When Shazam! begins Billy has a lot of growing to do, and he isn’t easy to root for. Actually, he’s kind of a dick; an emo brat who only looks out for himself. The character only becomes tolerable after he’s paired up with his partner in crime, Freddy.
Billy and Freddy don’t speak to the camera, but this movie is Deadpool-level self-aware. Much of the comedy comes from poking fun at tired comic book movie clichés. Grazer doesn’t get top billing, but he is the heart and soul of the movie and watching him do his thing is a blast. Between his roles in Shazam! and It, we’ve seen him own the geek schtick. The kid plays a hilarious coward and can also nerd-out with the best of them, but most of all, I love watching him act pissy. I hope Freddy’s indignant expressions spark a thousand gifs. I’m excited to see where Grazer’s career goes from here.
No one would dare argue that Mark Strong isn’t an excellent actor. But he makes a forgettable villain in this picture. His Dr. Sivana is a total snooze. It’s disappointing considering Shazam!’s prologue is Sivana’s origin story. The problem is that there’s no depth to the character, and there’s nothing for Strong to do but smoulder for the camera. Sivana is what you expect from an SNL supervillain parody, not a comic book movie in 2019. He sneers, he bullies, and even schemes his revenge out loud. All that he’s missing is a moustache to twirl. The character only works when he’s the straight man to Billy and Freddy’s snark, but the film doesn’t return to this well often enough.
What does stand out, though, are the seven hideous creatures Sivana commands. These grotesque demons are menacing, and they’re a bit too hardcore for a PG movie. I would believe you if you told me they stepped off the set of an R-rated Guillermo del Toro flick. One creature’s razor-toothed mouth opens so wide that you see its spine. Be mindful taking young children to see this picture because these creature designs are hardcore enough to fuel life-long phobias.
Sandberg isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of what a big-budget superhero movie can be. So, as far as superhero movies go, Shazam! spins a lot of plates. It’s a story about a child with a broken spirit who must discover the thing he’s chasing is right in front of him. And its themes tell us that being a hero has nothing to do with superpowers. But it’s still a shared universe movie that ends with a super-strong dude in a cape punching monsters in the face. Shazam! works better as a wacky buddy comedy than as a superhero movie, and the genre is all the better for it.