Movie Review - Shazam
So…how do you follow up a billion dollar fish story?
Well, if you’re DC Films and Warner Bros, you cross the old 80s film Big with Superman resulting in Shazam.
Sadly, this resulted in crickets from the audience…as Shazam only managed to pull in just over $364 million at the worldwide box office.
Making it, thus far, the lowest earner of the DCEU.
Wanna put a little extra sting on it? Critics actually liked it. A lot. Like, 91% certified fresh a lot…putting it second only to Wonder Woman’s 93%. I mean, yeah, as a metric, those schmucks at that rotten produce site are pretty flawed…but this gives us at least some quantitative data to go on.
Now, don’t worry too much about this discrepancy…even though the film was DC’s lowest earner to date…WB was actually a bit smart on this one, given that the budget was only $100 million. [Yes, we know, the marketing budget doesn’t factor into that figure, true. – Ed.] Regardless, the movie, in spite of audience apathy, turned a profit. Good. Because in spite of that apathy, yet another horror director, this time David F. Sandberg, turns in a thoroughly entertaining ride of pure wish fulfillment and whimsy and also provides exhibit A in the case against film critics and viewers that DC films are only dark, gritty and joyless. While I won’t say it captures the pure sense of joy and wonder that is often associated with the 1978 Superman: The Movie, it damn sure comes close.
But first, since hardly anyone turned out for this one, let’s tackle that plot.
With his powers fading and the Seven Enemies of Man only getting stronger, an old wizard seeks out a champion who is pure of heart to protect the world. In doing so, he not only creates a network of those who he has passed over, but a singular vengeful soul spurred on to take the power he was once denied. Out of time, the wizard desperately selects Billy Batson, a world-weary runaway orphan, to track down Dr. Sivana who is now powered by the Seven Deadly Sins and seeking to wreak havoc on a world that for so long slighted and belittled him.
As I mentioned earlier, the vibe of the film really does fit into the Hollywood stereotype of mixing one genre with another…in this case Big mixed with Superman…with maybe a dash of Thor thrown in. I add Thor simply because of this particular hero’s journey. You see, for Billy to realize his full potential as Shazam, he first has to learn to stop being such an ass. So, let’s start with that. Just like in Thor, it’s not that you despise Billy coming into the film…after all, our introduction to him shows him pranking a police officer so that he can get access to the cop’s laptop in an effort to search for his birth mother. Thus, there’s some good there. Once his last lead goes dry though, the police catch up to him and it’s off to be placed in a group home with other orphans and run by two adults that had a history in the system themselves. As one would expect, Billy’s rather aloof compared to the foster brother he’s paired up with, the crippled Freddy. [Are we even allowed to use that term anymore? – Ed.] However, Billy comes to The Wizard’s attention when he defends Freddy from a pair of bullies and thus starts down the road to becoming a hero…but not without some bumps along the way. In fact, if the wizard was searching for someone pure of heart, well, I don’t wanna say epic fail…but…let’s simply say that Billy falls for each of the seven deadly sins as soon as he’s bestowed with the power. However, unlike Sivana, the allure doesn’t really stick…it’s only a child’s dabbling, not an adult’s succumbing. He does what any kid would do with these powers: he ditches class (sloth), he shorts out an ATM for money (greed), uses some of this money on junk food (gluttony), uses his new adult appearance to get into a strip club (lust), pays bullies back for humiliating Freddy (wrath), basks in the adulation of saving a bus that he actually caused to careen off a bridge (pride) and you can take your pick when it comes to envy…as Billy seems to envy those in his group home for feeling like they belong together as a family or envious of adults who don’t have to put up with the customary trappings of childhood. However, throughout the course of the film, Billy ends up learning from these experience to finally rise to be the hero that the wizard was searching for after all. In some ways, this film takes on a similar message to the ill-fated Green Lantern film: you don’t have to be pure of heart but you have to be able to pull yourself above the sins that mire typical adults.
Performances in the film are pretty solid. Zachary Levi makes a perfect Shazam, clearly having tons of fun in the role. Asher Angel, as his alter ego Billy Batson, serves as a solid anchor of the film. Sure, he comes off as aloof and a bit of a dick at first…but Angel’s performance constantly shows us that this really is a façade that’s just waiting to fall given the right circumstances. As a testament to the strength of his performance…we as the audience see exactly that happen throughout the span of the film. Jack Dylan Glazer plays Freddy Freeman (who, if you know your Shazam lore…well, let’s just say you have some insight to how the film ends)…is…well…look, if the mark of a good performance is that the actor made you feel something, then yeah, Glazer does a great job as Freddy. But…damn he’s annoying. Incessantly so. He does play a vital role, being the superhero geek in the film that actually is best equipped to help Billy with his newfound powers…but even he, living vicariously through Billy, has his own sins to overcome. Speaking of Green Lantern, Mark Strong is back to take a second crack at a DC villain and, just like with his turn as Sinestro, does a fine job bringing Dr. Sivana to life. To those that have studied film adaptations of DC properties, those made and unmade, there’s two other actors double-dipping in this movie...those being DJ Cotrona and Adam Brody…but to say who they end up playing is spoiler material. Oh, and before I forget, Djimon Hounsou as the wizard was probably the last person any comic book fan would’ve thought of for the role, but he’s fantastic in it bringing not only the gravitas needed but also the unintentional comedy that would so easily play out in such a situation.
Sandberg’s vision for the film is interesting. It certainly grabs hold of its premise in earnest which is what ends up setting this film apart because, and I know this sounds like a criticism, the fact that it’s yet another origin story brings a heaping pile of ‘meh’ to it. Thankfully, the strength of the premise as well as the audience figuring out a key point just as Billy does helps carry the viewer through. It should also be noted that Sandberg does indeed show his horror roots when it comes to both the Sins and the Rock of Eternity where the wizard holds court. And, you know, I dig it…it harkens back to the days when the PG-13 rating first came out and it was okay to have a scene or three that scared the bejeesus out of the little ones. Because Hollywood used to allow the PG-13 rating to prep kids 13 and older for R-rated films…not the general fluff pieces we get today with that rating.
If I had to pick one failing of the film…I have to admit that some of the flying effects just didn’t look polished or finished. Moments of green screen were obvious while seeing the film in the theater and the transition to home video didn’t really help matters all that much. It’s not as bad as some of the moments from Justice League, but given that viewers are coming off such a visually stunning Aquaman, dropping the ball here, even if it is by just a little bit, is a bit of a disappointment.
I usually take a moment to talk about the soundtrack, but I gotta admit…there was nothing that really stood out. I’m not gonna rag on it and liken it to the interchangeable soundtracks for the Marvel films (with the Avengers theme being an exception…because no one can contain the genius that his Alan Silvestri), but there really aren’t any moments you’ll be humming as you leave the theater either.
The best thing I can say about Shazam is that while watching it in the theater, I really didn’t want this film to end. For those complaining that DC’s offerings have been lacking the joy that everyone associates with the original Donner Superman film…well…here it is. And, given the box office numbers, it’s a damn shame that so few came out to see it. Still, given its fairly low budget (for a big budget superhero film anyway) and the fact that it did indeed turn a profit, a sequel is in the works. In the meantime, you owe it to yourself…and your inner child…to check this out.