Shazam!

Posted: April 17, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by David F. Sandberg. Starring Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer.

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When he was a small child, 14 year old Billy Batson (Angel) got separated from his mother at the fair and he’s been searching for her ever since, running away from countless foster homes and using all manner of dubious methods to try and track his mom down.

After a run in with the police he’s placed in a group foster home run by former foster kids Victor and Rosa (The Walking Dead’s Cooper Adams and Marta Milans). He initially balks at the family atmosphere, but does make friends with Freddy (Grazer) a disabled boy who’s the same age as him.

After a run in with some bullies at school, Billy escapes on the subway, but finds himself yanked into another world where an aged magician named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) on the verge of dying confers magical powers on Billy. He’s been searching for a worthy champion for many years, but he has no more time to search.

After saying the wizard’s name Billy is transformed into an adult superhero version of himself (Levi) complete with hokey costume. Back in the real world Billy learns he can switch between forms simply by uttering the word “Shazam!” and once he confides in Freddy the two begin to have fun with the fact that not only does Billy have super powers now, but he’s also an adult which might be even more useful to a couple of teenage boys.

The trouble is, Billy isn’t the only super powered guy in town, Doctor Thaddeus Sivana (Strong) failed Shazam’s tests when he was a boy and has coveted the wizard’s power ever since. Now, imbued with the power of the seven deadly sins in demonic form, he want’s Billy’s power, and he’ll do anything to get it. Can Billy justify Shazam’s faith in him?

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It feels like DC have been playing catchup with Marvel in the film stakes for years, and whilst Man of Steel was ok, and Wonder Woman genuinely good, they’ve produced some absolute stinkers (I’m looking at you Suicide Squad)  and some overly pretentious, bloated “epics” featuring Batman and Superman. So when it was announced that their latest superhero film was going to be Shazam!, there was a slight suspicion the powers that be at DC might have gone nuts.

Or maybe they’ve come to their senses, because Shazam! Is a joyous hoot from start to finish, with a smart script, great performances and genuine heart. I probably haven’t had this much sheer fun at the cinema since Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle came out.

In so many ways this film is a throwback to a bygone era. It might not be set in the 1980s, but be under no illusions, this is a film that could have quite easily been made in that decade. There’s flashes of The Goonies, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future and, most obviously, Big (watch out for a lovely little homage to that film) plus the Philadelphia setting lends itself to some Rocky homages too.

In some respects it’s amazing it works, the premise is as hokey as the titular hero’s costume (I say titular but he’s never actually referred to as Shazam, and fun fact, back in ye olden days he was actually Captain Marvel) and this could have gone off the rails in so many ways. Make the kids younger and it would have been even sillier, make them older and too much teen angst would have got in the way, but in targeting that 14/15 year old not quite on the cusp of adulthood sweet spot, director Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden have created a story that appeals to all ages.

As Billy’s adult alter ego Levi is of course the star of the show, channelling his inner man  child to accurately portray how a teenage boy might well act upon finding himself in a super ripped adult body that comes complete with a suite of super powers, but he never overdoes things—again you can see how certain actors might have ruined the part.

As his foil, Strong is smart enough to know just how much scenery to chew whilst still allowing Dr Sivana to be a larger than life nemesis.

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Really though, it’s the child actors who make this. As Billy, Angel shows true pathos as a boy damaged by his abandonment, desperate to belong but too proud to let himself become part of any new family when he’s still searching for his birth mother. The real standout though is Grazer as the smart and sassy kid who could effortlessly step into a film like Goonies and look right at home. A comic book nerd who’s living with a disability he’s enraptured with his new super powered buddy, but this also means he begins to become disillusioned with him. Grazer’s greatest strength however is that he seamlessly partners up with both Angel and Levi, selling the illusion that they’re the same person.

The script is sharp and smart without ever feeling the need to be too adult, in many ways this film is closer in tone to Deadpool than anything else, if you extracted most of the swearing and violence of course. Which isn’t to say Shazam! never ventures into darker places, it just doesn’t hang around too long when it does.

I’ve heard some complaints that the film is too long, but I didn’t find it so. Maybe the final showdown goes on a tad too long, and threatens to get a little too preposterous, but I’m clutching at straws to find fault with this film. Laugh out loud funny, with a great cast and excitement aplenty this may not give us anything startlingly new, it may not be deep and meaningful, it isn’t the best film of the year, and it may play a little like it was written in 1987, but for sheer unapologetic enjoyment this is 10 out of 10.

Role on Shazam!2…

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