My love of comic books and films means that I try to watch adaptations of superhero comic books in the cinema for the best experience (see the comic book movies category of this blog); however, for various reasons, I missed the opportunity to catch Shazam! on the big screen. Its arrival on Netflix provided me the chance to finally see the original Captain Marvel as a movie (it was a serial back in 1941; I find it strange that Shazam! was released in the same year as Marvel’s Captain Marvel movie, considering the details of how the first Captain Marvel can no longer be referred to by that name and now must be called Shazam).
This version of Captain Marvel – sorry, I mean, Shazam – adheres to the New 52 version of Billy Batson and the Shazam family, as told by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. Billy (Asher Angel) is a 14-year-old boy who has been through many foster systems in Philadelphia, searching for the mother who abandoned him at a funfair. He is placed with the Vasquez family, who already have five foster children, including Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a superhero fanatic; Billy doesn’t want to bond with his new family, but steps in to help Freddy with bullies at school. When escaping them, he is chased into a subway, where he ends up at the Rock of Eternity. The wizard Shazam (Djimon Housou) senses that Billy is good enough to deserve the power of Shazam to battle against the Seven Sins, so asks Billy to say his name, causing Billy to turn into a superhero in the form of Zachary Levi (a superhero without a name – a running gag is trying to work out what he should be called). Billy confides in Freddy (for his superhero expertise) and they try to examine the limits of the newfound powers. Meanwhile, Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who was almost given the power of Shazam as a child but was ultimately rejected because he was tempted by the Eye of Sin, has spent his life dedicated to finding the Rock of Eternity to regain the power – he finally succeeds and steals the Eye of Sin and becomes the vessel for the Seven Sins, using his power to kill his father and brother as well as the board of directors of his father’s companies. When he sees Shazam, he goes to confront him to gain the powers for himself …
The film is, as described, Big with superheroics – the film even admits it with a scene that sees Shazam accidentally stepping on a floor piano toy in a nod to the same moment in Big. As such, it has a very clear and easy-to-grasp template, a literal wish fulfilment fantasy, in contrast to some of the other DCEU movies, which makes for a nice change. It feels like a film from the 1980s – Amblin movies have been mentioned as a reference point – with a similarly simplistic attitude and story beats. Levi is great as the child in a man’s body discovering his powers – funny, charming, perfectly capturing the Tom Hanks energy, but with super strength, super speed, invulnerability, lightning bolts (although the wisdom of Solomon seems to be curiously absent). His choice of the age he plays Shazam seems slightly younger than the 14 years of the actual Billy Batson character, but it works because it is at least consistent. Levi plays well off Grazer, creating a nice double act as Shazam becomes a viral video sensation from the clips loaded online.
What is strange is the occasional super-dark moments that seem out of place with the children’s movie at heart – when Sivana kills the board of directors, he unleashes the Seven Sins to do the job: they are monstrous violent creatures who proceed to be violent. Most of it is off-screen, but we see one of the Seven Sins grab a man, put his mouth over his head and then bite down – it didn’t cut away from seeing a man having he head crunched, his body shaking as it happened. It was unexpected to say the least – director David F Sandberg has a horror background and it was allowed to slip in here. (But it’s in keeping with Geoff Johns’ work and his inclusion of excessive violence and dismemberment in his comic books.)
The film doesn’t have a lot of depth (although it makes up for that in length) – everything is pretty straight down the line, nothing unexpected, no twists; even Mark Strong, while his usual top-notch self, is a fairly one-note as the villain. An aside: it felt weird to have a mid-credits sting with Strong to set up the sequel – after the mid-credits sting in Green Lantern in which Strong takes up the yellow ring to become Sinestro for the sequel that never happened, I do hope that it works out for him this time. Another aside: the number of actors playing other characters from comic books is strong in this film: in addition to Green Lantern, Strong has been in Kingsmen and Kick-Ass; Levi was also Fandrall in Thor films; Hounsou was the voice of the King of the Fishermen in Aquaman, Korath the Pursuer in the MCU, and Papa Midnite in Constantine. A related aside: if Marvel ever do a live-action Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, then Faithe Herman (who plays Darla, Billy’s super-happy foster sister) would make a perfect choice for Lunella Lafayette.
The throwback nature of the film didn’t work for me, taking me out of the story – it felt like you were watching a movie with a script and acting from the 1980s with the digital effects of the late 2010s, as if the sophistication that has occurred in the intervening decades hadn’t happened. At least there is some humour to help – there’s the particularly nice gag about Sivana monologuing in the big fight at the end but doing it so far away from Shazam that Shazam can’t hear what he’s saying – plus the previously mentioned chemistry between Levi and Grazer is a lot of fun. It makes up for the dickish nature of Billy Batson and Shazam, which can be a bit grating – I know that the protagonist in a movie has to go through a character arc, but it’s a bit much.
At least this is a DCEU film that realises it’s supposed to be goofy fun and commits to the premise; much like Aquaman, it’s silly and it knows it and enjoys it. I mean, in the mid-credits sting, they even include Mister Mind, the caterpillar-like alien creature with telepathic powers – he looks and sounds ridiculous, but the film isn’t afraid of that. Shazam! is an enjoyable film that perhaps has a better reputation than it deserves simply because it’s not as dour as its DCEU predecessors, but that’s not a bad thing.