Story: Billy Batson only wants one thing in this world; to be reunited with the mother he was separated from during a busy carnival when he was a toddler. But Billy’s gonna get a whole lot more than that, when an ancient wizard bestows All The Power onto 14-year-old Billy. When another super-powered human brings the pain – and monsters – I’m sure things will go…heroically.
Genre I’d put it in: Successful DCEU Films
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the Captain Marvel/Shazam comics created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck. (Not to be confused with Marvel’s Captain Marvel. That’s a whole ‘nother messy thing.)
Gotta say: Director David F. Sandberg along writers Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke have my utmost respect for dragging the DCEU out of the darkness (with much kicking and screaming on DC’s part I’m sure.) Yeah, Wonder Woman started the shift, and Aquaman ran with it…but Shazam! does what all the other films in this series haven’t yet; it created a world worth believing in. Oh put the calculators down, studio bean-counters. I’m talking about giving a damn about an ensemble. Understanding motivations and seeing characters believably develop throughout the storyline. Playing out those motivations, flaws and arcs so they make sense. Shazam! (I’ma go with Shaz from now on, ‘kay?) gets all that right.
As loner foster kid Billy gets his powers, he does what any real boy would do. Plays with ’em, and then uses them to his advantage. Well, just uses them to be All Cool And Stuff, with no real thought of being truly heroic. And with this film’s Big Bad (Mark Strong swinging for the cheap seats as a deliciously evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana) more than disgruntled at being passed over for chosen one decades prior? Billy better learn quick how to be a true hero.
Shaz thumbs its nose at the usual superhero tropes, asking questions we as comic book/movie fans have always wondered. Why him? What’s he got that I ain’t got? How many beings have tried and failed to achieve what he has? With Shaz, it’s an easy answer, and without spoiling much, let’s just say chance plays a big part of it. This story isn’t the usual bombastic Then I BECAME storyline, and it’s all the better for it. Shaz looks at how superhero stories would play out in the real world, with all the hilarity, shock, and disaster that would entail. And as Shazam himself(s?), Zachary Levi and Asher Angel give performances that make you root for him and want to slap him upside the head and get some truth in there, as you would with any teen/tween with more potential than good sense. (I love you, teens and tweens. And yes, I’m jealous of you all.)
What really works with Shaz is the ensemble feel of the cast. Billy’s foster family becomes a part of him, and each character gets his or her moment to lay out their motivations. The onscreen chemistry between all these actors is wholly believable, and the idea that foster parents Victor and Rosa Vasquez were in the system themselves back in the day delivers lovely character shorthand, making the scenes between those two flow naturally instead of feeling like exposition dumps. I really want to dig into these dynamics, but I’m afraid I’d get into spoiler territory. So let’s just say that every single actor who portrays a member of the clan? I love you guys.
Shaz is a film that’s great for all ages. Now stay with me here. Don’t roll your eyes and think “oh man, it’s a kids film, I’m gonna pass”. I mean that as a compliment. There’s lots to enjoy for everyone. Adults of an age will dig the flashbacks to when they were in school, and the messages delivered with a light but firm touch. Kids will enjoy being able to relate to this foster fam, and the day-to-day of their school life. Fans of the comic will enjoy the feel of watching a comic book come to life, and the small tidbits scattered here and there. Director Sandberg obviously love this material, and it shows in every scene. It turns what could have been a dull, exposition heavy origin story into a good time. But take note parents of very young ones; the Big Bad here can channel monsters, and they’re gloriously creepy. I enjoyed the hell out of them, but wee ones may get spooked. Judge your brood, and go from there.
Quibble time? Sure, I’ve got one. As with the DCEU (and MCU, and every 21st Century superhero film), there’s a whole lot of choppy editing hops when it’s clobberin’ time. Yes, a part of that can be laid at the feet of trying to get reaction/action shots with such a large ensemble cast, but even when it’s Hero Vs Big Bad, there’s too much smash cuts, with things feeling blurry due to the ultra-quick editing. Yeah, it’s not much but it’s there and it grated on me. So there’s that.
Oh, and I do love that this story is set in Philly. Nah, I have no skin in the Philadelphia game, but it’s a nice change from the usual NYC/DC/SanFran/LA joints we’ve seen over and over again. (Didn’t mean to leave you out, Stephen King’s Maine.) With art direction that gives a lived-in vibe to the city itself, the kids’ school, and the Vasquez’s fantastically chaotic house. That grounds the fantasy in the real-world, and I dig that. Plus, that it’s set during the Christmas season – complete with a “Chilladelphia” winter carnival that’s loosely based on a real thing? I’m thinking this’ll be added to my yearly December holidays binge-watch. And that I need to hit Philly in December. But right now? I’m hitting the multiplex so I can see this again.
#Protip: Caterpillars are cute, aren’t they? So many pretty caterpillars.