Shazam!

"You more of a Supes guy? Yeah, me too."

By nature I love brevity: Easily the best film I've seen so far this year, and far better than the vast majority of the DCEU. A very funny film that surprises at many turns, entertains the whole time, and has something meaningful to say.

SPOILER WARNING: I'll keep it spoiler-free for the first part, then I'll get down to the details for the rest.

The part every Shazam! review is apparently required to have: Yes, this is a DC movie. No, your friend who keeps calling it Captain Marvel by mistake is not just out-of-touch with the culture; this character used to be called Captain Marvel back before Marvel played some dirty tricks and stole the name, and it makes no sense for him to be called Shazam. Yes, there also used to be another Marvel character other than the one from the movie who was called Captain Marvel. Yes, it's confusing as heck to the average moviegoer. Google is your friend.

Apparently IMDB isn't, though, so don't look up the movie before you see it. Way too much spoilery information on that page. You were warned.

Spoiler-Free:

This movie is a refreshing approach to the superhero film. Its comedic roots give it the distance and the self-awareness to mock the genre's most tired and useless trappings, but its definitive place within the genre itself also allows it to take what works and then use that for its own purposes. The film leans heavily on its humor, which is great and works, but it simultaneously works just as well as a superhero movie and an action movie.

The cast is wonderful. Zachary Levi carries the film as Captain Marvel Shazam himself, and you can see so clearly the fun he's having at the same time as he delivers a good performance. The emotional parts of Billy Batson's story, though, are given to Asher Angel. Angel is quite strong, and definitely pulled it off, though in a few places he struggled slightly. Still, for such a young actor, he has talent. Mark Strong's villainous performance is good, too, providing what I would venture to say is the best villain of the DCEU so far. But the true stealers of the movie are Billy's foster family, particularly Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, and Faithe Herman. Their characters ground the movie emotionally and thematically, and the reliance on them is deserved. They are also a large part of what kept the third act from slipping into the traditional superhero movie pitfalls.

One last thing I will say about Shazam! is the strength of its story and construction. Everywhere I expected it to zig, it zagged. Everywhere it could have given way to cliche and mindless slugfests, it didn't. The third act is one of the strongest I've seen from a superhero film in a long while, and I sat in the theater overjoyed at many of the fascinating and fun creative choices the film made. There were few places where they could have done something interesting and didn't, but without seeing what it would have become had they capitalized on that, I can't tell if it was a missed opportunity or a good avoidance of narrative clutter.

Final spoiler-free word on Shazam! is that you should absolutely go and see it. It is wildly entertaining and amusing, meaningful in a deep way, and a great time from beginning to end. Go enjoy the heck out of this one. Now, since in-depth analysis is the way I review things, I'll move on to discuss spoilers.

It's not an 'S.' It means 'Spoilers ahead.'

Many will call this film a sign of DC's return to the brighter side of things. But, though it is a less gloomy film than a Man of Steel or a Batman v. Superman, I would argue that Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Joss Whedon's parts of Justice League were the benchmarks of DC's return from the shadow of death. What this marks, more than anything else, is the best look at the joy and wonder of being a superhero since Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Shazam! also provides us with the best example of a focused standalone superhero movie since that movie. So many films nowadays put their connections to other planned, produced, or released projects first, and their stories and characters second. Shazam! does not do this, just as Spider-Verse did not do it. This is not to say that either film leaves no potential for sequels and spinoffs. This film is full of easter eggs and references that could very easily play into any related projects, and indeed they probably will in the announced Shazam 2 and Black Adam. But the goal of the filmmakers in this movie was clearly to tell a good story, and to let the connections and references come later. This is why they pulled out all the stops in this one rather than save things for the sequel unnecessarily.

This, of course, resulted in the ENTIRE MARVEL FAMILY! I cannot tell you how excited I was in the theater to see that. As they led up to it, I said to myself, 'There's no way. They wouldn't.' And then they did. A film that was focused on keeping the audience excited for the sequels would have teased Freddie Marvel and Mary Marvel and never given it to us, but it was necessary for the story this film wanted to tell, and so they did it.

See, that's the thing that I find most interesting about the character of Captain Marvel Shazam. The fact that he's a kid is an intriguing idea, and it's enough to carry the first half to two thirds of the movie. But once you get past that, Captain Marvel Shazam is just a Superman rehash... that is, until you bring in the Marvel Family. As soon as he's a superhero who's part of a family of superheroes, suddenly everything becomes interesting again. That's something we don't often see, and that's what makes Captain Marvel Shazam interesting to watch.

The casting of the Marvel Family is spot on, especially given the kids they started with. All of them seem to share completely in Zachary Levi's joy, and for the most part they are able to maintain the characters of the children in their performances. Especial props to Adam Brody and Meagan Good.

There were, however, several parts of the film that I felt were not used to their full potential. The first of these was the portrayal of the Seven Deadly Sins. Granted, Greed was put to good use in the boardroom, and Envy in the final battle, but it's telling that a film featuring the embodiments of the Sins that also has several scenes set outside a strip club cannot find the time to say anything about Lust. The other thing is that, while I'm certain I could figure out which Sin was which if shown clear, still photographs of them, I had a very difficult time telling most of them apart for the majority of the movie.

The second thing that Shazam! failed to deliver on was the resolution of Mary's character arc. The relatively few scenes we got in which she pondered her future and the possibility of leaving her family in order to secure it made me extremely sympathetic to her and her situation, but the movie never returned to her story to give us a decision or a conclusion. I didn't notice until I was reflecting on it later, but I found myself wondering what happened to her and whether or not she decided to go to CalTech.

One last thing I want to say is that I have a hard time imagining a sequel that is successfully able to balance all of its inherited elements, introduce and develop its new ones effectively, and still be a good story. The thing about having all of those kids be a part of the Marvel family is that having that many superheroes with that much power, and the same powers, for that matter, would be difficult to juggle. Not to mention that the villain couldn't just be one guy, like Black Adam, without the cliched army of faceless soldiers. That's why I'm glad they're keeping Black Adam separate in his own film. Go ahead and let that be terrible on its own. Perhaps they will surprise me, and turn out something that is fun and meaningful in its own right. It is the same creative team, after all.

Pensees:

-The phrase 'Holy moly' is a classic line that Captain Marvel Shazam loves to use.

-Little Billy wanted the tiger from the balloon pop game, and in the end, he gave it to a kid to calm her down. In the comics, Billy has a friend that is a sentient tiger animated from a stuffed toy.

-The talking caterpillar that shows up at the beginning and at the end is called Mr. Mind, and he's a classic Captain Marvel Shazam villain. So are the Crocodile-Men seen playing cards through the door in the Rock of Eternity. Why yes, those comics do seem to feature a lot of talking animals. It's a thing. Both the Crocs and Mr. Mind were voiced by director David Sandberg.

-Djimon Hounsou has had a busy time lately with comic book movies. He was in Aquaman last December, then Captain Marvel in March, and now Shazam!

-John Glover has now played the dads of two bald DC villains. First it was Lex Luthor in Smallville, and now it's Sivana here.

-Effective use of the magic 8-ball. I'm impressed.

-The scene with Superman is probably funnier because Henry Cavill wasn't available to film it.

-Loved the gag where Sivana yelled villain dialogue from way too far away and was completely inaudible.

-I enjoyed all of Freddie's t-shirts, and the dig at Aquaman in the end was glorious.

5 out of 6 pleasant surprises.

--
CoramDeo is more of a Supes guy.

1 comment:

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

Fine, sold, I'll see it. Props for a great review.