From a fantasy universe of ridiculous overkill, doesn’t it seem as though every other new movie release comes from either Marvel or D.C. Comics? And with another Avengers adventure looming on the horizon, there’s just no stopping them. In the way that supervillains attempt to dominate everything around them, it appears that, at the very least, they’ve successfully taken over the multiplexes.
It’s worth noting that in the case of the latest crime-fighting guy-in-tights saga, Shazam! has come full circle. In 1941, the character was the first superhero to be adapted from the comics to the big screen, though back then, as any self-respecting fan will tell you, he had a different name. Then he was Captain Marvel. But due to some legal business, the Marvel moniker changed hands. Once the dust of copyright infringement settled, Marvel Comics owned Captain Marvel, while D.C. Comics marketed their character by the name of the wizard who hands over his power to young Billy Batson, Shazam.
As the new Shazam! is an origin movie, there’s plot, and it’s a fun one in a fantasy Boys Own way. When he was only four, Billy Batson wandered away in a crowd from his young, single mother. He spent the next ten years growing up as a foster child, running from family after family while continuously looking for his real mom, who he never found. At least, not so far. Now fourteen and living in Philadelphia, Billy (Asher Angel) is once again picked up by child services and placed in yet another foster home, only this time things might be different.
With five instant foster siblings and two incredibly understanding and comforting foster parents, the Vasquez household appears to be just the place in which Billy could finally settle. Maybe. Mom even has a bumper sticker on her car that reads: I’m a foster mom. What’s your superpower? In fact, it’s so much fun to be with mom and dad Vasquez (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews) that when oldest foster sister Mary (Grace Fulton) receives an acceptance to go away to college, she’s not sure she wants to leave the comfort of a loving home.
But while trying to adjust to a new family life, something happens to Billy. While riding the subway, he’s magically zipped away to a spiritual universe called the Rock of Eternity where a grand old wizard resides. The ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) has spent centuries looking for a replacement, someone pure of heart and worthy of the gift of multiple superpowers, like flying, incredible strength, impervious to bullets and pointy things, and the ability to zap stuff with bolts of lightning from the fingertip. “Lay your hands on my staff,” orders the wizard. “Gross,” responds the boy.
In order to instantly change into an adult superhero complete with muscles, a well-coiffed short back and sides hair cut that never moves, and a costume with cape and a cheesy bolt of bright lightning on his expanded chest, all Billy has to do is say the magic word, Shazam! and the mantle of power is finally passed on. It’s not that Billy is really all that pure of heart, it’s just that by this point, the old wizard is ready to pass the powers on asap so that he can finally get some rest. “You’re all I got,” he tells the boy.
What works so well in Shazam! is how funny it is. Writer Henry Gayden’s script not only stays close to the original comic book source material – even the foster family siblings eventually get in on the superhero act – but it also leans heavily on the lively playfulness of a young teenager’s fantasy of what it must be like to be a fully fledged superhero and to be able to do all of those super-duper things. Broadway Tony-Award winner Zachary Levi plays the adult costumed Billy with the continuous wide-eyed look of a kid who can’t believe what’s happened to him. When his disabled foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) asks the new Shazam what superpowers does he possess, Billy responds, “Superpowers? I don’t even know how to pee in this thing.”
But the rules of being a superhero insist there’s always a supervillain to mess things up. In Shazam! the villain is Dr. Sivana, a character who in an introductory backstory was once chosen as a boy to be a potential Shazam himself, but failed the test. Sivana has spent the rest of his life trying to find a way to get back to the Rock of Eternity and claim the evil power of the seven deadly sins, which he eventually does. His evil, uncomplicated plan is not only to unleash havoc across the world but to claim Shazam’s power and add it to his own.
Mark Strong, who by all accounts is one of the nicest guys in the business, has made a film career of playing really bad guys. He does it so well. His Sivana is single-minded and, frankly, annoyingly boorish. And in a serious miscalculation of tone, director David F. Sandberg illustrates Sivana’s murderously nasty ways by having the character enter a boardroom meeting at his father’s company high rise. Accompanied by those seven deadly sins – oversized snarling CGI monsters with teeth, tentacles and a taste for biting the heads off of humans – Sivana barges in and throws his older brother out of the window to his death, then allows his accompanying monsters to devour everyone else around the boardroom table, including his father (John Glover). It’s a humorless, graphically horrifying sequence that actually looks like a scene from a different movie, the kind that at one time might have earned an ‘R.’ Parents looking for a fun family adventure, as the film’s marketing suggests, should take note.
But if you can get past that unnecessary sequence (cut it and it wouldn’t spoil a moment of the narrative) what you’re left with is a witty and highly engaging comedy thriller for teenagers and adolescents that works in its own universe without the need to reference other superhero characters (though it does in one crowd-pleasing joke). Plus, all the scenes regarding being a foster child and living in a foster family environment are positive and should be commended. And like most Marvel and D.C. Comic films suggesting more Shazam! to come, there are not one but two post-credit sequences to see, as long as you’re willing to sit through roughly ten minutes of names you’ll never remember scrolling up the screen.
Curiously, the film takes place at Christmas, but at no point do any of the characters acknowledge the season or even wish anyone a Merry Christmas. It’s just there, in the background. The film’s climax (which like all movie superhero battles goes on for way too long) has Shazam and his siblings fighting the bad guy and his monsters in a Christmas theme park which is systemically destroyed. Even the introductory backstory of Sivana as a boy takes place during the snowy holidays leading you to wonder if the film was always intended to be a yuletide release that was eventually delayed until April. Like Die Hard, sometime in the future, once the film is available on Blu-ray or streaming for the home market and the advertisers insert some sparkly tinsel and a little snow onto a new poster, no doubt someone will regard it as their favorite Christmas movie of all time.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 130 Minutes