Monday 13 May 2019


So, I'm finally getting round to writing up my review of Shazam! which I saw pretty much as soon as it was released, but just haven't found the time to sit down and write about yet. Which is odd, since, while we're going through another comicbook movie busy patch, Shazam! is a very strong contender for my comicbook movie of the year.

I find it very amusing that there are two Captain Marvel movies out within a couple of weeks of each other, so that they were both showing alongside each other for a while. While I know that the lead character of Shazam! is officially known as Shazam, I still think of him as Captain Marvel, even while I think of Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel as well. (There's a long and complicated history to the name, which I covered in an article a while back - I've put it as the featured post which you'll see to the right). Shazam! plays this quite well, never quite getting Billy Batson's superhero-persona to go by any name - the closest he gets is, in the climactic showdown, asking his new siblings to "say my name!" To which they all, naturally, shout, "Billy!" "No, say the word I say to change!" One of the better jokes of the film is the running gag where he and his new bestie Freddie come up with increasingly ridiculous names for him.

It's kind of surprising that it's taken this long for a Shazam!/Captain Marvel feature film to happen. The character was the subject of what was probably the first ever example of superhero cinema, certainly the first direct adaptation from a superhero comic, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, a Republic serial originally released way back in 1941. (Wonderfully, you can stream or download this, legally and for free. I'd recommend you do so, it's a lot of fun: it's available here.) Although this was eventually re-released in an omnibus format, this was over four hours long and poorly joined together, and not really a feature in the true sense.

DC/WB began working on a modern feature treatment about ten years ago, which would have starred Dwayne Johnson, initially down to play the lead, before opting to play the villainous Black Adam. Somewhere along the line this fell through, and Black Adam is not a part of the film (although DC apparently have plans for a standalone Black Adam movie starring Johnson, something I'm less than convinced will work). Now that it's finally arrived, it is officially part of DC's expanded cinematic universe, but the links to the other movies are minor. It's certainly no trouble imagining that this takes place in the same universe as Justice League or Wonder Woman, but if there's certainly no need to have seen anything else in DC's recent output. Indeed, the one cameo the studio clearly wanted to happen couldn't, seemingly due to scheduling conflicts, so a certain fan-pleasing moment is a little hamstringed.

It's was always a question how they were going to make this work for the big screen, but in hindsight, the answer is obvious. Of course you make it as the superhero version of BIG. While previous updates of the character have previously explored the divide between Billy and his superhero alter ego, but the movie goes in the opposite direction. It's not as if Billy disappears while Shazam takes his place; Asher Angel and Zachary Levi play the same character, just with a different appearance and abilities. There were a few moments where I struggled to buy this; Angel's troubled teen is a more cynical character than the joyful and excitable superhero played by Levi, but as Billy learns to accept his new family and his place in the world, the two versions of the character become more alike. I can accept Shazam as the boy that Billy would be without the guilt and crappy breaks weighing him down.

While Angel gives a good performance, this is Levi's movie. His kid-in-a-superman's body performance is an absolute joy, and the whole film hinges on how much fun it is to see him discovering his powers. Equally excellent is Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays the young Freddy Freeman, Billy's new adoptive brother and best friend. He gets to interact with both versions of Billy and manages to steal a few scenes from Levi, which is no mean feat. I'm glad the script doesn't shy away from Freddie's disability, and how much being able to magically transform into a superpowered body would mean to him. Of the rest of Billy's adoptive family, everyone performs well, but Grace Fulton as Mary Bromfield (here his older sister, rather than the same age) stands out. Faithe Herman plays Darla Dudley, the youngest of the family, who might be the most adorable person I've ever seen on screen.

The script understandably follows the updated version of what we once called the Marvel Family, but doesn't lose any of the uncomplicated fun of the central concept. The appeal of Shazam/Captain Marvel is simple: what kid wouldn't want to be able to become a superhero? It works on more levels, though, and the use of the modern version of Dr. Sivana, rather than the straightforward mad scientist original ties in nicely to that. Mark Strong is basically perfect in the role – he's pretty much a shoe-in for comicbook villain roles, to be fair, but he really excels here. An effective story choice is to have the young Sivana almost chosen by the wizard Shazam, only to be spend his life bitterly trying to get his chance to claim that power.

Billy, himself, is only chosen because he's the last possible candidate and time is running out, and he's really no better than the young Sivana was. There's a nice symmetry between the characters, since both are the product of broken families and retaliate against their backgrounds. Sivana's father is a bully who openly treats his brother as the favourite, while Billy's mother wins the award for worst cinematic parent of the year and simply walks away from her son. While Billy turns from his delinquency due to finally finding a loving family and learning responsibility from his power, Sivana grows up with his uncaring father and brother and obsesses over the power he missed out on. Strong's Sivana is monstrous and terrifying, but still sympathetic. The real villain here is bad parenting.

Not everything works quite so well. The Seven Deadly Sins, being the opposite source of power to Billy's, work double time as monsters and Sivana's magical battery, and in themselves are very generic demon-beasts which mostly don't seem to reflect the sins they're supposed to represent. (I'm very tempted to have a crack designing my own, which would at least get me drawing again.) I'm not convinced by Djimon Hounsou as the wizard Shazam (the naming really does become confusing in the comics), but the sheer straightness of his performance works well with the comedy that revolves around him.

The balance of comedy and action-drama works is pretty perfectly balanced. The funniest moment of the film comes in the middle of the climactic one-on-one showdown between Billy and Sivana, and there's a gentle mockery of superhero tropes throughout, but in a refreshingly non-cynical way. There are some elements that just play weirdly to a British audience, though. Billy's first day at school, complete with bullies who like to pick on disabled kids, continue the impression I've always gotten from American films that arsehole kids can basically get away with what they want there. More worrying, though, is the weary “you get used to it” vibe of a bunch of children handing over their backpacks to be scanned for weapons, which admittedly has started to happen in some of the worst areas of Britain but is still rare and controversial enough to be noteworthy. Here it's just part of adjusting to a normal schoolboy life, which makes us all glad we live in a culture that isn't quite that messed up.

Fortunately, the overall feel of the film is overwhelmingly positive, and it never forgets that at its heart it's a story about family, something which carries forward right to the bombastic action climax. And while Black Adam might be missing from the Shazam story for now, at least it looks like we've got Mister Mind for the sequel, which is something I never thought we'd get to see on the big screen.

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