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Shazam! (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 26, 2022


SHAZAM! (2019)

Starring Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Jovan Armand, Adam Brody, Meagan Good, Ross Butler, D.J. Cotrona, Michelle Borth, Caroline Palmer, Evan Marsh, Carson MacCormac, Ethan Pugiotto, David Kohlsmith and Lotta Losten.

Screenplay by Henry Gayden.

Directed by David F. Sandberg.

Distributed by Warner Bros. 132 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Now that’s more like it.

For years now, the DC Extended Movie Universe has been wallowing in darkness, turning its superheroes into miserable slaves to the grind of keeping the world safe. This darkness started way back in Tim Burton’s Batman movies, became even more pronounced in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series and reached a glum nadir when Zack Snyder did three films which turned Superman into a miserable, depressing mess. (I’m counting Justice League in that group, although Snyder had to hand it off to Joss Whedon late in the filming due to a family tragedy.)

DC has been trending back towards the light a bit in recent films. Wonder Woman was great fun, even if still a little bit dark. The Flash added some light comic moments into the otherwise overwrought Justice League. Aquaman, while not a very good film, at least did give its protagonist a sense of humor and a sense of fun, even if the film was not exactly well written.

However, it is with Shazam! of all characters, that DC has finally put together a movie that works on pretty much every level, a movie that doesn’t just stand out among DC Films but would also stand tall in the company of the best of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I am old enough to remember when the lead character of Shazam! was known as Captain Marvel. Even though the DC Captain Marvel existed long before the Marvel character of the same name (who just hit the multiplexes about a month ago), DC has ceded the name to Marvel’s film. (This leads to a funny running gag where they keep trying to come up with cool superhero names for the guy, though all of them are winningly awkward.)

The original Captain Marvel came out for the long-forgotten Fawcett Comics in 1939. (Kudos for the Shazam! filmmakers for naming the lead character’s high school Fawcett High.) In the 1940s, Captain Marvel sold more copies than even Superman. However, the company hit problems and eventually went under, the character eventually being purchased by Fawcett’s main competition, DC Comics.

However, by the time they brought Captain Marvel back in 1972, Marvel Comics had created a character with that name. Still, the comics (and the 1970s Saturday morning TV series) did still call him Captain Marvel. They did also start to play up the acronym that gives him his powers and turned a young man into a chiseled action hero: “Shazam!” (The term stands for “The wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.”)

So, okay, fine. We’ll call him Shazam! A superhero with a movie this good can go by any name they want. (Even Captain Zapper-fingers, one of the many ideas which are ruled out by young Billy Batson and his best friend.)

Billy (the terrific Asher Angel) is a fourteen-year-old orphan, who has broken out of many foster homes in search of his mother, who he lost in a crowd while just a toddler. With only their last name to go on, he searches for as many women named Batson as she can, eventually ending up in a funky-but-loving Philadelphia foster home when his latest attempt to find his mother goes south, like they all do.

At first, as is his nature, Billy tries to escape. However, he eventually befriends the comic-book-loving, sarcastic, handicapped housemate Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer of IT) and kinda gets to like the rest of the people there.

However, he still keeps his traveling shoes at the ready. Then when a strange wizard (Djimon Hounsou) gives him superpowers, Billy turns to Freddie for instruction in the superhero life.

Shazam! shows a superhero actually in giddy awe of his awesome abilities, rather than the standard DC mode of superpowers being a crushing imposition. Shazam has more of an everyman (or every-boy) reaction to powers. Being a superhero can be fun, and you can meet chicks, and you can make money from it, and you can become a YouTube phenomenon. You can even get beer if you want.

Someone happy to become a superhero. What a concept!

Also, more than most, Shazam! has a villain worthy of the character, too. Dr. Thaddeus Sivana is basically an overgrown kid as well, a mad, jealous, evil one.

The movie actually starts with Sivana’s origin story, in which as a small boy in a car crash, he gets a chance from the same wizard to get the same powers Billy will eventually get. This segment is a bit dark, leading you to worry you’re getting into another DC mope-fest. Don’t worry, that is just a fake-out, soon enough Shazam! is fun and funny, and at the same time heartfelt and sometimes a bit scary.

I won’t tell you all that much else so as not to spoil surprises, but Shazam! is a smart mixture of humor, drama and action. And it takes place in my hometown of Philadelphia, which is a nice bonus.

Not only is Shazam! the best DC film in possibly decades, but it is also by far the better of the two “Captain Marvel” movies of the year.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: April 5, 2019.

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