Shazam! (2019) Review
A WILDLY FUN (YET CONVENTIONAL)
As Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) continues to provide moviegoers everywhere with its extensive cinematic library of Marvel character superhero adventures, the DCEU is trying to play catch up with its own realm of costumed heroes and superhuman beings. The studio, which falls under the movie studio control of Warner Bros. Pictures, has had a difficult time in producing a successful formula in trying to convey DC Comics of superheroes into cinematic endeavor for moviegoers to enjoy. This is apparently known in the spilt decisions of 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the problematic efforts on 2016’s Suicide Squad, and the disappointing presentation of 2017’s Justice League, with most finding these projects (in general terms) not meet to the standards of what was promised. That being said, the DCEU is starting to find its groove, especially after the release of 2017’s Wonder Woman and 2018’s Aquaman; finding both feature films to have their own swagger and appeal that works in both film storytelling and entertainment purpose for audiences. Now, Warner Bros. Pictures (as well as DC Comics) and director Robert F. Sandberg present the latest film in the DCEU with the movie titled Shazam! Does this newest superhero offering act as shinning beacon for this shared DC Comics Cinematic universe or is just another “run-of-the-mill” superhero blockbuster that doesn’t work?
Abandoned as a child, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is troublemaker teenager; constantly running away from the foster homes he’s sent as he searches for his biological mother. His latest prank with the cops has put him in the foster care hands of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rose (Marta Milans) Vasquez, who look after several other foster kids, including Frederick “Freddy” Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a physically disabled smart aleck teen. Unfortunately, Billy doesn’t want to be part of his new family, but after coming to the rescue of Freddy at the hands of school bullying, the wayward youth finds himself in the otherworld of the wizard named “Shazam” (Djimon Hounsou), who’s looking for a “Champion of Eternity” to take command of his powers and continue the noble ways of Shazam, which is a collection of Greek-inspired superpowers. Accepting the mantle, Billy is transformed into a thirtysomething man (Zachary Levi), endowed with incredible powers and superhuman abilities, tasked with figuring out what he’s capable of (assisted by Freddy). As Billy and Freddy begin to explore the powers of Billy’s alter ego of Shazam, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) also seeks the power of Shazam as well, possessed by the powers of the Seven Deadly Sins and driven by destiny he was denied long ago.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
It’s very easy to point out that the differences between the MCU and DCEU have been. It’s basically night and day type of experience, with one studio finding its rhythm (albeit formulaic in some regards) yet proving to be effective, while the other struggles to find its stride. Yes, I’ll admit that I did like Man of Steel (probably one of the select few who did) as well as Wonder Woman (love actress Gal Gadot as Diana Prince) and Aquaman (the sheer epic scope of the feature is amazing), but the DCEU has been problematic with their other release (i.e. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, and Justice League). Those features, while promising with plenty of superhero nuances and inherit hype from its pre-release marketing, didn’t exactly match up to what many (including myself) expected, which is reflected upon the feedback from moviegoers and the “behind the scenes” shake up of the franchise, leaving the continuation of the DCEU in a somewhat ambiguous limbo state, which is in contrast to the how the MCU is presenting its feature films. To me, it’s kind of interesting in comparing the two, but with the success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, I have feeling that the DCEU is heading in the right direction.
This brings me back to talking about Shazam!, the latest and seventh entry from the DCEU cinematic universe. I’ll be quite honest, I really didn’t know much about Shazam….in the ways and means of the comic book world. Of course, I knew he existed as I’ve seeing him appear in other DC comics mediums and entertainment media facets, but personally haven’t read any of his comic books nor heard a ton about, so I really didn’t know what to expect from the character and / or any assumption of what to see in his big-screen debut. I remember I got my first taste of what to expect from the movie when the first trailer was released at San Diego’s Comic-Con 2018 and (to be quite honest) I wasn’t that impressed with it. What I mean is that it looked at bit…silly, which (as many know) is quite a very different direction from the norm within the DCEU. Sure, Suicide Squad was cheeky and had its off-beat humor and Aquaman had its large-than-life cheesy dialogue, but never something like how Shazam! was gonna be presented. I just wasn’t super impressed with, especially coming after the epic tale in Wonder Woman and the grandiose scope and scale in Aquaman. Shazam! just seemed like an odd choice for the studio to do. Still, I was semi-intrigued to see this movie, but my expectations were a bit low (it’s true). So, I went to see it….and what did I think of it? Well, to be honest, I found it to be quite amusing. While I wasn’t exactly “blown away” by it, Shazam! still succeeds in being an overall solid (and humorous) take on both the superhero genre and for the DCEU. It’s not exactly the sharpest cinematic superhero to come across, but its something that the blockbuster film genre needs.
Shazam! is directed by David F. Sandberg, whose previous director several shorts films as well several feature films like Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation. Given that both Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation were more suspenseful / horror motion picture endeavors, Sandberg makes his third directorial film not only his most ambitious project to date, but also his most lighthearted feature movie to date as well; making Shazam! the easiest to digest / view for entertainment purpose by all. Of course, Sandberg certainly does make his mark on the superhero movie genre, which has become the flagship blockbuster moniker on movie releases for many years. In truth, Shazam! represents a certain breath of “fresh air” into the cinematic world of superhero, offering up a more simplistic and fun adventure tale, which is kind of good thing. Considering on many superhero movies nowadays have become either more intricate and grounded or expansive and darker, Shazam! finds a “happy medium” in just dancing the beat to its own drum. To be honest, Sandberg actually makes Shazam! feels reminiscent classic 80s film of juvenile youths that get caught up in a grand adventure and must band together with others to stop an impending evil (i.e. something akin to a Spielberg 80s film or like 1985’s Goonies). Of course, given its efforts in trying to be different, Sandberg does make Shazam! a more humorous take on the superhero, finding a lot of the movie’s jokes and gags to be on point and never falter. Some might produce a chuckle or two, while others might produce big laughs. Regardless, the humorous vibe of the feature definitely works and Sandberg keeps the comical timing light and fun and never DOA. The juxtaposition to that is how the movie handles a few big dramatic scenes that actually do work and really drive home towards Billy Baston’s journey, especially considering his journey to find his real mother.
Working alongside Sandberg is Henry Gayden, who penned the film’s script as well as the story with Darren Lemke. Together, Gayden and Lemke’s screenplay for Shazam! works within the narrative context they want to tell; demonstrating the classic superhero origin tale for a modern age of moviegoers, especially with a teenager protagonist character rather than a young adult (20 or something age range) reluctant character that goes from “zero to hero”. As with the overall tone of the movie, the story narration is relatively simplistic; stripped down to the bare necessities for a comic superhero endeavor and, while that might sound like a bit of a negative remark, it’s actually kind of good thing. Why? Well, if you look at DCEU’s past releases like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, and Justice League, those particular movies all had a lot of their “narrative” plate (i.e. introducing main characters, multiple story threads, and ton of connecting meta references that ties all the features together). Thankfully, Shazam! doesn’t do that. Of course, the movie is set within the same cinematic world of Batman, Superman, Aquaman, and the rest of the DC characters and does do a little bit of world building (i.e. the seven wizards and the Seven Deadly sins, etc.), but the film’s story / script doesn’t get bogged too much on trying to make those connections or doesn’t go out of its way to make the film part of a large superhero world. Basically, the movie keeps its focus on Billy Batson’s journey and Thaddeus Sivana’s determination for power.
Given the nature of a smaller scale / mid-budget film than past DCEU films, Shazam!’s technical and presentation is rather good and does feel detailed enough to feel both real and surreal; kind of one foot in reality and one foot in the superhero fantastic realm. That’s not to say the feature has CGI visual to utilize in some supernatural effects and costume superhero antics throughout, but Sandberg doesn’t go overboard the visual effects much like what Aquaman did (although Aquaman was a different kind of cinematic beasts to tame against Shazam!). Still, the visual effects in this movie are good and are on par with today’s standard (neither awesome, nor terrible, but still pleasing to look at). I did notice a few sloppy visual once or twice, but it didn’t bother me as much. A lot of the other areas, including set decorations (Shane Vieau), cinematography (Maxime Alexandre), and musical score (Benjamin Wallifisch) are also on point and do feel well-represented in the movie, adding Shazam!’s overall positive column.
Unfortunately, while the movie does offer a lighter and more fun experience in dealing with costumed superheroes, Shazam! does stumble in some areas… most notable in the narration department. What do I mean? Well, while I do praise Gayden and Lemke’s script handing in making the feature fun and something different from other DCEU endeavors, the heart of the problem lies within how movie’s story plays out in a very conventional manner. As I said, it’s a classic superhero origin tale of sort and, within this “golden age” of superhero films, we (as viewers) have seeing plenty of origin stories of ordinary people that undergo some type of transformation into superhuman beings (i.e. “zero to hero”). While its all well and good and has been done many, many times, a film needs something else to bolster the generic storytelling to keep the feature afloat. Shazam! definitely has its humorous and heart in the right place, but its not enough to distract from how formulaic and stereotypical the movie’s narrative is. Thus, the whole film (from beginning to end) feels like a little “been there, done that” within the superhero genre (of which it has been) and just comes contrived and genric at some points.
This also doesn’t help the fact the movie struggles to develop certain sub-plots fully. There’s plenty of ground work in some narrative threads (i.e. Billy’s search for his really mother and the exploration each of his new foster family), but the movie doesn’t seem completely interested in seeing those aspects through. Thus, despite Shazam! being a more a character focused superhero movie (rather than plot based), there are few narrative pieces that don’t work and / or are not fully explored, which is a shame. This is even further made realized when the feature’s runtime is 132 minutes long (two hours and twelve minutes) and certainly feels that long with a lot of things happening here and there. Perhaps trimming the movie down to two hours would’ve been more beneficial for a tighter pacing, which is problematic in a few places throughout the movie. This is most notable in the film’s climax battle scenes, which is a bit elongated and could’ve been easily shortened to fit that two hour runtime mark.
Another negative point (although it’s just a minor one) is that Shazam, despite its lighthearted tone, definitely has a few dark moments in the film. I’m not saying that there are gory or R-rated or anything like that, but these particular scenes are quite obvious and do definitely standout (and for the better), but rather the opposite. It’s understandable as why Sandberg would want to show these dark moments, especially given the fact of his two prior directorial features, but it’s a bit of distraction and doesn’t fully fit into the movie. Another minor negative point that I would make about Shazam! is that it’s not my greatest superhero movie as some are making it out to be. Yes, I agree that’s a rather good and definitely is something different from the expansive / blockbuster, but it’s not as immersive as Man of Steel, or as epic as Wonder Woman, or even as adventurous as Aquaman. The movie definitely has been hyped up for quite sometime as the film’s end result was good (for me), but incredible awesome that I was “blown away” by it. Again, I’m not saying that Shazam! is a bad movie, but it’s not the most perfect superhero movie in the DCEU. At least…. that’s just my opinion as I’m sure some will disagree with me on that.
Collectively, the cast in Shazam! is a rather good one, with every actor and actresses selected to play the film’s characters playing their parts (respectfully) well. While some do have large parts than others (or perhaps could’ve been better developed), there are all well-acted in the feature. At the head of the pack (and perhaps the best / most memorable of the entire feature) is actor Zachary Levi, who plays the Billy Batson’s superhero alter-ego Shazam. Known for his roles in Chuck, Tangled, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Levi is actually what makes Shazam (both the character and the movie) so intriguing and entertaining as the actor is quite adept in being cheeky and humorous, but also displays the right amount dramatic moments that are required to make their character endearing. Levi also handles the teenage / youthful persona of Billy Batson (within a superhero body) quite well, showcasing the juvenile angst that (like I mentioned above) many of us would’ve displayed if we were endowed with superhero abilities. Thus, Levi’s Shazam works fantastically in the movie and he completely makes the character his own.
As for actor Asher Angel (Andi Mack and Driven to Dance), who plays the teenage protagonist character of Billy Batson, he certainly does a good job in the role; handling the movie’s youthful moments within his teenage hero character, who is thrusted into a being a superhero. Naturally, Levi’s portrayal of Billy (in the Shazam persona) beats out Angel’s portrayal of the character (in terms of likeability, screen-time, and entertainment views), but Angel’s performance is still a solid one and one that plays to the film’s positive strengths.
In more secondary roles are the members that make of Billy’s foster family, with the most memorable and largely supporting role is in the character of Frederick “Freddy” Freeman, Billy Baston’s foster sibling who quickly forms a friendship with and who is played by young actor Jack Dylan Grazer (IT and My, Myself, and I). While he’s only a supporting character, Grazer certainly does his part quite well (definitely the best of the younger cast) as he hits all the right tones and beats for his character of Freddy…be it energetic superhero enthusiast, goofy teen, or even heartfelt dramatic moments. Plus, the movie also benefits that Grazer has great on-screen chemistry with both Levi and Angel, which makes his relationship with Billy / Shazam all the more worth watching, especially in some of the verbal dialogue banter between the two. The other foster siblings, including actor Ian Chen (Fresh Off the Boat and Grey’s Anatomy) as the video game obsessed / hacker enthusiast Eugene Choi, actor Jovan Armand (The Middle and Shameless) as the shy / quiet teen Pedro Pena, actress Grace Fulton (Annabelle: Creation and Ghost Whispers) as the “den mother” / college bound Mary Bromfield, and actress Faithe Herman (This Is Us and Doe) as the youthful / energetic Darla Dudley. Much like what I said about the cast (collectively), these foster siblings’ characters serve their purpose in the film’s narrative (with some getting a bigger spotlight than others), but all of them are acted well and are played with their own quirks and personalities.
In the villain category, actor Mark Strong (Kingsman: The Golden Circle and Zero Dark Thirty) fills in that particular role as the feature’s main antagonist Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. While Strong is a talented actor and certainly knows how to “lay it on thick” at displaying villainy (no matter what the form shall be), Shazam! falters in the handling on how Sivana is presented on-screen. What’s clear right from the get-go is that the movie does spend some time in establishing him enough by giving him a backstory on why he becomes evil. Unfortunately, while the effort is there (and motivation towards Sivana’s villainy), either Sandberg nor Gayden / Lemke’s screenplay can’t elevate the character from being one-dimensional. What went wrong? Its hard to say as Sivana (as a character) does make for a good bad guy / foil for Billy / Shazam on paper, but the movie never takes him beyond one-note / simplistic antagonist that wants what all comic book villain want…. ultimate power. Of course, Strong does his best with what’s he given and (again) handles the part well (for his part), but I just wish there was more of a compelling character build for Thaddeus Sivana than just a generic one. However, that being said, Strong’s Sivana is does actually succeed in being the so-called “straight man” against Levi’s Shazam, which usually do drum up some humorous moments in the film (one in particular stand out as the two squares off in the air).
Rounding out the cast are several actors / actresses that play minor supporting roles in the movie, including actor Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator and Blood Diamond) as the elderly wizard Shazam (the one who bestows his powers to Billy Batson), actor John Glover (Scrooged and Payback) as Thaddeus’s estranged father (and head of Sivana Industries) Mr. Sivana, actress Andi Osho (Curfew and Lights Out) as the social worker Ms. E.B Glover, and actor Cooper Anderson (Den of Thieves and Halt and Catch Fire) and actress Marta Milans (Killer Women and High Maintenance) as Victor and Rosa Vasquez. Collectively, these characters serve their purpose in the movie as minor character roles and do have a few moments (or two) in the spotlight in showcasing their character importance, which is mostly in service to the narrative.
Lastly, be sure to still around during the film’s end credit sequence for two Easter egg scenes, with one as a mid-credit appearance and the other at the very end. While I won’t spoil what it shows…the first one steps up the events for a possible sequel (and next antagonist villain), while the latter is a little fun one; a sort of humorous jab at another DC superhero character.
Get ready for a different type of DC superhero in the form of teenage youth Billy Batson and his powerful superhero alter-ego form in the movie Shazam!. Director David F. Sandberg latest film definitely showcases the more lighthearted and humorous of this DC comics cinematic world by providing plenty jokes, gags, and superhero nuances that’s quite to digest and to view for simplistic entertainment value. While the film plays its safe within its streamlined superhero origin (as well as its villain antagonist), the movie finds its stride within its Sandberg’s direction of a character-focused story, a smaller scope narration, its humorous comedy beats, and a much lighter (and breezier) superhero endeavor than what’s come before in the DCEU. Personally, I liked this movie. While I do think that the movie’s conventional superhero path was bit formulaic and could’ve been better handle, I do think the feature was hilarious (made me laugh a lot) and brought something both different and unique to today’s current take on the superhero genre. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a solid and favorable “Recommended”, offering plenty of distraction for tweens and above who enjoy superhero features. It will be interesting to see how Shazam! will ultimately shape up to be within this shared cinematic universe of DC superheroes as a sequel has already been announced. Will we get to see Shazam face off against Black Adam (one of the characters rivals and rumored to be played actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Who knows, but, given the success that the film has already, its almost a forgone conclusion. In the end, Shazam! may not be the best superhero movie out there, but it is indeed a wildly fun and amusing “breath of fresh air” into today’s cinematic filmscape genre of superpowered individuals and costume alter-ego personas.
3.9 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: April 5th, 2019
Reviewed On: April 17th, 2019
Shazam! is 132 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material