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With: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Lotta Losten, Andi Osho, John Glover, Adam Brody, Meagan Good, Michelle Borth, Ross Butler, D.J. Cotrona
Written by: Henry Gayden, based on a story by Henry Gayden, Darren Lemke, and on characters created by C.C. Beck, Bill Parker
Directed by: David F. Sandberg
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material
Running Time: 132
Date: 04/05/2019
IMDB

Shazam! (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Holy Moley

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The minds behind the sputtering DC Universe film series seem to have realized that, in order to move forward, their over-reliance on grayness, smashing and explosions, numbing CG effects, and lack of humor, needed to change. The trailers for the new Shazam! made it look like an overcorrection, a dumb collection of broad slapstick jokes. But, happily, it's like any other trailer for a comedy; clumsy cutting, probably done by an ad department, sucked the timing out of the jokes. In context, in the finished film, the jokes are quite charming, and the movie is surprisingly lovable as well.

A little backstory is probably necessary. "Shazam" is not our hero's name. It's his magic word, taken from the first letters of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. When he speaks it, he's changed into Captain Marvel, who has the powers of all six gods. He was created by C.C. Beck in 1939, for Fawcett Comics, as a direct competitor to/ripoff of the popular Superman comics that had debuted a year earlier. Captain Marvel was very popular, but his run eventually ended due to lawsuits. Then, weirdly, Fawcett sold the character to DC in the 1970s.

But, to complicate matters, Marvel Comics currently owns the name "Captain Marvel," so DC can't use it. The new Shazam! movie solves the problem humorously, with the characters unable to come up with, or agree upon, a superhero name that sounds cool and sticks. ("Thundercrack" is suggested, but our hero balks, saying that "it sounds like a butt thing.") In any case, it begins in flashback, to a young supervillain Sivana. His father and older brother pick on him, telling him that he's weak and will never amount to anything. But suddenly he finds himself summoned to a secret chamber. A wizard (Djimon Hounsou) explains that he wants to pass on his powers to a worthy soul. Sivana fails a test and is ejected back to his miserable life.

Years later, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a Philadelphia orphan who has dedicated his life to finding his mother after they were separated at a theme park. He has become wily and clever, escaping many foster homes, but he's caught and sent to a new one. Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews) are former foster kids themselves, and they are the heads of a big, untidy, loving home filled with six foster kids. Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a wisecracking superhero-loving nerd who walks with a cane, and Billy's new roommate. The oldest, Mary (Grace Fulton), is preparing to leave for college. The others are: sweet, chatty baby sister Darla (Faithe Herman), video game and computer nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), and the quiet, withdrawn Pedro (Jovan Armand).

Billy heads to his new school, where bullies relentlessly pick on Freddy. He defends his new foster brother and runs for his life. After making a subway train, he finds himself in the same secret chamber, in front of the same wizard. Billy passes the test, and finds himself in a grown-up superhero body (played by Zachary Levi). He tracks down Freddy and they begin to explore the possibilities of the newfound super-powers, testing flying ability and bulletproof capacity, as well as buying beer (an idea they quickly dismiss; it tastes terrible).

Since our hero is really only 14 years old, he makes a few rookie mistakes. He likes to show off, and tends to think about himself before others. He even winds up ostracizing Freddy, who is the closest thing to a best friend he has ever had. But after a few test runs (one involving an endangered bus), and after an attack by the adult Sivana (Mark Strong), things start to get going in the right super-direction. (Sivana, by the way, has figured out a way to return to the secret chamber and has become a carrier for the Seven Deadly Sins, giving himself similar superpowers, to be used for evil, of course.)

Shazam! is the third feature film directed by David F. Sandberg, and he's currently three-for-three. His previous two credits are both above-average horror films, Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation. He can't help throwing some horror elements in here, including the shocking, horrifying deaths of some minor characters, and the somewhat terrifying Deadly Sins personified (Gluttony, in particular, nearly gave me nightmares). Otherwise, he shows an excellent sense of pacing and color and rhythm, mixing the humor and action and character development in appealing swirls. Unlike most of the other DC movies, the final battle is not just a huge smash-and-explosion-filled visual effects sludgefest; it pauses here and there to find delightful little character moments, bringing the foster kids closer together at every step. One of my favorite moments has Sivana delivering his villain's "evil plan" speech while our hero is too far away to hear it; it takes an old trope and turns it into comedy gold.

Even though the foster family idea is teeny bit goopy, it nevertheless feels just right during these dark times. Its attempt to provide a mix of cultures and sexes feels a bit politically correct, but also just right. (It feels like a warm hug.) The fact that the movie takes place at Christmas, and climaxes at a winter carnival, also feels just right. The biggest misstep is probably the villain. In the comics, Sivana is nothing more than an evil scientist, a direct ripoff of Lex Luthor (right down to the bald head). Giving him superpowers actually makes him less interesting. And while Mark Strong can be good in the right roles, he does need the right kind of push to avoid becoming a one-dimensional, cold-hearted bully, as he does here.

However, in the end, Shazam! is a fine representation of the appeal of superheroes and comic books to all nerdy, outcast, shy, awkward kids. It's the promise that, underneath your unlucky, sad, regular exterior (your "secret identity"), there exists someone extraordinary, someone that can do amazing things. Some may call this mere fantasy, but I think there's truth in it. The genius of this movie is that it has fun with the in-between areas, the idea that, before we do the right thing, we might want to have just a little bit of fun with our super strength and lightning fingers. Zap.

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