Shazam! (Cert 12A)
US (2019) Dir. David F. Sandberg
As I stated in my review of Captain Marvel, the superhero I and other old gits knew with that moniker was not an amnesiac woman turned alien, but the creation of Bill Parker and C. C. Beck for Fawcett Publications in 1939, whose comic book adventures actually outsold both Batman and Superman over the next few years.
Captain Marvel hit the big screen in a 1941 cliffhanger serial starring Tom Tyler and a TV series in the 70’s with Jackson Bostwick and later John Davey assuming the role. Since then, with the rights to the name bought by Marvel and creating their own character with it, this Captain Marvel franchise was rechristened Shazam, which brings us to this film.
Beginning in 1974, a young Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto) is magically transported to the Rock of Eternity where a wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), as the last of the Council of Seven, is searching for someone to inherit his powers and prevent the Seven Deadly Sins from breaking free from their petrified stasis. Thaddius fails the test by opting to retrieve the Eye of Envy instead and is dismissed back to the real world.
Present day and troublesome 14 year-old orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is taken by kindly foster parents Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans), putting him in a room with invalid superhero fanboy Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). Also in the house are prissy teen Mary (Grace Fulton), video nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), hyperactive junior Darla (Faithe Herman) and introverted teen Pedro (Jovan Armand).
At school, Billy defends Freddie from a couple of bullies and in fleeing ends up on the subway but the train mysteriously stops and Billy is taking to the Rock of Eternity where a tired Shazam decides Billy is his last hope and transfers his powers to him. Now, whenever Billy says “Shazam” he transforms into a hulking adult with superhero powers (Zachery Levi), although he is still a teenager inside.
Meanwhile, after years of searching, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), now estranged from his wealthy family, finds the secret to returning to the Rock of Eternity, where he defeats Shazam and releases the Seven Deadly Sins via the Eye of Envy, adopting their superpowers and wreaking havoc on the world.
Because of the aforementioned issue of the rights to the name Captain Marvel, our hero doesn’t actually have an official name, only silly ones Freddie invents for him like Captain Thundercrack or Mr. Lightning Fingers for his YouTube videos clips. If drawing attention to himself doesn’t sound very superhero-ish, this encapsulates the lighter, dare I say “comic” approach to this film.
In the original story, whenever Billy transformed he became an adult in every aspect – here he is only physically an adult, like Tom Hanks in Big but with superpowers. That Billy reveals himself to Freddie after his first transformation is typical of a teen’s mentality, as is the idea to show off his abilities for viral videos online. This tampering with the character might not sit well with older fans of the original, but for modern fans will be the humorous hook to get them invested.
Yet this gives the old “power equals responsibility” ethos an interesting twist as Billy uses it to make money and absorb his local fame but without having fully harnessed all of his abilities, like flight, he is only partly efficient in saving the day. Sivana meanwhile has seven evil spirits lurking within him which he can unleash along with his own powers that he has mastered, proving a tough foe for our hero.
Since comic book tales are usually built around a moral message, this one is the virtues of family and how blood ties aren’t always a guarantee of a loving bond. Billy has been searching for his mother (Caroline Palmer) having been separated since he was a child; Sivana was tormented by his father and elder brother for being useless, whilst in the Vasquez household, everyone is considered family despite their varied backgrounds.
For those already familiar with the original stories will have noticed the names Mary and Freddie being used – without spoiling anything, this is not a coincidence but it does take a while before becoming significant. Hopefully eagle-eyed viewers would spot the name of the school is Fawcett High, one of the more subtle Easter eggs relating to the character’s history amongst the blatant nods to the DC superhero milieu.
Once the comedy and sentimental drama settles down, the focus is on the action which any superhero film is behoved to deliver. This is a personal niggle but the fight scenes are pretty much every battle seen in any comic book outing DC or Marvel. That is not necessarily the fault of director David F. Sandberg but the high-speed tackle and crash through a building is fast becoming an unavoidable and interchangeable cliché.
But they are high-energy punch-ups of unabated CGI bombast to keep the fans happy if nothing else. Despite looking like Max Shreck as Nosferatu, Marc Strong continues his run as the dependable villain, except he does has a valid reason for his quest for power as a child maligned by his family.
It admittedly takes a while to get used to such a goofy hero you’ve previously known as serious but Zachery Levi handles the comedy of a teen in a man’s body rather well as the adult Billy, bringing a touch of pathos to this dynamic when necessary. I personally found Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer too much like typically obnoxious US teens, especially the latter.
For what it is though, Shazam! has enough elements to forge its own identity within the DCU, bringing something fresh and fun to it, even if it is at the expense of a previously serious superhero. Stick around for two post credit scenes, one typically hinting at a sequel, the other featuring some teasing banter about the other DCU heroes.
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black