Shazam!

This movie parties with itself. It’s having as much fun as a little kid dancing and cares even less about proving itself to you. Some people are calling this movie “Deadpool-lite” and I disagree with this for a few reasons. Deadpool addresses the audience directly to convince them that this “isn’t that kind of superhero movie.” Despite being comedic, Shazam! is absolutely that kind of movie, and never feels like it has to ask you to accept it back into your heart. It knows, as the hero stories have always known, as Alex Ross knows when he paints them in tableaus of motion lines and grinning, that we’ll always be ready to go back to a world where heroes exist. We’ve never really needed them to acknowledge that they’re corny so they can prove how cool they are: we accept who they are, because we can’t help wanting a world that’s good enough to have time left over to be corny. Shazam! makes us wish for a world like that. I believe anyone would walk out of this movie lighter on their feet. On the way out, I think I saw someone open the door for someone else for the first time in forever.

Shazam! is coming into this world being compared to a lot of things. The people who enjoy the Snyder films may wonder if DC is pandering to Marvel’s game with the lighter tone; certain sections of the Marvel crowd may scoff Shazam! coming so soon after Captain Marvel, who bears Shazam’s original name (please make a pilgrimage to Wikipedia for the whole sordid story). Here’s my take on all that stuff at once. A lighter tone or a hero that looks different doesn’t affect whether the movie is less meaningful to anyone willing to believe in it: if it tells a character story through its action, then the action can decide what tone would be appropriate for its hero. I prefer a serious superhero movie, but if the bubbly tone of a Raimi-esque all-American do-gooder produces a better arc than a grave megalith of punching and shrapnel, then you should know this about me: in that case, I would consider Shazam! to be the more serious superhero movie. It all depends on whether action communicates character. And Henry Gayden’s script does it better than superhero films have in years.

Characters are guided by their nature in Shazam! and this informs the performances. Zachary Levi is bursting with enthusiasm over his idea of a fourteen-year-old boy, and so his character constantly struggles with the concept of reining himself in. He has an excess of himself. He minces around this movie, teeming with ambition to play someone with no ambition of their own (or at least, no more than Ferris Bueller had on his day off). He discovers that his fingers shoot lightning and he uses it to nonchalantly charge people’s phones, or to do a lightshow for cash on the steps that Rocky fought way harder to get to the top of. He uses his face to get into strip clubs and to buy “the finest beer” from a gas station that he then saves from robbers. His buddy, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), keeps having to remind him that he’s a superhero now. When a lady catcalls him on the street, he gives her a look like he doesn’t know what to do with it. That’s just in Billy’s (Asher Angel) nature, even when he looks like Zachary Levi. Freddy, who’s on a crutch, is always compensating for having less powers than a normal person; he’d have taken the lack of a catcall as being her loss.

Freddy becomes the heart of this film, and his passion imitates the life of people who have been to so many of these movies. He’s obsessed with superheroes and represents the love that many of us have for them. When Billy abuses his power to sell autographs and amuse the masses (like some superhero movies do, perhaps), Freddy becomes his little Uncle Ben to remind him what it means to have the power that he’ll never have himself. He’s an 80s kid in this movie – he recalls Elliott from E.T. and even some of the real-talk moments in Stand by Me – and Shazam! embraces him. Freddy decodes all this playing around for us, and in that way he’s what Deadpool never had. Consider the difference in the two movies’ uses of the word “shit.” Deadpool says it because that’s not something superheroes usually say. Freddy says it at the height of the film’s emotions, when Billy has forgotten what being a superhero means to begin with.

There are a lot of different kinds of kids in this movie. Some of them are sitcom siblings, others are Peter Pan’s little dreamers. The little girl named Darla Dudley, which could have been the name of one of Dennis the Menace's neighbors, is a particular delight – she has a way of saying a cute thing, not like she hadn’t noticed, but like she knows you think she hadn't. All the kids in Shazam! have a togetherness that the foster parents (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) snuggle against like momma and papa bears. I loved almost every minute of the army of children in this movie, how they prove their simple idea of loyalty to each other (keeping a secret, being a good big brother) and if they’d saved their big reveal for another film, I’d have left excited for more of them.

But I think that Shazam! does something at the end (that I won’t spoil) that isn’t quite earned. It’s tacked on at a time in the film when the only thing we really needed to see was the hero learning to believe in something. This ending does pay off thematically. But most of these kids weren’t established well enough to matter too much in the context that they’re used. I was wishing for Freddy to be in the limelight in this part – he earned it with every Dickensian hobble – and because the scene plays out in a group with too many special effects (all of a sudden the movie starts using a lot of sloppy slow-motion with the general air of the third act of a Power Rangers cartoon), Freddy gets put in his place, which of course is as the comic relief. Losing track of his emotions here made me feel like the movie lost its heart at the very moment it tried to make good on it. Trying to wield so many characters, each established mostly just with one little quirk, at the end of someone else's character arc, as though they don't need one of their own, does Shazam! no favors as it’s winding down. It felt like a proper ending, but of the sequel.

I had to get that out of my system because I want to keep talking about how awesome this movie is. The use of Billy’s powers would remind anyone of how they felt in Raimi’s first Spider-Man, and I don’t just mean his superpowers. It’s impressive in this age to make us care about whether someone is going to fly when we’ve seen it so often; even more so whether they’ll know the significance of being able to do so. But the power to see the world as a child is an even greater power: lifting a bus is not nearly so amazing today as saying “Holy moly” about it. The bus scene is the best example of how the movie weaves in the comedy while never letting the tension fizzle. And it has more well-meaning derring-do and higher stakes than a lot of hero films have had in their whole run-time, with entire planets hanging in the balance.

I want to talk about that comedy. Shazam! refrains from doing something that I’m sick of seeing. When you go to a blockbuster advertised as having comedic elements you’re subjected to a formula: an epic scene plays out with epic music, the music drains out, and then the punchline of all the gravitas is a joke. I’m thinking of Doctor Strange (“One word … like Beyoncé?”) and pretty much any of the humor in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which plops a yo mama joke into a grave space battle in order to make it seem like all this epic imagery don't mean nothin' to it. Director David Sandberg and Gayden’s work on Shazam! shines brightest in the humor because it lets comedic moments land while taking seriously the things in its universe that must be taken seriously.

There’s some scary stuff in Shazam!: people melting and getting their heads eaten by gargoyles and discovering that they may not deserve their great power. And those scenes almost never land on a joke. The characters don’t seem so alien this way: they never seem like they’re making light of a grave situation, or taking something corny way too seriously. There are a few exceptions: one moment ignored everything I just said. Near the end, Mark Strong’s villain is monologuing out of range of the hero’s hearing and they cut it with comedic reaction shots, which the film normally doesn't do. Most of it makes fun of tropes much more quietly than that -- see again the bus rescue scene, which doesn't drain the tension by inserting comedy. The film is almost always acutely aware of how it wants us to feel about something. Billy gets his powers from a wizard (Djimon Hounsou), whose realm is taken seriously by the movie, even if it isn’t by Billy. When he mocks it, he becomes the butt of that joke: he’s in one of the parts that we’re supposed to be mystified by, and because the writer/director believe that superheroes can do that to us, we are.

There are parts of this movie that are completely enchanting. Shazam! knows how often superheroes represent our wish fulfillment, not merely to be better than we are, but to have the power to act as good as we can be. As a result, it’s not less immersive when the effects are bad – a sequence of flying through a crowded mall has CGI that looks a generation old at least – and since its magic surrounds kids doing a great job acting like the world is worth getting excited over, you may start to believe them. Levi turns the Shazam concept into a brilliant insertion of the audience: he’s the adult that feels the way adults are meant to be changed and energized by this movie. He does it so well that Angel’s Billy can’t keep up: Levi is far more bountifully childlike than the child he’s supposed to be.

But you should know that you have to be ready to be enchanted by this movie. All I said about balancing the comedy and the horror didn’t work for some of the people in my theater: a diabolically serious moment of a character dying produced laughter more than once. Sometimes the movie is cut like a comedy when it shouldn’t be, and sometimes cut seriously despite being laughable: a scene in which the villain looks at computer monitors of interviews from people who have seen magic is as corny as a Bing search scene but the movie doesn’t seem to know it. And I have to admit that the annoying kids making fun of this movie in the theater, and also saying “Yeah, boi” whenever something amusing happened, are the most like Billy and Freddy between the two of us. The real versions of our heroes will always annoy us.

That’s why we have movies like Shazam! Being a comedy doesn’t prevent it from being a serious character study that deals with why someone would want to be a hero in the first place, and why they might be scared to. The children don’t pull the jokes down to their level: they pull the theming up to it. They’re the ones equipped to care about a bus teetering off a bridge enough to do something about it. The villain isn’t particularly memorable but he isn’t lost to the movie’s devices either: he’s a child who is changed by the cruelty he sees in the world. He’s tempted into being a superhero by his desire to fake a character arc for the power. He has a pouty face because he’s never known where a joke is supposed to land. Shazam! believes that playing around can defeat that guy, and it doesn’t think you have to look a certain way or be a certain kind of person to do it. You just have to be pure of heart. This hero didn’t want his power and that’s what makes him worthy of it. It’s possible that not everyone who sees this movie would have become the hero if they lived in it, and it's even possible that Billy wasn't deserving of it at first. But like him, that doesn’t mean we’ll stop wishing to be. Superheroes always have the power to make us hope we deserve the best idea of ourselves. There’s no one this movie isn’t made for.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

David F. Sandberg

Henry Gayden (screenplay and story)

Darren Lemke (story)

C.C. Beck and Bill Parker (character)

Billy Batson/Shazam Asher Angel/Zachary Levi
Dr. Thaddeus Sivana Mark Strong
Freddy Freeman Jack Dylan Grazer
Shazam the Wizard Djimon Hounsou
Darla Dudley Faithe Herman
Mary Bromfield Grace Fulton
Victor and Rosa Vasquez Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans

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