With a superpower to make you smile.
With its premiere due for April 5 Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment are poised to have a rare occurrence: the collaboration could very well see consecutive hit films for the first time since Christopher Nolan was making “Dark Knight” films. What you are set to have delivered is a comic book based lark that does not feel the need to preach woke activism, and instead elects to have pure fun. And it is something Warners-DC needs.
While some of their recent titles could be regarded as financially successful there is a lingering morass when looked upon today. “Batman vs. Superman” is essentially laughed at these days, “Suicide Squad” was such a meandering mess the studio has latched onto the dispatched James Gunn (director of “Guardians of the Galaxy”) to turn that property around, and “Justice League” was such a consummate failure many pretend it doesn’t exist.
DC-Warners changed up it executive offices following these cratering films and are looking at revamping its DCEU. Christmas saw “Aquaman” manage to turn the tide of these dismal DC releases by becoming a global smash. Now “Shazam!” arrives, a property of the old planned universe but shepherded to theaters as one of the first films of the new regime. It succeeds by being different from those dark, and brooding, and dark Zach Snyder films. (That is in tone and appearance.)
“Shazam!” does carry many aspects you expect from comic book hero films — the origin story, discovery of super-human powers, fitting into society as a demigod — but it differentiates itself by also grounding its hero in enough reality to make him somewhat organic – if that is at all possible in a character imbued with multiple powers.
The history of Shazam! is very old actually, and it carries some irony with Marvel’s most recent release. Created in 1939 by Fawcett Comics the character was originally called Captain Marvel (yes, I know) and was their answer to SuperMan. For a time Captain Marvel actually outsold the Man Of Steel icon. DC sued, the character was pulled for a time, and then Fawcett went out of business. By the 1960s Marvel comics appropriated the name for its own character. It is ironic that after decades of the competing comic powerhouses trading off the name their movies are released just weeks apart.
By the 1970s DC decided to bring the character into its stable, although it needed to distinguish him with a differing name. So he was rechristened as Shazam, an anagram in fact of the various gods from whom he takes his powers — Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. One other departure for this film is there is a significant amount of dedication to the comic book storylines.
We get introduced to Billy Batson, a teen who has been floating through the foster care system as he is perpetually seeking to find his birth mother. After getting placed in yet another group home Billy flees bullies at school and takes refuge in the subway. During the ride he is inexplicably transferred to a lair, and there he encounters a wizard who is in search of someone of a pure enough soul to become his new earthly champion. The Seven Deadly Sins are rising into power and a new hero is needed to take on the Wizard’s powers.
After this lengthy setup, the film takes off once Billy Batson is transformed into his heroic adult version. Zachary Levi plays the hero, and he carries the routine of a 15-year-old trapped in the body of a grown-up adonis in great fashion. While grappling with what has happened to him Shazam decides to get help by letting his hero-obsessed foster brother, Freddie Freeman, know what has happened.
While many super films have rote passages of humor inserted to liven the drama — like Joss Whedon scripts peppered with wry dialogue — “Shazam!” comes by its amusement naturally. Zach Levi plays wonderfully off of his teen costar and their scenes of discovery are enjoyable. Many of the humorous aspects come through as a product of a teen grappling with a new version of himself.
There are some nice reference points throughout the story. Many DC characters are alluded to in light fashion. The main villain derives from a chance at greatness denied, which has a feeling of that from “The Incredibles”. And if the story of a teen trapped as he is transformed into an adult seems familiar, there is a brief nod to the Tom Hanks classic “Big”.
One other aspect is that there is none of the social commentary delivered in ham-fisted fashion (Carol Danvers, I’m giving you the side-eye). Billy’s foster home scenario is a product of his estrangement, it is not a springboard for a social lecture. All the kids in the home do indeed hit most of the checkboxes of demographics – POC, Latin, Asian, disabled, female – but at no point are they highlighted as such. We are not sold the diversity, it just gets presented as is.
By no means perfect “Shazam!” is a joy nonetheless. The film does rely on mysticism a bit too much, but that is something of a requirement for the character. A tighter script edit, or at least more time exploring the teen-to-adult dynamic, would have been more of an appeal. But Shazam! stands as a refreshing alteration on the superhero universe. It allows us to have fun, without the need of handing us a social activist pamphlet.