Thanks to a Fandango promotion, I had the fortunate opportunity to view an advance screening of SHAZAM!, due to open in theaters April 4. As this is a very rare occurrence for me, I feel it’s my obligation to friends who might be interested to offer my review of the movie for your consideration. To be honest, I jumped at the chance to see this preview screening, because I have a long-standing interest in the comics that this movie was based on, as well as being a fan of the series Chuck, which brought SHAZAM! star Zach Levi into public recognition.
If you don’t know the convoluted history of these comics and their hero, I suggest you Google it so that you can appreciate the probably-intentional irony of this film being released right on the heels of Marvel’s Captain Marvel movie. (Long story short, the hero of SHAZAM! was the first character to be called Captain Marvel, but through various lawsuits between DC and Marvel publishing houses with Fawcett Publishing, who created the popular comics in the 1940’s, the name “Captain Marvel” was ultimately trademarked by Marvel Comics. When you see the movie, look for the Easter egg name of the high school attended by the main teen characters.) It was obviously meant for a December holiday release, as the whole story occurs in that season, which makes one wonder why it was delayed until the following April. Was it something to do with Justice League, or Captain Marvel? Were there legal issues, which seem to be characteristic to this particular franchise? Or was it just not completed in post-production in time for the holidays? Who knows?
Now on to my review:
Even if you have never heard of young Billy Batson and the magic word that transforms him into the World’s Mightiest Mortal, if you enjoyed the recent Spider Man and Ant Man films, as well as Tom Hanks’ 1988 film Big, you will not be disappointed in SHAZAM! It has all the humor, heart, and action-packed thrills of any Marvel movie, although it clearly takes place in the DC comics universe. Yes, this one rivals Wonder Woman for a DC film that’s as good as most Marvel movies! (DC secured the rights to the SHAZAM! franchise in the early 1970’s in order to re-release some of the original Fawcett stories. They have since published new stories based on these original characters.) The original comics were always squeaky-clean, clearly intended for younger comic readers, and I was afraid this film would make the same mistake as some other DC films, making it darker and grittier than the source material. Such is not the case with SHAZAM!, I was relieved to discover. This production revives the primary-colored joy that drew many of us into comics when we were young. The film makers were smart enough to bring the story into the present day setting, and the characters are relatable and real. The dialogue is natural and often witty. Of course, when Billy discovers his new amazing powers, his responses are very much what one would expect from a 14-year-old boy who suddenly becomes a superhero. His mind is always Billy Batson, it’s only his body that becomes a grown-up super. This opens the door for all the comedic possibilities surrounding a kid who thinks he can pass himself off as an adult, including trying to pick up adult women in an innocent, awkwardly direct way.
The film actually opens with the back story of an arch nemesis, Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). In this version of the SHAZAM! story, young Sivana had a shot at the powers that Billy would later inherit, but was deemed not worthy, (it must be someone pure of heart). His super-villain status comes as an obsessive, lifelong pursuit of these power. He returns as an adult to the mysterious wizard who had abducted him as a child to test his worthiness for the mystical powers, determined to take what he considers was rightfully his. What he got instead was the ominous sphere that contains the demonic incarnations of the Seven Deadly Sins, kept in check in the wizard’s lair. The sphere implants itself as his right eye, so he carries the Sins with him, they give him powers equal to SHAZAM, and he can release them to do his bidding at will – a truly disastrous combination. Billy is an orphan who has been taken in by a loving foster family, and while he has developed an independent attitude and a smart mouth, it is his apparent nature to protect those who are being wronged. So when young Billy realizes that Sivana is after him to take his powers at all costs, it becomes Billy’s mission to protect all those that Sivana would destroy in order to get Billy.
The action is epic, but doesn’t take away from the story line, like some certain movies involving vehicle-robots from another world. The writers (Henry Gayden & Darren Lemke) and director David F. Sandberg did a good job of tying together details that seem peripheral until later on. The acting performances are mostly believable, the good guys are appealing and the bad guys are not. The laughs are frequent and genuine, mostly thanks to Levi’s comedic timing and expression playing off the other characters. Casting him in this role was a perfect choice. References to the more famous DC heroes add to the comedic effect while at the same time identifying this “new” hero as one of their own. Many of the gags come from the never-successful attempts to name Billy’s alter-ego. Never once is “Captain Marvel” ever spoken or alluded to. (In the comics, he’s still called Captain Marvel, they just can’t put that on the cover!) The character interactions are moving without being melodramatic. The film makers have definitely been studying what works in a good Marvel film and have implemented the right elements to make a truly entertaining superhero movie. I for one am quite please to see this almost-forgotten hero brought into the mainstream entertainment world in such a positive way. Parents of young children should be cautioned: while the overall story and protagonists are all pretty family-friendly, Sivana is a legitimately ruthless and frightening villain, and the Seven Deadly Sins that accompany him are intentionally the stuff of children’s nightmares. There are one or two four-letter words dropped, a prerequisite for a movie rated PG-13, and still pretty minimal for modern American film characters. Billy Batson even repeats his trademark expletive, “Holy Moley!”, rather than something most real teenagers would same in similar circumstances.
There’s a lot more I’d like to say about the movie, and it’s comic origins, but I have to avoid giving spoilers, and I think it’s more fun to discover the details for yourself. I will tell you that the Marvel gimmick of giving you a little tidbit after the credits is invoked here, so stick around until the very end. Please go see SHAZAM! when it comes out in April, and let me know what you think!