Directed by David F. Sandberg
But first, for anyone in a hurry that needs to get back to work or Words With Friends or whatever, Shazam! is fun. Fun for the whole family. The movie and the cast steer right into the hopefulness and wish-fulfilment and ridiculousness of the comics. The movie doesn't try to build a new mousetrap, doesn't try to build on or tear down anything that came before from the genre, doesn't try to do anything controversial. The dirty lens look of the early DC films is gone, the colours are vibrant and alive and pop. And there you go, Shazam! is fun, now get back to work, you crazy procrastinator you.
And now for the rest of you that are in the long haul, welcome. Please make sure you stay hydrated.
If you ever want to fall down a rabbit hole for a few hours, check out the long and convoluted history of Shazam and Captain Marvel and the other Captain Marvel. It's like the stuff that lawyers look at instead of porn. It's all lawsuits and counter suits and torts and sua spontes and habeas corpuses and and de factos and other legal stuff I found on the legal glossary site. But, because of this whole mess, one of the most popular comic book superheroes of the twentieth century disappears in 1953. And when he returns in 1972, DC takes to re-publishing stories from the 1940s. So, for a whole generation of comic book geeks, nerds, and whatnot, the guy in a red leotard with the lightening bolt on his chest and a Napoleon cape is forever associated with a time before edge and irony and camp.
In the same way that the folks behind Aquaman dove head first into the ridiculousness and absurdity that is Aquaman, and the folks behind Wonder Woman steered directly into their character's heroism, the team behind Shazam! approaches the wish-fulfilment and fun and ridiculousness of their source material. But they don't play it completely straight-faced. There are laughs at the name, at the costume, at the notion of a fourteen year old in the body of 30-something superhero. Billy Baston starts cracking up when he hears the name he has to utter to take on the super powers. The fourteen year old in the body of the 30-something superhero does exactly what pretty well any fourteen year old boy would do in the same situation - buy beer, visit strip clubs, and zap pop machines.
And there's the thing about Shazam!. Anyone expecting the oh-so-seriousness of Man of Steel or Batman v Superman: Where Film Went To Die, well, they're going to be disappointed. Shazam! takes it source very seriously, but recognizes the fun that is the core of that source material. A superhero movie should always be fun, anything else is icing, anything less is a sin. We're paying for a two hour roller coaster ride, that's the base any superhero movie has to deliver. The team behind Shazam! took that mantra with them to work every day on this project. Shazam! is great big piles of fun. It most earnestly wants to entertain. Heck, it's right there in the title with that exclamation mark that I keep forgetting and having to back and make sure I put in. This isn't Shazam, it's Shazam!
If I can over-simplify everything for a moment, Shazam! is the family friendly Deadpool. It's the non-cuss word filled alternate to Deadpool. Shazam! is the movie with the kids asking honest questions and trying to guess what is happening next and narrating the action scenes and everyone laughing. Deadpool is the movie with the parent's dragging the kids out of before the credits have ended.
That's not to say that Shazam! is completely unaware of itself - the filmmakers have sprinkled the homages and Easter eggs throughout, like the waiter with the pepper mill who is actually listening when you say 'yep, enough, thanks'. And speaking of Easter eggs, everyone is so busy trying to tie these superhero movies together and where they fit in the larger DC cinematic universe, I'm beginning to suspect they are part of a larger Conjuring cinematic universe.
Anyway. Shazam! is at its most fun when Shazam, played by Zachary Levi, is learning his powers. That stretch of the movie is more fun than anything produced by the DC/Warner folks in, well, ever. I can't think of anyone more perfect than Zachary Levi to play a giant fourteen year old right now. He's almost Tom Hanks in Big good. He's Jennifer Garner in 13 Going On 30 good. Mr. Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Freddie the superhero obsessive, are a near perfect comedy duo. Their scenes together when they're trying to determine what super powers Billy Baston has inherited are pure comedy gold. It's Greatest American Hero with a wise cracking fourteen year old.
The cast is strong. Mark Strong is scary and intimidating as the villain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. Asher Angel brings a balance to Billy Baston that is hard to find in performers twice his age, all walls and defensive and smart and vulnerable. Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews bring a restraint to their roles as the married couple running the group home Billy has been sent to. They could have played it all desperate to please, but instead you can see the nervousness and over eagerness and desperation to connect in the eyes but very little of it comes to the table, but there is a hint of it in the voice, just a hint. The most human performances in a superhero movie.
I tried hard to find something to criticize about Shazam!, other than that damn exclamation mark. And I can't. I really do love Shazam!
In a very crowded superhero market, Shazam! might get lost. What with your Marvel movies and your Hellboys and whatnot, this one might slip by but it needs to be seen, especially on a big screen. It's rare the superhero movie that feels like there are actual risks. It's even rarer the one that has some risk but is also dump truck loads of family friendly fun.