SHAZAM! – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Zachary Levi (Tangled), Mark Strong (Kingsman: The Secret Service), Asher Angel (Andi Mack), Jack Dylan Grazer (It), Djimon Hounsou (Guardians of the Galaxy)

Director: David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) 

Writer: Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo)

Runtime: 2 hours 12 minutes

Release Date: 5 April (US, UK)

Some say we have too many superhero movies these days, and I can sympathise with that position. However, the comic book geek in me also reminds me that there are still a lot of superheroes who haven’t gotten their time in the sun yet, and Shazam getting his own movie has been a long time coming. Originally known as Captain Marvel before a whole copyright kerfuffle with the distinguished competition (long story; do your own research), the fantasy of a young kid given the power of an adult superhero is a concept so ripe with possibilities that it’s honestly shocking that it’s taken Warner Bros. this long to capitalize on the character. So whilst you could say Shazam!’s arrival is better late than never, I’d say its timing is just about perfect. With the DC Extended Universe in a state of flux as it pivots from its rocky beginnings, this movie is exactly the zap of renewed energy the brand needs right now.

Taking much of its influence from Geoff Johns’ New 52 run on the character, Shazam! may be yet another superhero origin story in many facets, but the film’s self-deprecating tone helps put a new spin on even the most familiar of tropes. Though clearly set within the same universe as the prior DC films, it has a flavour and aesthetic all its own; it definitely veers closer to Aquaman than Man of Steel, but even that comparison is tenuous. The film has a lot of tonal similarities to comic book movies from the 1990s like The Mask and Mystery Men, embracing the fun of being a superhero so many contemporary examples forget to address, but with a modern and grounded perspective that keeps the zaniness in check. Though it has some crude humour and darker elements, Shazam! is a family film at its core, demonstrated not only by its lighter tone and kid-centric plot but also in its timely themes of reconciling childhood trauma and discovering your chosen family (and hey, all of the best family movies were the ones with a few curses and scary bits, remember?). Though stretching over two hours, the tight pacing and fast-flying humour gives the film the energy of a 90-minute romp, and whilst not every joke lands it has better comedic consistency than most straight-up comedies these days. Essentially, this is all just a long-form way of saying that Shazam! puts fun first and foremost, and it delivers said fun in spades.

Shazam may not be the most distinctive character in regards to design or powers, but on a personality level he is incredibly distinct, and casting both him and his teenage alter ego Billy Batson is a tall order indeed. Luckily, the casting of Zachary Levi as the hero is an inspired choice that captures the character better than most prior portrayals. Levi completely leans into Shazam’s juvenile nature, bringing a relatable sincerity to the character even when he’s at his most egotistical; he absolutely works as DC’s answer to Deadpool. Asher Angel also does a fine job as Batson, his performance grounding the film in reality and carrying much of the story’s emotional weight whilst Levi holds up the comedy. My only real gripe is that whilst the two performances are fantastic on their own terms, they are often so disparate that it sometimes breaks the illusion that these two characters are one and the same. Angel isn’t afforded enough chances to be funny, whilst Levi doesn’t get a lot of moments to be sincere, and giving both actors more of a taste of their opposite counterpart may have helped meld the two sides together more cohesively.

Mark Strong gets his do-over as a DC supervillain after Green Lantern failed him, and whilst Doctor Sivana as a character himself is only slightly more interesting than most of Marvel’s disposable villains, Strong does deliver a compelling and suitably po-faced performance, and the character’s motivations feel firmly rooted in the story’s thematic intentions. Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans are delightful as Batson’s foster parents, whilst Djimon Hounsou delivers plenty of gravitas as The Wizard even if his hair & make-up job makes him look like The Dude cosplaying as Gandalf. The film’s real secret weapons, however, are Batson’s foster brothers and sisters, with Jack Dylan Grazer’s Freddy easily coming away as the MVP. His comedic sensibilities and chemistry with Levi are the true heart of the film, and truly gives the young comic book fans in the audience the unashamedly dorky and relatable avatar they deserve. The other young actors are fantastic too, particularly Faithe Herman as Darla and Ian Chen as Eugene, and their presence brings a real Into the Spider-Verse-like energy of diversity and childlike giddiness to the proceedings.

David F. Sandberg may have seemed like an odd choice for Shazam! given his exclusive background in horror, but in execution he absolutely nails the aesthetic and vibe this hero needs. A bright, colourful and undeniably comic book-inspired piece of cinema, Shazam! brings what everyone always wanted from a DC film with an outlandish style that still feels grounded in our real world. You could even call the film “gritty”, though not in the unreal stylized sense of a Nolan or a Snyder. Instead, the streets of Philadelphia are presented as they are, warts and all, and that basis in normality only helps to accentuate the fantastical elements superimposed on top. The effects work often has an unreal cartoonish vibe to it, but it meshes fine given the cartoonish atmosphere of the film itself, and the design work of the magical elements from The Wizard’s lair to Sivana’s sinful demon minions is classic DC Comics brilliance. Bringing it all together is Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, which brings a delightful throwback energy with its classic heroic anthems that are equally utilised for both dramatic and comedic effect, and the film also has some strong soundtrack choices both modern and classic to round things out.

There hasn’t been a superhero movie quite like Shazam! since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, revitalising the optimism and childlike wonder of superhero movies for a modern age. It embraces the childhood fantasy at the core of its concept whilst delivering an unabashed fun time for all audiences, making it the best contemporary example of a family superhero movie not made by Disney and/or Pixar. Distinct from recent positive examples like Wonder Woman and Aquaman whilst still believably being a part of the same world, DC’s new strategy for their universe seems to be working, and whether returning in his own sequel or in whatever new form the Justice League takes, I hope we see Shazam return to our screens in timely fashion.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 19.46.22

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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