Talking Movies [Christmas Countdown]: Shazam!

Talking Movies
ShazamLogo

Released: 5 April 2019
Director: David F. Sandberg
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $80 to 100 million
Stars: Asher Angel, Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, and Djimon Hounsou

Plot:
Billy Batson (Angel), an abandoned boy searching for his missing mother, is suddenly bestowed with magical superpowers, transforming him into an adult superhero (Levi) with the mindset of a teenager. When Doctor Thaddeus Sivana (Strong) attains equal power through possession of the seven Deadly Sins, Billy is suddenly faced with putting aside his personal issues and becoming a fully-fledged superhero.

The Background:
Following the success of Clark Kent/Superman and Bruce Wayne/Batman, Fawcett Publications sought to establish their own colourful superheroes, each sporting the powers of Greco-Roman Gods, before Ralph Daigh combined them into one superpowered entity to directly oppose Superman initially dubbed “Captain Thunder” and transformed by writer Bill Parker and artists C.C. Beck and Pete Costanza into Captain Marvel. Although legal issues dogged the character even after Fawcett was absorbed into DC Comics, Captain Marvel was joined by a colourful extended family and even enjoyed some success in adaptation with a live-action television show back in the seventies. Development of a big-screen adaptation can be traced back to the early-2000s, when Peter Segal was attached to direct and the first rumblings of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnsons interest in playing Teth-Adam/Black Adam came about. When production stalled, Segal left the project and Shazam! fell into Development Hell for a while as Warner Bros. tried to establish their own cinematic universe. The project came back to life in 2014, with Johnson still involved, though he was soon given a spin-off project while director David F. Sandberg casting Zachary Levi in the title role and tackling the concept asBig (Marshall, 1988) but with superpowers”. Levi underwent a physical transformation and worked closely with his child co-star, Asher Angel, to portray the World’s Mightiest Mortal. Following a favourable response to the film’s first teaser trailer, Shazam! went on to make $366 million at the box office, making it a reasonable success. Critical response was overwhelmingly positive; reviews praised the comedic aspects and performances, and colourful visuals and heartfelt messages, though some noted issues with the tone and finale. Regardless, Shazam! was a big hit amidst the mess that is the DC Extended Universe; not only was a sequel announced not long after the film’s release but the Rock finally got his long-awaited Black Adam movie, setting the stage for a showdown between the two.

The Review:
Shazam! was released at a time when the DCEU was in a very chaotic flux; it’s not much better these days, to be fair, but back in 2019 we were still in the murky depths of the whole “Release the Snydercut” movement that saw a very vocal and very toxic splinter cell of “fans” decry anything and everything that wasn’t spearheaded by Zack Snyder. Consequently, I’ve seen discussions online trying to claim Shazam! isn’t canon to the DCEU films that came before it simply because Superman (Ryan Hadley) is wearing a blue suit instead of a black one…like he couldn’t just change his bloody costume! Well, I’m sorry to tell you but, at this point, Shazam! is more canon than the bloated and over-rated Zack Snyder’s Justice League (ibid, 2021) and different superheroes in the same shared universe can have different tones to their movies; if you don’t want to look at Marvel’s movies for proof of this, maybe try comparing Man of Steel (ibid, 2013) to Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017) and then each of those to Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016) and Aquaman (Wan, 2018), four films that most definitely are a part of Snyder’s flawed vision of DC’s most famous characters. For me, Shazam! represented a shift towards telling more light-hearted, comic-accurate, and action-packed stories that focused on getting to the heart of these beloved characters rather than muting and saturating them or making them unnecessarily grim; Snyder extremists may lose their nut when Batman (Ben Affleck) mercilessly slaughters people and swears like he’s Frank Castle/The Punisher, but that’s not true to Batman’s character at all so I saw Shazam! as a bit of a course correction for the DCEU towards a less ridiculously serious take on these characters.

Streetwise Billy pushes everyone away in pursuit of his missing mother.

I feel it’s important for me to point out that I haven’t read any of the New 52 comics featuring Billy/Shazam’s altered background and extended family; I’m vaguely aware that his origin and situation were changed and updated somewhat, but I’m much more familiar with his classic comics and his appearance throughout the mid-nineties as a budding kid reporter and the “Big Red Cheese” who goofed about on the Justice League International team. I was therefore amused and intrigued to find Billy portrayed not a newspaper boy living on the streets with aspirations of working in radio, but instead as a streetwise orphan with a reputation for causing trouble with both his foster families and the cops and businesses of Philadelphia. Billy is a lot more in common with young John Connor (Edward Furlong) in that he resents being placed in the care of others, prefers to rely on his own wiles to get by, and frequently scams his way into police databases to track down his birth mother, Marilyn (Caroline Palmer), who he became separated from at a carnival ten years previously. Although he’s a rebellious kid who actively rejects assistance and affection for others, there’s a real tragedy to Billy; he believes he has a “real” family and mother out there waiting for him, refuses to entertain the notion that Marylin isn’t interested in finding him, and is desperate to be reunited with her and feel that sense of belonging once more. Unfortunately for him, he’s only fourteen and therefore legal mandated to be placed into foster care; having run away from good families before and been rejected because of it, he’s placed into the care of the lovable Víctor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vásquez (Marta Milans), who shelter a whole troupe of foster kids of all ages. Since he’s a self-sufficient kid who doesn’t see the point in connecting with others because he’s trying to get back to his real mother, Billy is unimpressed by the Vásquez’s friendliness and the mixture of personalities in their household.

Billy revels in the power and freedom offered by his superpowered alter ego.

As in the source material, Billy is approached by the aging wizard Shazam (Hounsou), here depicted as a desperate demigod seeking to pass his great powers on to a suitable heir before his time ends. Djimon Hounsou is a great choice for this role; his gravely voice oozes a perfect mixture of menace, authority, and despair. Burdened by the guilt of having misplaced his trust in a previous Champion and witnessing the deaths of his fellow Council of Wizards, the Wizard is determined that his next Champion be pure of heart in order to fend off the influence of the Seven Deadly Sins (Steve Blum, Darin De Paul, and Fred Tatasciore) but is forced to rely on the reluctant Billy after the Seven Deadly Sins are freed from their prison. By speaking the Wizard’s name, Billy is transformed into an adult form sporting one of the best and most comic-accurate costumes ever put to cinema; the effort sees the Wizard crumble to ash but empowers Billy with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Whenever he utters his name, Billy becomes a boy trapped in a man’s body, leading to many humorous moments such as him struggling to navigate the world now he’s a six-foot, musclebound man, him learning the alcohol usually tastes terrible, and his awkward attempts to exude authority as a superhero. Zachary Levi shines in the role, though it can’t be overlooked that Billy seems to act more immature as Shazam than he does as a kid, somewhat negating whatever influence the Wisdom of Solomon is supposed to have on him; however, I would chalk this up to the freedom and power offered by his adult form and superpowers and it results in some of the film’s best moments as he and Freddy test Shazam’s limits, try to think up a suitable superhero moniker, and attempt to become social media celebrities by recording his feats of power and heroism.

Freddy encourages Billy’s growth from a super celebrity into a capable superhero.

The Vasquez house shelters five kids of various ages, including avid gamer Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), the enthusiastic, the overly affectionate and chatty Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman), introverted workout aficionado Pedro Peña (Jovan Armand). While Darla steals every scene she’s in with her endless excitement and Billy can’t help but be taken by her childish positivity, it’s cripple Freddy Freeman (Grazer) and academic prodigy Mary Bromfield (Fulton) whom Billy spends the most time with. A superhero fanboy who’s constantly wearing Justice League t-shirts, showing off his Superman memorabilia, and rattling off Justice League statistics and abilities as Billy explores his powers. While Freddy’s nonstop chatter quickly exasperates Billy, the self-styled loner can’t help but step in when the snarky Freddy is set upon by a couple of douchebag jocks; Freddy’s a bit of an odd duck, one who sports a dark sense of humour, chatters incessantly, and struggles to maintain his boundaries. It’s lucky for Freddy that Shazam’s powers are so formidable as he doesn’t hold back in putting him through his paces; he actively encourages armed thugs to shoot him in the face, secretly sets him on fire, and delights in watching him barrel into buildings and fall from great heights in his attempts to fly. Eventually, however, a rift forms between them that only grows wider when Billy chooses to goof off as Shazam rather than show appreciation for Freddy’s assistance; even Eugene and Pedro question Shazam’s heroism as he’s more concerned with grifting and showing off. Although Shazam’s able to pull off and impressive physical feat and save a busload of civilians from certain death, Freddy chastises him for causing the accident in the first place and chews him out for not appreciating how lucky he is to have such incredible powers.

Though empowered by the Seven Deadly Sins, Dr. Sivana covets the Wizards gifts most of all.

Billy is put to the test, however, by Dr. Sivana, who we first meet as a little boy (Ethan Pugiotto) suffering emotional abuse at the hands of his strict father, business tycoon Mr. Sivana (John Glover), and his obnoxious older brother, Sid (Landon Doak). Although seemingly a more playful and less repugnant individual compared to his domineering elders, young Thaddeus is a perfect cause of nurture over nature; when he’s magically transported to the Rock of Eternity and offered the chance to become the Wizard’s Champion, he’s easily swayed by the influence of the Seven Deadly Sins, who offer him the power he needs to prove his strength to his father by claiming the Eye of Sin rather than the Wizard’s staff. Deemed unworthy because of his impure heart, young Thaddeus is rejected by the Wizard and his subsequent outburst causes a car crash that sees his father paralysed from the waist down and sets the boy on a lifelong quest to research the Wizard and his other rejected attempts to find a Champion in order to force his way back into the Rock of Eternity, confront the Wizard’s rebuff, and become the vessel for the destructive power of the Seven Deadly Sins. Largely represented as grotesque gargoyle-like creatures comprised of rock and smoke, the Seven Deadly Sins imbue Dr. Sivana with power to rival that of Shazam, which is a far cry from the mad scientist he was in the original comics but, as I understand it, is more in-line with his New 52 counterpart and allows Dr. Sivana to pose a physical challenge to the titular demigod. Composed, spiteful, and revelling in his dark powers, Dr. Sivana is the polar opposite of Shazam, who takes far longer to reconcile his immaturity with his magical adulthood and to realise the potential of his superpowers; it’s telling that Dr. Sivana can both fly and throw more effective punches in their first encounter, such is the benefit of his lifelong quest for the Wizard’s power, and he doesn’t hesitate to use every advantage at his disposal, even threatening Billy’s foster family, to add Shazam’s power to his own.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Some of you reading this may question why I’ve included Shazam! in my Christmas Countdown series considering it’s not a “typical” Christmas movie. Well, for me, the reason is very simple: the film is largely set around the festive season, Christmas songs, trees, and lights are all over the place, as is snow and a general sense of festive anticipation in the air and, while Christmas might not be at the heart of the narrative, this is enough for me to justify it being a Christmas movie. Plus, why not take the opportunity to slap on a fun or enjoyable film around Christmas even if it isn’t a focal point of the movie? A common criticism I have of early Shazam! comics is the depiction of the Rock of Eternity; it would take some decades for artists to render it in a way that felt both grandiose, fantastical, and foreboding and to not simply have cartoonish writing all over the walls to explain to kids what was happening. Thankfully, Shazam! addresses this issue, depicting the Rock of Eternity as a cavernous labyrinthine temple home to the aging Wizard and seven thrones where his peers once sat. The Seven Deadly Sins are also entombed there and, while they do have their name sand natures etched into their rocky surfaces, they’re far more monstrous and impressive than in those early comics; the Rock of Eternity is also home to various other magical doorways and artefacts that effectively lay the groundwork for future films, villains, and characters.

When his perfect memory of his mother is shattered, Billy turns to his foster family for support.

Family plays a central role in the film; as indicated, the influence of Mr. Sivana and Sid has a lasting effect on Dr. Sivana’s nature and life, with every action he takes in his quest for power, both magical and otherwise, motivated by a need to prove himself worthy and superior to his father and older brother. Billy holds his last memories of her close in his heart, remembering her as a kind-hearted and loving mother who did her best and gifted him with a compass so that he could always find his way, and he both dreams and actively rehearses what he’ll say when they’re reunited after they got lost in a bustling crowd. It’s therefore all the more heart-breaking when Billy does eventually track her down and learns not only that his memories of this event were skewed by his childish perception, but that Marylin chose to abandon him as she couldn’t cope with the pressure of being a mother. Asher Angel absolutely sells Billy’s dejection at this revelation as he realises that his whole life has been a lie, that this perfect memory and vision of a loving mother was far from the actual truth, and that his mother dropped him at the first chance she got rather than try to live up to her responsibilities. Despite his earlier reservations, this means that Billy comes to recognise the importance of his true family; while he’s spent much of the film pushing others away and only reluctantly accepting Freddy’s help in discovering the limits of his superpowers, the Vásquez’s and their foster kids have been nothing but warm, welcoming, and understanding to Billy. When he first meets them, the family is coming to terms with Mary’s impending departure for the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), a move which is encouraged but also a subject of sadness, especially for the emotional Darcy. After saving her as Shazam, Billy relates his belief that family is for those who can’t take care of themselves and encourages her to make it on her own and, similarly, early on, refuses to say grace over dinner or join hands with his foster family. However, when Dr. Sivana threatens his adopted family, Shazam agrees to hand himself over in exchange for their lives, finally seeing himself as their brother, and later turns to his adopted siblings for help by sharing his magical powers in much the same way as Victor and Rosa share their love.

Alongside his superpowered family, Shazam defeats Dr. Sivana and finds his place at last.

Although their power is primarily embodied through Dr. Sivana, the Seven Deadly Sins make a hell of an impression, delivering some disturbing PG violence that’s more than on par with the explicit brutality of previous DCEU films. Dr. Sivana barely flinches when his assistant (Lotta Losten) turns to ash before his eyes, launches Sid (Wayne Ward) out of a window, and unleashes the monstrous Seven Deadly Sins upon his father and his board members, whom they slaughter with an unexpected malice for an otherwise kid-friendly film. Although he can easily manhandle Shazam thanks to his composed nature, Dr. Sivana covets the Wizard’s magic above all and takes advantage of Freddy’s very public relationship with Shazam to hold his foster family hostage in exchange for Shazam’s powers. Their loyalty to Billy sees the kids come to his aid and reveals a glaring weakness in Dr. Sivana’s otherwise formidable powers; he becomes more vulnerable as the Seven Deadly Sins expel from his body, so Billy shares his powers, transforming his foster siblings into their own adult, superhero forms to divide the Seven Deadly Sins and weaken Dr. Sivana. While it’s convenient that Lady Shazam (Michelle Borth), Shazam Jr. (Adam Brody), and the others are all able to master their abilities faster than Billy, it leads to a fun and explosive finale as Freddy revels in finally having the superpowers he’s long idolised, Pedro Shazam (D. J. Cotrona) marvels at his physical stature and finally finds his confidence, Eugene Shazam (Ross Butler) delights in spouting videogame catchphrases to match his powers, and Darla Shazam (Meagan Good) retaining her childish exuberance. Although the Seven Deadly Sins and the Shazam Family are technically evenly matched in their strength and durability, Shazam’s able to render Dr. Sivana powerless by goading Envy into leaving his body. He then saves Dr. Sivana from certain death and forcibly extracts the Eye of Sin from his head, imprisoning the Seven Deadly Sins once more, though Dr. Sivana is approached by another potential villainous ally, the hyper-intelligent caterpillar Mister mind (David F. Sandberg) while languishing in prison. Having now found a safe, loving home and family to share his life and powers with, Billy chooses to stay with the Vasquez’s, joins them in their family traditions, and establishes himself and the other Shazams as the new keepers of the Rock of Eternity. He’s even able to bolster Freddy’s credibility at school by joining him for lunch as Shazam and alongside an awkwardly-framed Superman (seriously, it would’ve been just as good, if not better, to show Superman from behind and floating outside the window).

The Summary:
It can be difficult to craft a truly original superhero origin movie; even I’ll admit it’s usually better to fast-track or skip the origin entirely, especially for more well-known superheroes, but Shazam does a great job of establishing its world and Shazam’s powers through well-paced exposition and different means. Rather than opening with a voiceover explaining everything to us and then having that information repeated later, we see the conflict between the Wizard and the Seven Deadly Sins and how that influences Dr. Sivana and, when Billy first gets his powers, he’s completely clueless how to use them and is forced to turn to superhero nut Freddy for help. Seeing the kids become their own magical superheroes was a blast as all the adult actors equally conveyed their thrill at their newfound abilities and I really enjoyed the film’s humour, especially in the man-child personification of Shazam and his not being able to hear Dr. Sivana’s villain monologue. Seeing Billy grow from a damaged loner to truly accepting his foster family and his newfound powers was a charming development after the utter gut-punch delivered by his mother; Mark Strong was, ever, a deliciously scene-stealing villain and I absolutely loved the costume design and presentation of the film. Infused with exactly the right balance of action, comedy, and heart that’s often sorely lacking in the DCEU, Shazam! is a hugely enjoyable romp that’s got just enough Christmas spirit laced throughout it to justify an annual watch every festive season regardless of how much of a hard-on you have for Snyder’s grim and gritty perversion of DC’s characters.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Did you enjoy Shazam!? Are you a fan of the comic books and, if so, were you happy with the way it adapted the source material? What did you think to Billy’s characterisation, his mother’s true nature, and his acceptance of his foster family? Which of his siblings was your favourite and did you enjoy seeing them get a share Shazam’s power? What did you think to Dr. Sivana and the Seven Deadly Sins? Are there any Shazam characters, villains, or story arcs you’d like to see adapted one day? Do you prefer the grim and gritty DCEU or its more light-hearted side? Whatever your thoughts on Shazam!, feel free to drop them below or leave a comment on my social media.