It’s no secret that 2019 is quickly gearing up to be one of the biggest years in blockbuster movie history. With Captain Marvel having just released two weeks previous, and the 2019 reboot of Hellboy due out in 3 weeks with Avengers: Endgame to follow swiftly after, there’s no debate that we as moviegoers and as comic book fans are about to be washed over by a flood of new comic book movies.
Throwing their hat into the mix, DC Comics has finally brought a long-time fan-requested favorite to the big screen with “Shazam”, formerly known as Captain Marvel (but that’s a whole other story). Starring Zachary Levi as the titular hero Shazam, the movie quickly gained the approval of fans through their trailers and TV spots, boasting a lighter tone than previous DC Comics-inspired films. While Disney has been fortunate to enjoy consistent success across their multitude of Marvel Studios films since purchasing the rights in 2013, Warner Brothers’ DC Comics films have been extremely divisive, to say the least. Critics and audiences alike have been disputing the merits of a darker, grittier approach to juxtapose the lighter fanfare of the Marvel movies, while others have been clamoring for something less serious and brooding with more color infused into the world they’re depicting. “Aquaman”, which has recently enjoyed monumental global success and become the highest grossing DC Comics movie of all time, was the first to take a lighter approach to the DC characters in their shared universe and has been met positively. So, where does “Shazam” fall on the scale?
Directed by David F. Sandberg, made famous for directing horror films such as “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation”, one might assume that he would follow in the darker footsteps of DC Comics directors like Zack Snyder, David Ayer, or even Tim Burton. And in sporadic moments throughout the film, he certainly does, but how can you help yourself when dealing with sinister villains like the Seven Deadly Sins. However, Sandberg embraces the opportunity that a character like Shazam presents and showcases the fun of what would happen if a 14-year-old boy suddenly found himself with the ability to transform into a full-grown man with super strength, speed, invulnerability, and flight just by speaking a magic word. Even though the character of Billy Batson is an orphan who has bounced across foster homes and developed a fairly large chip on his shoulder, the film doesn’t make the mistake of turning him into a bratty delinquent that audiences would have difficulty rooting for. Instead, Billy Batson is very much conveyed as a typical teenager with the same fears and insecurities that any teen would have, but must quickly learn and grow to discover the inner strength to become the hero he needs to be. Showing this growth, both as an individual and as part of his new family, is what gets you invested in the character of Billy Batson from beginning to end.
As promoted by the director and cast alike, “Shazam” is very much that amalgam of Tom Hanks’ “BIG” meets the Christopher Reeve’s Superman, even throwing a reference to the oh-so-famous piano floor scene. Zachary Levi brilliantly embraces his inner-child, letting us believe that he’s actually a teenager stuck in a god-like body and experience the fun of figuring out these new powers. He also embodies the modern-day expectations of a superhero by achieving the comic book accurate size and presence of this super-powered character. Drawing further homage to “BIG” is the endearing friendship between Billy Batson and Freddy Freeman, played by Jack Dylan Grazer. Levi and Grazer have great chemistry together, hitting the right comedic notes to continuously remind us that these are two kids who’ve found a proverbial winning lottery ticket and having as much fun as possible. It’s their relationship that is the core backbone of the film and helps deliver on a very strong third act.
What may come to be the most criticized aspect of the film is the character of Dr. Sivanna played by Mark Strong. This is not to say that Strong’s performance isn’t great, but he does fall into the clichés of many a comic book villain that, at this point in time, have become old-hat for most audiences. Mark Strong brings a formidable presence to the role with his sinister look and menacing voice befitting any great comic book movie villain. I, myself, was most frequently reminded of Terence Stamp’s General Zod, again drawing a comparison to the Christopher Reeve era of Superman. Infused with the power of the Seven Deadly Sins, Dr. Sivanna poses a legitimate threat to Billy Batson who soon learns that he’s not as invincible as he believed himself to be. Providing a polar opposite to bounce off of, Strong and Levi have fantastic moments of both verbal and physical sparring as we are treated to seeing two grown, magically superpowered men fight, all while one of them has the mindset of a teenager.
While many recent comic book films have been reprimanded by audiences for over-use of comedy to the point of feeling forced, “Shazam” does not fall into this category. If you look at recent examples like “Thor: Ragnarok”, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”, or “Justice League”, these were films that would repeatedly undercut their more serious and dramatic moments by force-feeding a different joke every chance they had. “Shazam” achieves that high-wire balancing act of equally distributing its comedic levity and makes it feel natural and organic, while also hitting those hard, emotional moments that make the characters very real and bring them back down to earth. The most poignant of these would be Billy’s past and his efforts to find his real parents.
Composed by Benjamin Wallfisch, the film is treated to a memorable score that perfectly captures the essence of the film. With a bombastic use of brass and drums, the score thunders in like the lighting coming from the character. The triumphant use of horns really taps into the older era of cinema. Again, drawing comparison back to Superman: The Movie, I was at times reminded of John Williams’ score for Superman in that you feel this operatic scale to the music that delivers well on the grandeur of the superhero it’s depicting.
Produced by New Line Cinema on a budget of $80 million dollars, “Shazam” has the lowest budget of the DC Comics shared universe films to date, but at no point does the film feel cheap or lacking. Much like 2016’s “Deadpool”, you can see where the money is put on screen for the special effects and fight sequences, but these budget limitations clearly put Sandberg into a position where they needed to be more creative and have a stronger script and characters to support the smaller scale compared to its other DC Comics counterparts. This isn’t to say that the action scenes are underwhelming, because there is certainly plenty to unpack and enjoy in the film, including a very entertaining fight in the climax that dials the movie up to 11, but when held up next to the epic scales of “Man of Steel” and “Aquaman”, “Shazam” does feel noticeably smaller but in all the best of ways. Scaling things down and focusing on the characters was something that has been lacking in the DC Comics movies since 2013, and sufficiently proves that bigger isn’t always better.
4.5 OUT OF 5 STARS: Much like “Aquaman”, “Shazam” embraces the heart and fun that comic book characters have always provided and represented. We’re given likable characters that are not only fun to watch, but leave us wanting to see more of them in the future. The movie captures the essence of the classic movies of the ’80s, letting audiences experience the fun of being a kid and wishing we could go on a similar adventure of having superpowers. While the film doesn’t break any substantial new ground in the genre of comic book movies, it succeeds in being a wholly entertaining film that delivers on the fun, excitement, and joy that we all look for in the movie-going experience. I would liken it to being an amalgam of Spider-Man: Homecoming meets BIG, meets Superman. This is certainly fun that everyone can enjoy and should not be written off as “just more comic book schlock I can skip”. Oh….. and be sure to stay through the end credits as you will NOT be disappointed with who pops in!