Shazam! (aka Billy Batson and the Legend of Shazam!) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The superhero cinema landscape has been evolving to such a great degree that the stories are no longer just that of a mere super-powered good guy trying to defeat a super-powered bad guy in visual effects feats. We’ve seen cultural commentary brilliantly woven into the kingdom politics of Black Panther and seen a dramatic shift in staging adventure around a villain in Avengers: Infinity War. But then there are films such as Shazam which offers a breath of fresh air to remind us all that superhero pictures can still have a warm and charming sensation of escapism. And, let’s face it, the premise of Shazam isn’t exactly one best suited for a tale of gritty realism akin to the dismal Batman v. Superman.
While still a fun idea of a superhero, the film doesn’t shy away from being genuine with character, maintaining a certain level of earnest devotion to the source material previously seen in DC’s Aquaman. We meet an elder wizard who is seeking to bestow his powers towards one who is pure of heart to help him continue the battle against the seven deadly sins. His name: Shazam! Okay, not the most profound wizard name but when played by the intimidating and serious presence of Djimon Hounsou, you kinda believe it a little more.
But you still have to smirk, as does the smart-mouthed orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who doesn’t buy the whole magical battle of good versus evil as easily. All he is seeking is to find his mother who mysteriously vanished when he was a little boy. He has no strong desire for superpowers, especially with his new foster home roommate Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) constantly bragging about Batman and Superman. But then something unique happens that makes Billy a little interested in superheroes; the code word of Shazam transforms him into an adult superhero with magical powers, played by a stunned and ecstatic Zachary Levi.
In his Shazam form, Billy and Freddy are a lot of fun the way they test out these magical powers Big style with viral video documentation. He can fly but requires a lot of practice. He is bullet proof but they need robbers to shoot him in the face to make sure it’s not just body armor from his lightning bolt suit. And some tests take a hilarious turn, as when one experiment on teleportation quickly turns into one of being flame resistant. The two have amazing chemistry that I’m extremely thankful most of the film revolves around their relationship.
Naturally, there must be a villain for Shazam to fight. Mark Strong, who you may remember in the role of Sinestro from DC’s previous dud of a Green Lantern movie, take on the role of Doctor Sivana, a man who grew up bitter when Shazam denied him those magical powers. No matter. After much research, Sivana tracks down some demons to help him take these powers by force. And while this seems like a rather stock villain setup, Strong seems to be having as much fun in this sneering role as Levi is the peppy superhero. He’s also a major threat when seen in a rather brutal sequence of massacring a board room of executives with his demon brethren.
Aside from the villain’s horror movie aesthetic, the film keeps its focus rather well on being a kid-centric adventure. The relationship of Billy and Freddy keeps it in check but there’s also a number of other quirky foster kids in Billy’s new home that adds so much charm and heart to the picture. Going back to the genuine nature, I really enjoyed how heartfelt Billy’s closure on his parents felt, never trying to soften the edges of a rather somber moment of growing up. To call the film merely a fun outing with these striking scenes would be a disservice to how well-crafted a superhero movie this is.
And the usual bells and whistles are all gleaming here. The fights are visually stunning, the banter is witty as it is adorable, and the humor is so astute and daring that the script throws a heaping helping of shade at the DCEU, almost as much as Teen Titans Go To The Movies. While not the most redefining superhero film of the decade, Shazam treats its character and his world with a joyful throwback aspect that is better suited for the younger than the grimmer comic book adaptations of recent. There’s a Richard Donner style wit and excitement that makes the film a touching throwback at times to simpler superhero films that may not have had the most redefining stories but always carried a fantastical tone of escapism most pure.