SHAZAM! (Movie Review)

Shazam_LighteningHands***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
 intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material)
Released: April 5, 2019
Runtime: 132 minutes
Directed by: David F. Sandberg
Starring: Zachary Levi, Jack Dylan Grazer, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Faithe Herman, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews, Jovan Armand, Djimon Hounsou

This Captain Marvel movie is way better.

Releasing one month after Marvel Studios’ female-led juggernaut, DC’s Shazam! (a.k.a. the Superhero Formerly Known As Captain Marvel – read here) doesn’t simply outdo its current box office rival at every turn. It becomes one of the best comic book movies in the genre’s modern era, and certainly the most refreshing. It also delivers an emotional payoff that I honestly couldn’t see coming.

For Gen-Xers, it’s like the 1980s Amblin-style superhero adventure that you haven’t necessarily been waiting for but will, nevertheless, be totally stoked to get. Everyone else will be, too.

Sparking creative inspiration from Spielberg-produced fare from a generation ago, the kind that mixed tweenage mischief with sci-fi, fantasy, and action adventure (Goonies, Gremlins, etc.), Shazam! also draws more broadly from other high-concept genre comedies of that era (like Ghostbusters or Big Trouble In Little China) that were infused with creature / horror scares.

Shazam! kicks off with an effectively mysterious prologue, set in a time, place, and scenario that seems disconnected from what previews have conditioned us to expect. What we soon realize, however, is that director David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation) is skillfully setting up an actual mythos rather than rehashing the standard origin story mold.

Sandberg’s also setting the tone, too, one that seamlessly weaves humor, action, drama, and frights. The whole thing feels fresh rather than tired and, in our superhero-saturated culture, that is a genuine accomplishment.

Shazam! is the story of Billy Baston (Asher Angel) a teenage orphan who, with the help of his new foster-brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), navigates the newfound superpowers he gains after stumbling into the mythos that the prologue established. Those powers include turning into an adult-sized superhero ((Zachary Levi, in a role he was born to play) when he utters the word Shazam; Billy can also turn back into himself by doing the same.

Action and comedy ensue, and it’s exactly the kind of exhilarating, entertaining ride you always hope to be taken on when you fork over a lot of money to go to the multiplex (on Giant Format screens especially, which include IMAX-shot sequences).

The narrative avoids the typical clunky exposition. Instead, it establishes the rules and realities of its mythology through clever reveals, comic sequences, and well-drawn characters, not belabored scenes of dialogue-driven information downloads that grind pacing to a halt. The script by Henry Gayden is finally tuned, with a great understanding of actual storytelling (as opposed to mere plotting or formulaic structure beats). It also has fun with referencing how Superman, Batman, et al, are a part of its larger world.

The comedy is organic, too, as character, action, and context create humor and laughs, which is what makes it legitimately hilarious. So many scripts today go through their various drafts to work out the plot and drama, but are then passed off to a writer (or team) to punch it all up with some jokes. Shazam! is not churned out by that kind of assembly line. Everything in it – drama, comedy, thrills, and sentiment – are all of cohesive whole, and voice, from a script that’s doing its own thing rather than trying to copy the market-tested successes of others.

Inevitably there’s a super-villain as well, one who seeks to consolidate Shazam’s powers with his. He wields a dark mysticism that controls the literal Seven Deadly Sins; they’re a scary (and impresive) looking set of CGI demons that earn the movie its PG-13 rating.

The evil foe is played with a dark, ominous intensity by Mark Strong that perfectly contrasts with the exuberant comic energy of Shazam and Freddy; not only is Levi brilliant, but Grazer possesses a wide-eyed enthusiasm that is infectious. Strong, thankfully, doesn’t resort to tongue-in-cheek scenery chewing; he’s deadly serious, and as Shazam’s arch nemesis he gives the whole film its necessary, formidable stakes.

All of that would be enough but Shazam! ends up being so much more than that, and I’m not simply referring to its Christmas-time setting, an added bonus that should cement this as a new holiday viewing tradition.

Like the best Amblin films, there’s an authentic sentimentality here, one made particularly special by the fact that Shazam! is a true celebration of foster families. “Representation” is a current buzzword when it comes to popular franchises. Now, with Shazam!, every kid or former kid who’s grown up as a foster child (and every adult who’s opened up their homes to embrace foster children) finally have theirs. That demo may not fit into the typical groups recognized by Identity Politics, but they’re just as worthy.

Billy is placed with a loving, nurturing couple who parent four other foster children of various ages, races, genders, and adorably motley personalities. It’s heartening, even moving, to see these lives – these people – championed, too. Yes, the family is idealized, but that’s because it’s a welcome ideal in a system that can be transient and rough.

This foster home isn’t a mere backdrop for contrived mawkishness, either. Sandberg and Gayden make the foster component (and its themes) a crucial element, not only as the film’s heart and soul but, ultimately, as a vital part of the climactic payoff, and in a way that I couldn’t have predicted. It gave me true lump-in-the-throat, misty-eyed chills while also getting me entirely geeked about where it went and its exciting implications.

First Wonder Woman. Then Aquaman. Now Shazam! When it comes to confirming that the DC Extended Universe is better off having each of its individual character franchises go their own way – rather than be inter-connected, MCU style –  the third time really is the charm that proves the point.

This is more than just a Big-style twist on the superhero template. Shazam! is joyously rewarding in every respect, even surprisingly so, and much more than I could’ve possibly imagined or hoped for. Welcome to your new favorite superhero.

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