By: Felix Felicis (Three Beers) –
Ever had a frenemy? Someone you a little (or a lottle) bit despised but just couldn’t, or weren’t able to, pull the plug on the ventilator keeping your relationshit alive? Put your hands down, that was a rhetorical question because we all did, have, and/or will have a frenemy and the DC Murderverse is one of mine (although, kudos, because it’s shifting toward being the DC Not-*Quite*-Murderverse now). Long overdue (and – largely – clumsily executed), this paradigm shift away from DC’s Prozac-recommended-with-ticket-purchase themed films began with Wonder Woman in 2017 (I’ll generously overlook the Suicide Squad fucknado of mediocrity also released later in the same year) and continued with 2018’s Aquaman then, most recently, sustained its DC Marvel-aissance with their 2019 take on Shazam!. Could points be deducted for DC’s obvious copycat (and abrupt) pivot toward a light at the end of the tunnel that’s not an oncoming train by xeroxing a few plays from the MCU playbook? Sure. Absolutely. But ask yourself this: does it matter more than finally going to see a DC film during its theater run with more than a creeping feeling of anticipatory dread? It may just be my crippled psyche (beer battered and deep fried from years of DC assignments because I’m “extra hilarious when ripping something seven new assholes”) but I’ll go ahead and answer this additional rhetorical question: NO.
Shazam! opens on your typical family road-trip-meets-youngest-son-being-whisked-away-to-another-dimension-to-be-tested-for-purity-of-heart-so-he-can-inherit-an-all-powerful-wizard’s-magic-and-protect-the-world-from-the-seven-deadly-sins-only-to-fail-and-be-sent-back-to-his-reality-where-he-wakes-up-screeching-about-wizards-like-a-barn-owl-on-crack-only-to-nearly-cause-a-car-crash-after-distracting-his-dad-who’s-driving-and-then-actually-cause-a-car-crash-as-his-dad-continues-to-verbally-berate-him-after-stopping-where-he-then-regains-consciousness-and-discovers-his-brother-is-okay-but-his-father-is-gravely-injured-(at-the-very-least)-who-continues-to-heap-verbal-abuse-on-his-youngest-son-blaming-him-for-the-wreck-with-a-solid-assist-from-the-worst-big-brother-of-all-time.
Then Shazam! leapfrogs through time like DC owes it money and our emotionally traumatized kid has grown up to be a brilliant (but disturbingly maladjusted) man (Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana) on a Lex-Luthor-esque quest for the Holy Grail of misplaced revengeance character arcs as he tracks down what I can only imagine the emotionally tone deaf child of Rafiki and Danny Glover would look like (Djimon Hounsou playing the first wizard named Shazam who clearly called in sick on How To Learn Empathy For Others So You Don’t *Voldemort Your Own Eventual Downfall One Day… Day (*create). Once Sivana finds Wizard I Wasn’t Hugged Enough As A Child he steals the Evil Grail of power and bounces.
We’re still in present day but now watching our protagonist (technically? This kid is a piece of fucking work), Billy Batson (relative newcomer Asher Angel), obnoxiously fail upwards through the foster care system like a runaway train on super-legitmate-yet-ultimately-unhealthy-bender tracks looking for his birth mother who he got separated from as as a small child while at a carnival (a narcoleptic badger could’ve seen how this flailing B-Story is gonna end in less time than a regulation bull ride). Billy eventually ends up in foster care heaven, the ideal situation of two foster parents who were themselves fostered and have unlimited patience and understanding for their foster kids (who get along remarkably well).
He immediately fucks that up by getting whisked away to another dimension and accepting the magical equivalent of a puppy from a mystical(ly creepy) stranger offering free *puggles (*a seven-layer-dip of protagonist-friendly powers) out the back of his windowless van: aka a spinning rolodex of uncatalogued magic stuffed in Gandalf’s knockoff staff and so loosely associated with Greek Mythology you’ll blink and miss it (although shape-shifting into the best version of yourself when powered up is the most millennial bullshit I may have ever been subjected to, I don’t know, the jury’s still out on that one). Either way, evil’s “Unstoppable Force” meets good’s “Immovable Object”, some foster/real family drama happens… and Billy/Shazam! + Dr. Sivana/Demon Eyeball eventually duke it out to see who will take home the leftover *bagel bites (*magical mojo to lock up and guard in a dimensional dojo… or use to slaughter the entire world on a whim.
Shazam! captures a lot of what we’re all looking for in an entertaining superhero origin story potluck-style cinematic picnic. It’s (by-and-large) witty, funny, endearing and brings back a lot of the elegant simplicity lost from the genre by taking the philosophy of Occam’s Razor to heart (the less convoluted a thing is, the easier it is to understand). Now I’m not saying there isn’t room for complexity up on the superhero’s silver screen, but unless you’re willing to invest in an eleven-years-long franchise filibuster *cough* MARVEL *cough*, don’t bite off more than you can chew, which for DC is a rehabilitative redemption arc in the hopes of winning back frustrated fans; and Shazam! does just that.
Zachary Levi as grownup Shazam/Billy Batson is effortlessly charming in his very obviously and (at times) distracting-yet-amusingly padded superhero suit, as well as his littlest foster sister, Darla Dudley (played by Faith Herman as seen on TV’s This Is Us as Annie Pearson – and who is a genuinely freaking PRECIOUS CHILD) who exists solely to be a ray of the purest sunshine this earth has ever seen – WE ARE NOT WORTHY – and must be protected at all costs. Not to mention the foster family dynamics are about eighty-percent super fucking charming (there’s a twenty percent overhead deduction for – sporadic – overly saccharine earnestness) in addition to shedding a (fairly) productive light on an underrepresented cultural demographic: children in/affected by (and products of) foster care.
Visually Shazam! is very well done – that whole mid-air transition off a roof is legit BANANAS – and I’m usually never mad whenever Djimon Hounsou pops up (a significant misfire on this one but that’s not his fault, that falls on whomever, or whatever stoned sea cucumber, wrote the script that turned Hounsou into a bit of a preachy dick – was Nicholas Cage busy? His sorcerer in Sorcerer’s Apprentice was actually kind of great). Same would go to Mark Strong (Dr. Sivana) except I just realized I’ve seen nothing in his prolific – and excellent – body of work (not on purpose, he just tends to appear in the kind of *serious shit – *not remotely Sci/Fi or Fantasy related – you’d have to tie me to a chair long enough to watch) other than his recurring role as Merlin in the Kingsman franchise.
DC’s dive into the lighter side of life (tragic child abandonment issues aside) really strikes the right chords with so many great cinematic homages (the Big-adjacent piano played by stepping on it while passing through a toy store) and parallels, like SO MANY Harry Potter parallels: a wizard on a quest for power fucks up and creates his own petard-hoisting downfall (Shazam questing to pass along power, Voldemort to gain all of it), the chosen adolescent boy who has a savior role thrust upon him (and is bolstered/admired by those around him even though he’s, at best, a breakeven sort of hero – ex. lightning blasting a bust then catching/saving the same bus when it falls off a bridge) with juuuuust a smidge of Chronicles of Narnia thrown in there with the seven thrones for seven siblings (there’s also a pretty stellar Power Rangers vibe happening during the finale fracas) protecting untold realms from untold dangers. Add all of this together and Shazam! manages to ride the line between pop culture reverence and derivative dumpster fire this box office blockbuster could’ve *easily* fallen into and you end up with a synergistic silver screen treat the whole family can enjoy.
Speaking of synergy, Shazam! is very much a movie where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s when you start to analyze the individual cogs responsible for turning the wheels on this franchise flick that things begin to get a little bit wobbly. On the surface, the characters are able to get the job done in an engaging way but think about it and there isn’t one character in the entire film that has anything resembling a character arc (hell, I’d take an erratic EKG spike and call it good but, sadly, no dice) not to mention one or two come dangerously close to obnoxious stereotype and by “dangerously close” I mean they absolutely do cross the line but taken in with the rest of Shazam!‘s charm is mitigated to tolerable.
The worst offenders are a) child-sized Billy Batson who is a lottle bit of a jerk – the entire time, and who learns nothing but is ultimately rewarded for his selfishness – also b) Dr Sivana’s father and brother who are one thousand percent related to Cruella DeVille because holy shit the emotional and verbal abuse they heap on Sivana at a young age is shocking (and also may be the only case in which I will allow the utilization of the phrase “fifty shades of fucked up.”) and c) the schoolyard bullies who get away with an ASTOUNDING FUCKTON of physical and verbal abuse targeted at a disabled foster kid, like actual kick-the-shit-out-of-the-kid bullying where half the school is watching and no one, NOT A GODDAMNED, SINGLE, SOLITARY SOUL steps in or runs to get help (okay, sure, we need this moment to bond with Billy as he reluctantly steps in to stop the abuse like that’ll excuse the other ninety-nine percent of the time he’s an immature dick but whatever).
Oh, I almost forgot d) the wizard who is supposed to be the personification of wisdom on the side of capital g “Good” buuuuuut who actually ends up doing more damage than Good by abducting untold numbers of children (problematic grey areas surrounding ‘altruistic’ kidnapping aside) and testing them for “purity of soul”, then rejecting them all as unworthy before eventually tossing a handful of “fuck it” confetti at the cosmic fan when he’s dying and gives the magical equivalent of a pimped out Ferrari to a juvenile *delinquent (*Billy) with a spotty (at best) ethical track record. None of which would’ve been necessary if he’d had even a MICROSCOPIC shred of human empathy or brain-to-mouth filter before telling an emotionally abused kid he’d “never be good enough” to inherit his epic wizard powers after failing the ultimate Kobayashi Maru of tests. Or maybe the wizard just needed the ability to realize humanity is flawed but, as a whole, is still “worthy” and to find a successor he needs to accept the mistakes he’s made in the past, learn from them, and move forward… without swiping left on anyone falling short of idealistic perfection (the message Shazam! tried, and somewhat failed, to convey – again I state because Billy was written largely as an unrepentant, narcissistic asshat).
Which leads me, lastly, to e) the villain himself, Dr. Sivana. Mark Strong is an incredibly charismatic actor who never really got his villain off the ground (metaphorically – he literally flies around here) in Shazam!. There was so much wasted potential for a truly layered character who ended up being a dollar store, knockoff, Lex Luther stereotype with daddy issues. And not even a good one at that. There was a whole parallel from Sivana’s search for the wizards lair (to restore his family’s respect and approval – if ever he had it) so he could claim redemption and vindication running simultaneously alongside Billy’s desperate search for his birth mother (most of his self-worth being wrapped up in the idea that finding her would solve all of his problems, restore his sense of self-worth, and make him whole again – more on this later) that Shazam! left unconnected and unused (to its detriment).
There was also a solid foundation of empathy for Strong’s Sivana that was left untapped as his character takes the (legitimately) traumatic catalyst for his thirty-year odyssey back to the inter-dimensional wizards lair and just fucking wastes it on petty, nonsensical, one-dimensional revenge. Is Sivana using the Sins? Is it a Venom-esque symbiosis? Is he (and to what extent if so) their puppet? Does Sivana’s endgame go beyond anything other than “fuck shit up”? He’s seemingly evil because his father LITERALLY DID NOT HUG HIM ENOUGH AS A CHILD. That’s such a basic bitch move and you’re better than that, Shazam!.
Part of what made Shazam! work was its superficial charm which managed to gloss over and hold together a pretty entertaining slice of (almost) summer entertainment. Subtlety, on the other hand, was (much like Carmen Sandiego) nowhere to be found in Shazam! as it, instead, took a thematic jackhammer to the squishiest part of your brain until you stopped trying to deep-sea-dive for hidden meaning in a cinematic kiddie pool. Take the theme of family played out three ways like a tasting menu of different family dynamic flavors. First, it had a V.C. Andrews-esque take on how family can fuck you up (read – or watch – Flowers In The Attic and tell me those kids wouldn’t have become super villains in a parallel universe), next Shazam! had the perfect foster home set up to rehabilitate children who had fallen through the cracks in the system with unconditional love on the menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (not that I doubt such foster homes exist, but it was the polar opposite of our villain’s story and life is rarely so evenly balanced).
Finally, and most annoyingly, Billy spends most of the film rejecting his foster family’s attempts to bond with him, only to track down his mother near the end of the film where he finds out his mother didn’t intentionally abandon Billy but sure as hell took the opportunity to hit “reset” on her life when he wandered off, never looking back. Only after being rejected by his mother does Billy decide to claim his foster siblings as “family” robbing his character of a moment for self-growth if he’d chosen to do so before there weren’t any other options on the table.
I also didn’t love the gender-stereotypical costuming during the Power Rangers-esque finale team up. All the men have full coverage body suits but one female character has a skirt? HOW IS THAT BATTLE PRACTICAL?! And the other female character’s power-up costume did have pants… wait for it… and a sleeveless design to showcase her shoulders because Cthulhu forbid a woman not reveal some skin whilst fighting evil.
And lastly, it’s super minor – and may be resolved in a (possible) sequel – but Team Shazam ended up with six out of seven butts for the Interdimensional Thrones of Knockoff Narnia and it’s sent me into an full-on Always Sunny In Philadelphia tailspin trying to figure out if they just didn’t do the math, just don’t care, are resolving this in a sequel, or are just trying to drive me batshit insane.
It’s easy, breezy, electrical… Grown man in spandex… Shazam! Keep it up, DC, and maybe in a decade (or two) we’ll forget your Murderverse rep entirely. Maybe.
Last Call: Stick around for mid, and post, credit stingers. The mid-credit isn’t anything spectacular, but the post-credit scene teases possible sequel events.
Shazam! (2019) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for each new power Billy discovers.
Take a Sip: for every new superhero nickname.
Take a Drink: whenever Billy turns into Shazam.
Do a Shot: for every trip to the throne room.
Shotgun Your Beer: for the Power Ranger finale fracas showdown.