Shazam! (2019)

16 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What could happen if a 14-year-old boy was given superhuman abilities? That’s the premise that “Shazam!,” based on the DC Comics superhero, wants to play with, as our teenage main character, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), becomes a superhero after taking the power of the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). Actually, it’s six powers: 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. Put the names of all six Greek gods together and you get the acronym “SHAZAM!” Oh, and he also transforms into the buff adult body of Zachary Levi and dons a red superhero wardrobe with a lightning symbol on the front, so therefore, we get kind of the “Superman” version of “Big.” (There’s even a reference to “Big” midway through the film—you’ll know it when you see it, if you’re a fan of “Big.”)

A little background—Billy has been searching for his mother (who lost him years ago) for the longest time and has hopped from one foster home to another because of his search which involves him getting into trouble one time too many. He’s taken in to another foster home, with a couple who seem like loving parents. But that’s not enough for Billy and neither are his foster siblings, including his roommate, the physically disabled geeky foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), and the adorable, energetic little foster sister, Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman). But he still feels the need to help them out any way he can, such as protecting Freddy from some bullies. While running from said-bullies, he happens upon the Wizard Shazam, who has searched for the right soul to hand his powers to—now that he’s dying, he has no choice but to give them to Billy.

Now in the form of Shazam, Billy lets Freddy in on the secret as they test his new abilities (and record before uploading it to YouTube to gain popularity), and of course, they have the time of their lives. (And luckily, Billy doesn’t stay in superhero form all the time—he can transform from boy to hero to boy again to hero again by simply saying the name “Shazam!”) But before long, Billy learns the obvious—with great power comes great responsibility. After rescuing passengers of a runaway city bus from certain death, Billy learns of an even bigger problem: a supervillain, spawned from Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who spent his life searching to obtain the Shazam abilities after they were denied to him as a child. (Wizard Shazam kept testing different people around the world and turned them down as soon as they proved unworthy.) Now, he’s obtained the controlling powers of the Seven Deadly Sins, who come to life and wreak havoc on humanity. Billy has to stop doing dumb teenager things with his superpowers and go up against Sivana and the demonic beings to save the day.

The villain is the weakest part of the movie for me, but at least the clever screenplay (written by Henry Gayden) has as much fun with him to make it better—for example, he has his typical villain monologue far away from where Shazam can hear it and he’s completely unaware. (I always wanted to see that in a superhero film.)

Speaking of which, what makes “Shazam!” most enjoyable is its lightheartedness and its ability to score laughs by playing with superhero-movie conventions, especially when Billy and Freddy continue to test the superpowers to see what Shazam can and can’t do. But I was surprised by a lot of the dramatic portions of the film as well. “Shazam!” can be heartfelt with emotional weight and depth, especially in the scenes in which Billy looks for his mother and bonds with is foster siblings (who are all distinct and very likable), and it doesn’t feel like it belongs in a different movie. The broad comedy and heavy drama in this superhero flick work surprisingly well together. Credit for that not only goes to the actors, who put their all into their work, but also the guidance of director David F. Sandberg (best known for horror films “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation”).

Oh, and it can also get pretty intense, especially when it comes to the Seven Deadly Sins…they perform a massive slaughter at an office meeting before terrorizing little children! (Parents, the PG-13 rating has warned you.) Inconsistent? Perhaps. But it reminded me of an ‘80s family-adventure that didn’t care who it was made for.

Being a film set in the DC extended universe, you’d think it’d be more about setting up the next DC film, which is something many of its installments fell victim to. But all that’s cared about with “Shazam!” was telling its own story (with only a few brief mentions of Superman and Batman). With effective writing, a fun spirit to it, and a wonderful, engaging performance from Zachary Levi as well as all the young actors, “Shazam!” is an extremely fun and well-made lighthearted superhero fable.

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