New Review: 'Shazam!' (2019)
Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armond, John Glover, Ethan Puggioto, Landon Doak, Djimon Honsou, Adam Brody, Meagan Good, Michelle Borth, Ross Butler, D.J. Cotrona, Wayne Ward, Lotta Losten
Just the very title of this movie brings a smile to my lips and a warmth to my heart.
Ever since Christopher Nolan wrapped up his epic Dark Knight trilogy, the DC cinematic universe has been suffering greatly. From surrealistically awful entries like Man of Steel, Suicide Squad, and Justice League to merely very bad ones like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC movies have been loaded with films that were not only horribly scripted, but also took themselves far too seriously. Even the alleged “best” of the DC movies, 2017’s Wonder Woman, was just okay: certainly better than the previously mentioned titles, but not something I ever thought was worth revisiting.
Now, along comes horror auteur David Sandberg, the man who gave us the very good Lights Out and the at least very well-directed Annabelle: Creation. I’ve always thought that the man was a very talented filmmaker, but there was nothing in his previous movies to hint that he was capable of making a movie as warm, heart-felt, and as funny as Shazam! There are surprisingly some scary moments in the film, the most chilling involving an attack at a high rise business office (one shot during this scene in particular sent chills down my spine), but it’s the film’s heart and good-nature humor that eventually win us over.
More importantly, the movie feels like a real labor of love for Sandberg. There are scenes of characters talking about their favorite superheroes, the moral responsibilities said heroes have with their powers, and the actual qualities that truly define them as heroes. It’s a reminder of why these stories are not only so much fun, but why they’re important in the first place. At the same time, Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden also have fun with the cliches of the superhero genre. It’s not an easy thing to poke fun at the cliches of a genre while also embracing them in the same movie, but it works beautifully here because said moments treat the cliches with affection rather than disdain. Also, they’re funny as heck (one of the biggest laughs in the film comes when the villain gives his “bad guy speech” in the end).
The movie opens in 1974, where a young Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Puggioto) is being berated by his wealthy father (John Glover) and bully of an older brother Sid (Landon Doak) for playing with a Magic 8-Ball during their Christmas drive to their grandparents' house. In the blink of an eye, he finds himself whisked off to the magical Rock of Eternity, a temple in another dimension. He is approached by an aging wizard (Djimon Honsou), the last of a council of seven wizards, who is searching for a new champion that is “pure of heart” and who can keep imprisoned seven demonic creatures known as the Seven Deadly Sins. He is put to the test to see if he is worthy, and when he fails, he is told by the wizard that he will “never be good enough” and sent back to his family.
What happens next caught me off guard, because I knew the kid would grow up to be the story’s main villain, and I actually found myself sympathizing with the character. Sure enough, when we cut to present day Philadelphia, Sivana is now a mad doctor played by Mark Strong, who has been trying to make it back to the Rock of Eternity to release the Seven Deadly Sins and take his revenge on those who made him feel less than worthy all of his life. While he’s not as sympathetic as an adult as he was as a child, the movie does such a wonderful job developing his character that he becomes something more than just a generic superhero villain.
Desperate to find his champion after the Seven Deadly Sins are released on the world, the Wizard whisks foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) to the Rock of Eternity after Billy stood up to some bullies beating on his crippled foster brother Freddy (an extremely funny Jack Dylan Grazer). As instructed, Billy takes the wizard’s staff, utters the magical word of the title, and transforms into an adult superhero, this time played by Zachary Levi.
Levi is a complete joy in the role, hilariously capturing the essence of a kid being endowed with power he might not yet be mature enough to handle. He first reveals himself to Freddy, and in an absolutely delightful sequence scored to Queen’s Supersonic Man, both he and Freddy skip school to see what all powers he has. Eventually, Shazam and Sivana do meet for a climactic big battle, but it’s one where the stakes are raised when Sivana targets Billy’s foster siblings. Things take a turn for the better when Billy manages to find help in the final battle from...well, I won’t spoil it. I didn’t see it coming, at least.
And it works because the movie brings more focus to Billy’s foster home than you would think. His parents are warm and empathetic, having grown up in the system themselves, and they are nicely played by Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans. Grace Fullons is Billy’s foster sister Mary, who’s been accepted to an out-of-state college but is scared to go because it means being so far away from her family. Faithe Herman is absolutely adorable as the affectionate Darla, Ian Chen scores some laughs as game enthusiast Eugene (just look at the scene involving him swinging nunchucks), and Jovan Armand is the quiet Pedro, who has a moment where he does something that I honestly didn’t expect him to do.
Billy is also given his own sad backstory. As a child, he was separated from his mother at a local fair. The police try to ensure him that his mother would come and get him soon (“They always do,” the cop tells him), but many years pass, and Billy has still no word from his mother. Because he still believes that he’ll find her soon, Billy keeps his distance from his foster family, and at times, it makes him come across as a big jerk. That makes his final arc all the more satisfying, as well as the movie’s note-perfect final scene.
Shazam! is what you get when filmmakers take the time and put their passion and effort in telling a complete and compelling story. The cast is great, and the movie has energy and style to spare. The cinematography by the talented Maxime Alexandre is sumptuous, as is the production design by Jennifer Spence, set direction by Shane Vieau, and art direction by Colin Woods, Brandt Gordon, and Byron Patchett (I especially love the section in the Rock of Eternity filled with doors that lead to other dimensions). One could argue that the film’s tone is so jokey at times that it robs some of the tension from the action scenes, but so what? The action scenes are still big and colorful and entertaining as heck.
Shazam! is proof that the DC cinematic universe is still capable of making great films, if only the makers take the time to put a lot of thought and effort into telling their stories. Storytelling is not easy. It takes a lot of work to do it right. That’s why I always appreciate when filmmakers go the extra mile with their movies. When that happens, the result is a reminder of why storytelling is such a wonderful thing. Shazam! gives us such a reminder, and I can not wait to see it again.
Final Grade: **** (out of ****)
Rated PG-13 for some violence, language, scary images