OnScreen Review: 'Shazam!'

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  • Ken Jones, Chief Film Critic

It’s 2019 and they’re making movies about everything now. First it was The Angry Birds Movie. Then came The Emoji Movie. Now we’re getting Shazam!. Look, not every phone app needs a movie! Ok, so Shazam! is actually not about the music app on your phone. It’s actually another superhero movie, which may cause some people to groan, by DC, which may cause more people to groan. But it’s actually a pretty entertaining movie and comes at the superhero genre from a unique if not quite fresh perspective.

Shazam is a character who dates back to earliest days of superhero comics, first appearing in 1940, and was originally called Captain Marvel, which is in NO WAY confusing considering we just got Captain Marvel from Marvel Studios last month. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a teenager in and out of foster care who is chosen by the ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) to assume his powers and transform into an adult, superhero version of himself by saying the word “Shazam!” The adult Shazam, portrayed by Zachary Levi, is bestowed with ancient powers of several figures (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury (hence the name). He is tasked with preventing Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) from unleashing the physical embodiment of the seven deadly sins on earth.

Zachary Levi is best known for the TV series Chuck, where he was Chuck Bartowski, an unassuming tech nerd who works for a fictionalized Geek Squad, who gets a supercomputer downloaded into his brain. Outside of also voicing Flynn in Disney’s Tangled he mostly had only smaller supporting roles in movies to date, so this role is a major chance to step out and step up. It turns out, he is perfect for the role, which makes sense because there are some similarities to his Chuck character having these abilities suddenly thrust upon him and having to grow into the role that is expected of his powers.

This film draws from a lot of different influences, some of them superhero-based and some not. Initially, he revels in his powers, exploring his capabilities with his friend Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), who is also an orphan living at the same foster home as Billy. For a time, they treat his powers as a novelty and revel in his minor celebrity status before realizing that there is more to all of it. This is similar to Kick-Ass, a film which also featured Mark Strong as the villain. Like Deadpool, there is some sophomoric humor and some meta-commentary about superhero movies and other superhero characters and abilities; the villain’s big speech at the end serves as a great punchline. Finally, a huge tip of the cap is due to the Tom Hanks classic, Big. This influence is so obvious that the film leans into it, complete with a walking piano tribute.

There are a lot of family-friendly, kid-centric themes to the film, particularly relating to family and the importance of teamwork as opposed to being a loner. Billy is chosen to become Shazam because he is deemed to have a pure heart, We are given a few moments of him proving this, such as when he stands up for Freddy when bullies push him around at school. But it wouldn’t be a superhero origin story if he didn’t also have doubts.

These family-friendly themes are offset by some rather dark, violent undertones from the villain Sivana and the gargoyle-like creatures that are the Seven Deadly Sins. These two elements don’t actually sit that well together. I’m not advocating that the violence or darkness of the film should have been toned down to make it more appealing to a wider audience, but a lot of the elements of the film seem  geared toward kids and young teens and some of the darker aspects of the film feel jarringly out of place because of it.

Ultimately, Shazam! is a very entertaining superhero movie that should have a wide appeal. Zachary Levi has considerable charm and charisma in the lead role and the film features a solid cast of young actors. It’s not an original take on the superhero origin story, but it is entertaining and expertly executed. It’s a very promising step from DC and their universe of superheroes. It leaves the door open for a sequel, and it’s certainly one I’d be interested in revisiting.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars