Film review #365
Director: David F. Sandberg
SYNOPSIS: Billy Batson is a foster child who is constantly running away and trying to find his real mum. When Thaddeus Sivana enters a hidden realm looking to take a Wizard’s ancient powers for himself, and steals the powers of the seven deadly sins to unleash them on Earth, the wizard summons Billy to be his champion and take his powers to stop Sivana from unleashing hell on Earth.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Shazam! is a 2019 superhero film based on the comic book character, and is also part of the DC cinematic universe of films. The film starts off showing a young boy named Thaddeus Sivana, who is transported to the Rocky of Eternity, a sacred temple where he is tested by a wizard to see if he is worthy of inheriting his magic powers. Sivana fails to be pure of heart, and is sent away. In the present day, Sivana is still desperately trying to return to that temple, and take the powers for his own. We are also introduced to Billy Batson, a fourteen-year old boy who is constantly running away from foster homes as he tries to find his Mother. He is moved to a new foster home where he is introduced to Freddy Freeman, another foster child. When Billy intervenes to stop some bullies attacking Freddy, he escapes on the subway, where he is transported to the Rock of Eternity. There, Billy learns that Sivana has unleashed the seven deadly sins, and Billy is the last hope to stop them. The wizard transfers his powers to Billy, and tells him he can access them by uttering his name: Shazam. The film’s premise is pretty simple: it’s a classic clash of good vs. evil, with some human drama in between. There’s a good balance of these different elements, and everything feels like it adds something to the plot.
With Billy able to transform into Shazam, he has to learn how to use his new powers, as well as to work out what those powers actually are. He and Freddy try and test out a number of powers, and we get a sense of Shazam being an incredibly versatile hero, but ultimately he still has the naivety and worldview of a fourteen year old boy. Shazam has many of the abilities (and appearance) of superman, but has none of the maturity or legacy that Superman has, and is thrust into this state with no information or warning. Billy has to work out what he is supposed to do with these powers and what their possibilities are, and a good chunk of the film is spent exploring this. The film goes through some fairly predictable scenarios that while not wholly original, are still lots of fun, and deliver a light-hearted entertainment with some good laughs. It does a similar thing to the well remembered film Big, and includes a sly reference to it in one scene, which again is pretty fun. Shazam! really harks back to the classic comic book heroes: the battle of good versus evil without being too concerned about building complex and conflicted characters. However, this type of superhero doesn’t really fit in to what we recognise in contemporary comic book heroes, and so Billy’s naivety and sense of being lost (reflected in his own personal story with regards to finding his mother) is in line with this and keeps a consistent tone throughout. There’s also the issue of Billy’s alter ego having no real superhero name, but that’s more of an awkward reference that his name is technically Captain Marvel and Marvel Comics now owns that trademark for their own Captain Marvel, and so there’s always been this issue around his name (typically he is just referred to as Shazam). Overall though, the focus is on a light-hearted, fun superhero film that keeps things simple and humourous, while trying to find a place for this kind of superhero in a world that has somewhat moved on from this conception of them (especially in the DC comics universe).
Shazam! is primarily based on the 2011-2012 comic reboot of the character, and it seems to follow it pretty closely, with the setting and characters being fairly similar to those in the comics. There is however, some other callbacks to the larger legacy, including the ambiguity surrounding Shazam’s name. The black and white movie serial based on the character is one of my favourite of the superhero serials of the time, and while the two characters are rather different, that transformation of Billy into Shazam/Captain Marvel is still the same, with the cool image of the bolt of lightning striking him, and Shazam emerging from a cloud of smoke. The acting partnership of Billy/Shazam is great, and their transformation really gives the impression that they are the same person, just with a different body (compared to the movie serial, where they were portrayed as different people). The supporting cast also do a good job and add some variety, but given that the end of the film does dedicate a decent amount of time to these characters, I feel like they weren’t set up completely to justify the time spent on them at the climax.
As much as I did enjoy this film, there are some glaring problems. Firstly, as mentioned, this is a classic good vs. evil film, and as such the villain doesn’t stand out too much. He exists mostly as a character for Billy/Shazam to test his limits against and to see his own place in the world. Another problem is that the resolution at the end of the film just isn’t set up very well: when Billy finds his biological mother and he realises that she intentionally abandoned him, he suddenly decides that the foster home is now his “real family”, but the film does no work in facilitating this u-turn. There’s plenty of development between Billy and Freddy (although this is undone constantly by Freddy’s interventions telling Billy what a superhero should be, rather than Billy’s childish stunts), but none between Billy and the foster family as a whole, and we never see him settling into this new home or changing his attitude to anyone there. The film really only needed a scene or two to show Billy’s changing attitude, but as it stands the change just seems to come from nowhere. The last major problem is that the finale sees Billy giving his fellow foster kids the same powers he has, and they work as a family to defeat the “family” of the seven deadly sins. This actually is in keeping with the comic book, but it does come out of nowhere, again due to the whole foster family story being underdeveloped. On top of this, it does dilute the final fight by splitting the action between Shazam and everyone else, thus we never get to see Billy’s triumph and rewarding moment of glory as it’s shared with these other characters that show up and share the spotlight. I think all of these problems don’t really hamper the enjoyability of the film, and could have easily been addressed with a tighter script and the addition of a few scenes.
The light-hearted and humourous angle of Shazam! lends itself to being more a family-oriented film, and it revels in a bright colour palette and expressive acting and visuals compared to the dark and austere palette often associated with films based on DC comics. The film was directed by David F. Sandberg, who directed the 2015 short film Kung Fury, and that same style is definitely on show again here. However, there’s some use of adult language, and the demons embodying the seven sins are pretty gruesome looking. Also the scene with the demons in the boardroom meeting I imagine would be pretty disturbing for kids, even though there’s no gore involved. Overall, Shazam! is a fun adventure with plenty of laughs and action. It harks back to the classic conception of a superhero, as well as thinking about where such conceptions belong in contemporary settings, where the dividing lines of good versus evil are not so neatly drawn. While it sometimes does not offer much new, it still executes it in a colourful, fun way that will be entertaining so you won’t care that much. There are some elements of the story that are underdeveloped and thus dilute some of the payoffs at the end of the film, but these don’t stop the film being entertaining and worthwhile viewing.