My wife and I saw “Shazam!” yesterday after a week-long delay (technical issues with the theater’s digital copy) and I have to say, it was well worth the wait. “Shazam” turned out to be surprisingly witty, and a lot more nostalgic than I originally anticipated…
Without ruining a great big spoiler near the end (and yes, it’s that good, so I won’t spoil it for you), the movie opens in the 1970s, when a boy, his brother and rich father are in a car on a slick wintery road when time seems to literally freeze around the boy, who was squabbling with his dysfunctional family at the time. He exits the car into a strange, dark dimensional corridor where he meets an aged wizard (Djimon Honsou) who seeks a worthy soul to receive his powers, and protect the world from the (literal) Seven Deadly Sins; who are trapped as gargoyles, and could be unleashed if their power ends up in the wrong hands. Returning to normal time after the encounter, the boy freaks out. The boy’s panic causes his father to be distracted at the wheel (where he is critically injured), and the car violently crashes on the slick winter road.
The boy later returns to this magical dimension as an embittered adult, “Dr. Sivana” (Mark Strong). Sivana steals the power of the Seven Sins, who now channel through him and are represented in his right eye as an eerie blue light cast from within.
Years later, we see the story of another little boy who is accidentally separated from his young mother at a busy amusement park, where is taken by police and presumed to be abandoned, since his mother never came back from him. Cut to a few years later, the boy is now semi-delinquent 14 year old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), whose placement in multiple foster homes has left him bitter and rebellious. Much of the boy’s rebellion stems from his never-ending search for his real mother, whom he refuses to give up on. This hope of an eventual reunion with his mother has also prevented Batson from bonding with his foster families.
After an incident with local Philly police, Batson is remanded to the care of yet another foster home, but this one is a little different; it is led by two affable but firm parents, Rosa and Victor Vasquez (Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews respectively) who have several other kids in their care. Batson’s new roommate foster brother is a handicapped, sardonic teen named Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), whose humor is his best and often only defense. There’s also the gaming-obsessed Eugene (Ian Chen), taciturn introvert Pedro (Jovan Armand), sweet-natured demonstrative little Darla (Faithe Herman) and Caltech applicant hopeful, Mary (Grace Fulton). As diverse and interesting a mix of child actors as you’ll ever see under one roof.
Billy and the other kids of his new foster family attend the same school, where he is immediately bullied by two wealthy douchebag boys (right out of a John Hughes movie), who mercilessly torment his disabled foster brother, Freddy. An unexpectedly heroic Billy takes on the two bullying creeps, but soon runs for his life. Continuing his quest for his real mother, he heads into a subway…which freezes in time (with a familiar icing on the train car windows, as we saw earlier in the car crash). Billy opens the car doors and walks into that same mystical realm seen earlier, where he meets the aged Wizard, who imparts his power to Billy. The powers are instantly summoned whenever Billy says the name, “Shazam!”…
Upon utterance of the name, Billy is instantly transformed into a muscular, but goofy adult version of himself (a wonderfully ridiculous Zachary Levi) who has an as-yet-untapped array of superpowers… think ‘Josh’ (Tom Hanks) in “Big” combined with William Katt’s ‘Ralph’ in “The Greatest American Hero.” Not knowing (at first) how to revert back into Billy, the awkward, goofily costumed superhero tries to get a grip on things. Rosa, Victor and the other foster kids back home are worried sick over the ‘missing’ Billy, while the city of Philadelphia seems to have gained an oddly immature, but very powerful superhero…
Shazam later appears to Billy in the window of the Vasquez household, where he desperately confesses everything to a terrified Freddy, his only confidante. Like Josh and his best friend in “Big”, the two are, at first, the only ones in on the secret of Shazam’s true identity. Billy learns how to revert back into his normal self, but soon all of the kids in the Vasquez home are in on the secret. The Vasquez parents are, of course, left in the dark (a very common occurrence in 1980s movies, of which this film would be right at home).
Some of the best scenes in the film are of Freddy (Billy’s ‘manager’) and Shazam testing the limits of Shazam’s own powers. After much trial-and-error, including a hilarious foiled robbery at a liquor store (another moment that references “Robocop” and any number of 1980s action flicks), Shazam gradually deduces that he can zap electric arcs from his fingers (his temporary name is “ElectroFingers”), has super-strength, super-speed, and…if he really concentrates, he has that much coveted superpower of flight, like his hero Superman, who exists (along with the rest of the Justice League) within this movie’s universe… however incongruously.
Billy begins to begrudgingly accept his newfound family as his ‘real’ family, and warms to them in ways that are surprisingly uncloying for a movie that messages about about the importance of family, wherever you find it. Despite the Yuletide setting, this is not some bulls#!t Hallmark Channel Christmas movie…
Things reach a head when the Seven-Sins possessed Dr. Sivana learns of this new ‘savior’ with the power to stop him. The two meet, and the gawky but overly-confident Shazam takes an unexpected beating (a reflection of the bullying Billy faces in his own world as well). Billy, Freddy and the rest of the kids in the Vasquez home eventually learn of a way to deal with Sivana and his Sins in a light-hearted yet sufficiently high stakes-finale…
Which I will NOT spoil here.
“Shazam!” shows up at WonderCon.
At WonderCon in Anaheim, California earlier this month, I saw a lot of promotion for the movie, though sadly, I missed the actual panel for it (it wasn’t revealed as such until the last minute). Shazam posters and paraphernalia were not to be missed.
There was a glass display case in the main Dealer Hall with Zachary Levi’s screen-used costume, and I also saw the original “Billy Batson” (Michael Gray), from the live-action 1970s incarnation of “Shazam” (1974-1977) at the Warner Archive Collection panel, where it was revealed that the old series has been lovingly restored (frame-by-frame) and remastered for blu-ray.
Gray was personally humbled and grateful to the Warner Archive team for their work in restoring the 40something year old TV show to a pristine quality it never had, even in first-run broadcast. If you’re a fellow convention geek, my complete WonderCon 2019 experience is here: https://musingsofamiddleagedgeek.blog/2019/04/01/wondercon-2019-in-anaheim-star-trek-superheroes-cosplay-and-wam-bam-thank-you-shazam/
Of heroes and homages.
Directed by horror veteran David F. Sandberg (“Anabelle” “Lights Out”) the movie is stuffed with many subtle (and some not-so-subtle) callbacks to 1980s cinema, the most obvious being the late Penny Marshall-directed “Big”; but there are also pieces and bits from Joe Dante’s “Gremlins” (the monstrous ‘Seven Sins’ unleashed at Christmastime), Chris Columbus’ “Home Alone” (the child abandonment angle) and the entire John Hughes’ repertoire, since the primarily focus of the film is that purgatory known as teenage life… something the late Hughes understood on an intuitive level.
Between the camaraderie of the kids and Levi’s charmingly goofy performance, “Shazam” is a self-deprecating, nicely silly entry in the otherwise pompous, self-important superhero genre. DC and Marvel Studios seem to have recently switched karmas, with DC now doing the lighter, more humorous fare that Marvel Studios (nee: Disney) used to seemingly make without effort. These days, the average Marvel film feels a bit leaden, while this new emerging crop of DC films seem to have found their bouncier comic timing.
Personally I prefer to think of “Shazam” as not just another DC cinematic universe movie, but more as an homage to iconic 1980s family flicks that just happens to have a big, bright, goofy superhero right in the middle of it. The soul of “Shazam!” is more “Big” than “Justice League.”