Shazam! is a better than expected pro-family superhero flick
By Jim Bray
You could look at it as a Superman meets Big. In fact, that's how the filmmakers refer to it in the supplements that accompany Warner Brothers' new superhero release, Shazam! But however you look at it, Shazam! is both fun, and worth a view.
Movies from the DC comic universe has been spotty at best, but there are a few nuggets to be found in the collection, in recent years, starting with Wonder Woman and including Aquaman. And that's about it, for quality and highly enjoyable comic book flicks among the DC flicks I've seen. Until now.
Shazam! isn't in the same league as Wonder Woman, or even Aquaman, but on the whole it's a worthy entry, enjoyable and reasonably intelligent. It also sends a real pro-family message (though not necessarily "nuclear family") that seems kind of out of place in Hollywood these days. It deals with young people from broken – or no, I assume – homes who want to feel like part of something, even if they may not initially know it.
Such is the situation of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14 year old who got separated from his mother years earlier and has since bounced around foster homes and foster families while simultaneously disappearing from said fosters repeatedly in what "the system" thinks is a sign of a character flaw whereas what he's really doing is trying to find his mother.
His latest foster family includes a pair of foster parents who do their best to provide a stable and loving environment. His "siblings" in this house include a variety of stereotypes: nerdy superhero buff Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), precocious and loquacious black kid (Faithe Herman), the apparently sullen and silent Hispanic (Jovan Armand), the teen who aspires to college (Grace Fulton) and an Asian wunderkind (Ian Chen).
Billy, as usual, is having trouble fitting in but manages to befriend – or, perhaps more accurately, is befriended by the irresistible force that is Freddy Freeman. This comes in very handy when, seemingly out of the blue, Billy's transported to some alternate world by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who is desperate to find a padawan learner (oops, sorry, wrong universe) to take over from him. All Billy has to do is grab onto the guy's big magic staff (remembering that this is a sexless, G-rated movie – though with some cussin'…) and say his name: Shazam!
And Shazam! Billy is immediately transformed from a 14-year-old kid to a fully grown adult (I'd say "mature," but it's still Billy) played by Zachary Levi. He has no idea what, if any, powers he might have and is just plain confused by what has happened.
As it turns out, Billy wasn't the old wizard's first choice. In fact, he was basically his last, out of desperation. He'd tried recruiting many before Billy (we get a brief sampling during the story) but none were worthy of the gift – including Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who tried but failed many years before, leaving him with enough angst that he's dedicated his life to finding his way back to Shazam so he can steal his magic for himself.
It's pretty fun watching Billy/Shazam learning what powers he has and how to use them – a fish out of water aided by the nerd knowledge of friend Freddy – and how the 14 year old in a man's body reacts to his new Super status. Does he become a crime fighter, battling for truth, justice and the American way? Well, if something comes along requiring such super service, he'll do it, but in the meantime, he also becomes a kind of super busker, performing magical tricks for whatever spare change people want to give him.
Ah, but one can't have a good superhero movie without a super villain, and that's what we get in Dr. Sivana and his alliance with the Seven Deadly Sins, represented by scary CGI creatures that inhabit him until he unleashes them.
And this leads to the big battle that climaxes the film, and it's a pretty good one. The CG effects don't overshadow the live action, mostly, and the action and situations are about as believable as one can expect from a story that's total fantasy. Okay, it's no Lord of the Rings, but nor does it seem to aspire to, and that's fine.
It's lighthearted, and works mostly that way as well. I even laughed out loud once or twice. And the performances are good as well. I had a bit of problem getting into the big Shazam's performance, but on reflection I think Levi did a nice job of balancing the adult exterior with the teenage interior. Mark Strong put in a, well, strong performance as the bad guy as well; the foster parents are appropriately syrupy (but in a nice way), and the rest of the teenage cast (and their "stand ins" who come later) are also cast well.
Sure, it's no Donner Superman, but no other DC film has been either (though Wonder Woman came closest). And while I'm not sure Shazam! will be remembered decades hence, it's still a pretty good superhero film. A bonus is that it doesn't take itself too seriously.
How does it stack up against the old comic books or the old TV show of the same name? I have no idea.
Warner Home Video sent us the darn Blu-ray, instead of the 4K disc, but as it turns out it's a good example of the species as well. The package we got included the BD disc, a DVD, and a code by which you can redeem a digital version.
The film is presented at a 2.4:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and it looks really good even at 1080p (it looked even better when up converted to 4K, which made me miss the 4K disc even more). Detail is very fine, as are textures (clothing, skin surfaces, backgrounds…) and the colours are rich and clean, with excellent black levels.
Audio defaults to Dolby Atmos, which dumbs itself down to mainstream Dolby TrueHD, and the sound is just fine. All of your home theatre's channels get a good workout, and while there are moments that are quite bassy I didn't find the deepest bass rattled my home theatre like some other Warners titles have (such as some from Christopher Nolan).
There's a reasonable selection of extras, too. The Magical World of Shazam is just shy of half an hour in running time and I think it's a better-than-average feature that's not only interesting but quite entertaining. It includes key cast and crew members commenting on the film and its genesis, and covers quite a bit of ground.
Super Fun Zac looks at the casting of Zachary Levi as the superhero. It's kind of a combination gag reel and promo, but it's fun. There are also a half hour or so worth of deleted and alternate scenes of varying interest and completion, and there's a separate gag reel, too, as well as "Who is Shazam?", a short in which many muckety-mucks muse the magic of Shazam! from comic books to the TV show and the film.
"Carnival Scene Study" is exactly how it sounds: a breakdown of the climactic sequence that includes looks at the special effects, stunt work, etc. And "Shazamily Values," focuses on the younger actors and their experiences.
If that isn't enough, you also get the "motion comic" "Superhero Hooky" though I thought it was more of a "meh" than a "masterpiece" of animation. Still, far be it for me to complain about there being too much extra stuff!
In a world dominated by the Marvel Comic Universe, DC's outings seem to be playing catchup, with varying success – but Shazam! is one of Warner Brothers' better efforts and, if nothing else, is a fun time in the home theatre. I wish they'd left out the (admittedly fairly mild) profanity but at least it's no worse than what today's kids undoubtedly say among themselves anyway. And it isn't enough to spoil the fun.
Copyright 2019 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.