It’s inevitable that we get into these Marvel vs. DC debates (clearly Marvel is winning). Marvel’s track record is impressive, especially in taking odd characters like Thor, Dr. Strange, Captain Marvel, and Guardians of the Galaxy and create a compelling story. Now, DC has responded with its own odd character, Shazam! I will admit that I have a few issues of Shazam! from the 60s in my collection and I watched the early 70s TV show (with its companion show Isis). But really, I have no real idea of who/what Shazam is other than he’s Superman lite and can change his costume faster than the Man of Steel.
Now comes director David F. Sanberg’s Shazam! with Zachary Levi in the title role. I’ll start by saying I liked Shazam! If felt very familiar, fun, and safe. DC’s been pretty good about playing it safe with Aquaman and Wonder Woman.
Like any good origin story, Shazam! starts at the beginning. We begin at the mystical Rock of Eternity, where stands the last of the great wizards (Djimon Hounsou) from the Council of Seven. This wizard stands guard over seven statues serving as a prison for the spirits of the Seven Deadly Sins. The wizard is growing old and needs to transfer his great power to a new “Champion”—A person who is pure of heart.
In comes, pre-teen Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugliotto) who is tested and fails the purity test. Just as he’s banished back to his sad life, Sivana got a taste of the power and spends the rest of his life trying to return to the mystical location.
“The wizard is growing old and needs to transfer his great power to a new ‘Champion’—A person who is pure of heart.”
Jump to today, we happen upon a teenager, known as Billy Batson (Asher Angel). Billy is a renegade from the foster care system. A renegade because Billy keeps running away to find the identity of his real mother, who lost him at the county fair when Billy was young.
Billy is given one last chance to get his act together and assigned to the Vasquez family, who is already raising five other ethnically diverse kids. Here Billy bunks with new best friend Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), who walks with a crutch and whose fast mouth and quick wit makes him a target of ridicule and bullying. During a bullying session, Billy stands up for Freddy, catching the eye of the wizard and is bestowed the powers of Shazam!
Before this event, an older Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) finds his way back to the Rock of Eternity and releases the Seven Deadly Spirit by procuring the magical Eye of Envy. Sivana returns possessed by all seven spirits to wreak havoc on his family for not believing him as a child. But Sivana will not realize his full potential unless he destroys the champion Shazam!
The whole villains and spirits sub-plot takes a back seat to the real story, which is the story of the orphan Billy Batson. This story will feel familiar to any fan of superheroes. Let’s start with Billy and Freddy discovering what powers come from Shazam!, which is basically the first two episodes of The Great American Hero. Freddy records various tests of strength, speed, and flight and posts it on YouTube.
Billy then deals with the public attention of being the new superhero in town. Billy is having fun with the new powers, but while messing around he creates a big mess for the city of Philadelphia. Then there’s Freddy, who loves being the sidekick, but jealousy will eventually come between the two kids.
Then in homage to Fast and the Furious, the theme of Shazam! is “family” as Billy must accept the reality of his real family, who abandoned him, and embrace his new one. Then there’s taking down the big villain when Billy learns the familiar lesson of teamwork. It’s here the film’s big reveal was spoiled to me as I browsed the Funco Pops at the Hot Topic next to my local movie theater.
“…very familiar, fun, and safe. Zach Levi is perfect as Shazam! bringing his boyish enthusiasm to the very adult dangers…”
I’ll say it again. Shazam! is very familiar, fun, and safe. Zach Levi is perfect as Shazam! bringing his boyish enthusiasm to the very adult dangers he’ll face (a lot like Chuck). Jack Dylan Grazer is the ideal youthful counter to Levi. Grazer carries most of the dialog and the jokes, and there are a lot of dimensions to the Freddy character. The rest of the cast is excellent, specifically Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans as the Vasquez parents and the rest of the Vasquez clan, in creating a very special after-school vibe centering on the importance of Foster Care. Lastly, Mark Strong can do no wrong as the villain. It was almost too easy for him.
On the downside, the super-villain subplot really got in the way of the fun of the film and not developed well. It felt like it was there because it had to be. The Seven Deadly Spirits are just strong, ugly creatures, who like to kill people. Their only power was brute force. The final battle scene should have been a lot cooler than it was.
Shazam! just refused to take any risks and put all its eggs in the family and comedy basket. The performances by all the leads are the best part of the film. There are a lot of good gags to make you laugh out loud. While you’re having fun, know that the target audience does skew down to younger boys. Which is OK, young girls have Captain Marvel, and young boys now have Shazam! The girls come out the clear winner in this fight.
Shazam! (2019) Directed by David F. Sandberg. Written by Henry Gayden, Darren Lemke. Starring Zachary Levi, Djimon Hounsou, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Asher Angel, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews.
7.5 out of 10 stars