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Saturday, March 23, 2019




Family Matters

"I think he's ungrateful," Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) says at family dinner when he's asked his opinion on Philadelphia's brand new, nameless superhero in red. The foster parents and the rest of the orphaned kids who live in their group home don't realize it, but Freddy is really talking about the new kid across the table from him, Billy Batson (Asher Angel). As the old-timey origin of Captain Marvel (no, not her) goes, Billy was brought by magic subway car to the Rock of Eternity, the source of all magic. The ancient Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), the last of the Council of Wizards, needed a champion to stop the Seven Deadly Sins, which were unleashed by the nefarious Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong). For 45  years, the Wizard tested dozens of people, looking for a pure soul who was worthy of inheriting the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury -- desperate, he settled for Billy Batson, a runaway who jacks police cars and steals their cheesesteaks. "SAY MY NAME!", the Wizard demands. Billy replies, reasonably, that he never told him his name. But when Billy does say "SHAZAM!", magic lightning transforms him into the World's Mightest Mortal (no one calls him that, but Freddy does call him a whole lot of much more terrible superhero codenames).

David F. Sandberg's Shazam! takes one of the oldest superheroes (and in the 1940s, the most popular) and brings him into 2019 with real wit, color, and... the magic ingredient, charm. In his perfect, muscular superhero form, Shazam (Zachary Levi) is still just a 14-year-old kid who wants what any kid wants: to not be responsible for anything. Showing off his awesome powers on demand, Shazam essentially turns into a street performer, Philly's local superhero always available for selfies (no Comic Con badge required). In Freddy, a fanboy who knows everything about Superman, Batman, and Aquaman, he has the ideal accomplice to train him, post videos on YouTube, and be his partner in crime - literally. Shazam and Freddy take advantage of his powers to short circuit devices with his lightning to steal from ATMs and buy themselves whatever they want. Soon, they want to upgrade to real estate and they start shopping for a lair... possibly a castle on a cliff overlooking the ocean... It all goes great until Billy bails on Freddy and doesn't stand up for him against the local bullies, which drives a wedge between them and raises the question of what Billy should be using Shazam's powers for.

I've only described, like, a third of this movie. There's a lot going on, but Sandberg juggles the superhero action and PG-13 coming of age comedy deftly, always keeping the momentum buzzing and the movie engaging. There's the evil Dr. Sivana, who is possessed by the Seven Deadly Sins and has powers similar to Shazam - but he wants what the kid has anyway. There's Billy's foster family in his rather inviting group home (not quite the shithole Sivana calls it): loving foster parents Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans), loquacious Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman), sullen Pedro Pena (Jovan Armand), genius hacker Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), and Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton), the caring, oldest, college-bound kid. All of them do their best to welcome Billy and they eventually catch on that he might somehow be that superhero guy on TV. Billy himself is searching for his real mother, who abandoned him at a carnival when he was four. And there's also the rest of the DCEU woven in the background, with constant shoutouts to Batman, Superman, and Aquaman. Shazam! is a masterclass in existing in a shared universe while constantly poking fun at that shared universe.

As Shazam, Levi is in full command of his offbeat charisma; he's fittingly heroic when it counts but otherwise, Levi deftly plays a 14-year-old who happens to be very tall, strong, fast, can fly, yet is constantly in over his head. Thankfully, Angel is also excellent as Billy, a kid who tries to be hard because life gave him a tough hand, but his cheerful innocence still shines through. Shazam! is actually an intriguing treatise on the nature of family; Sivana was scorned by his father (John Glover - Smallville's Lionel Luthor himself) and older brother since he was a child and takes brutal revenge on them. Meanwhile, Billy disregards the found family who wants him as he seeks the family who didn't, but he eventually learns that his greatest power is creating a super family. 

This leads to the movie's crowning touch, which is really no surprise to longtime fans of Captain Marvel (no, not her), but is no less satisfying to witness: The Marvel Family is in the movie. (I suppose they're now the Shazam Family for legal reasons, but it just doesn't have the same zing, you know?) When faced with the threat of Sivana and the Seven Deadly Sins, Billy realizes that even he's not enough on his own and he unlocks Shazam's ultimate ability in the movie's single best gag: when he calls for "all hands on deck", asks his foster family to lay hands on Shazam's magic staff, and asks them to "say my name", they all (naturally) yell, "BILLY!" But when they all actually say "SHAZAM!", Mary, Darla, Eugene, Pedro, and Freddy also become superheroes with the same powers as Billy, played by Adam Brody, D.J. Cortona, Meagan Goode, Michelle Borth, and Ross Butler. And somehow, the movie gets even hokier, with cornball, gee-willickers wisecracks and big, red (and blue and green) cheese from the Family as they fight the Sins and figure out their superpowers at the same time to save the world.

Shazam! satisfyingly succeeds by earnestly continuing the course-corrected, feel-good, fun style of the DCEU that began with Wonder Woman and was taken to new heights of profitability by Aquaman. In this inviting, new and improved DCEU, the lovable goofball Shazam fits right in, conjuring just the right amount of warmth, sizzle, some Harry Potter WB synergy, a little bit of Wonder, a little bit of Aqua, a little bit of Super, and a little bit of Bat. With Shazam!, Sandberg has just the right magic touch and reminds us that a strong man isn't strongest alone, he's strongest when he's with his Family.