For the past few years, DC and Marvel have been competing like they once did in the early days of comic books. Instead of pulp-paper pages, though, it’s now on the silver screen. DC, in collaboration with Warner Brothers, has had success with their characters, especially the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. Beginning in the 1970s, they also had the first hit superhero movies, first with Christopher Reeve’s Superman and then Michael Keaton’s Batman. In both cases, the quality took a sharp dive after the first sequel, and Keaton was smart enough to jump ship before the third movie. But in the ten years since Ironman premiered, Marvel has held the field. DC managed to put out 5 movies during that time, while Marvel quadrupled that number (not even counting the Spiderman or X-Men movies.) Marvel also cleaned up at the box office, with 7 films breaking the billion-dollar worldwide box office mark, compared to one for Warner Brothers/DC: last year’s Aquaman. The problem was the films helmed by Zack Snyder were deathly serious and featured cookie-cutter final battles that exchanged noise and over-the-top action for coherence and story. The fun quotient was essentially nil. Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) and James Wan (Aquaman) gave their films a different feel, though the climactic battle scenes returned to Snyder’s style, just transferred to WWI Europe or submerged in the sea. None of the DC films came close to the comedic interplay featured in the Marvel Universe movies like Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy, or the emotional resonance of Black Panther or Avengers: Infinity War.
Until now. Shazam! manages to both tickle your funny bone while still pulling at your heartstrings.
Like the Bond films, the super-hero genre needs a strong villain to support the hero’s story. Director David F. Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden spend an extensive time at the movie’s beginning establishing Dr. Thaddeus Sivana as a worthy villain. He’s the scion of a wealthy family who couldn’t do anything right in his father’s eyes. As a young teen Sivana’s transported from the back seat of his family car to a mysterious cave where a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) offers him great power if he’s deemed worthy. Sivana fails the test, instead choosing the power of the 7 Deadly Sins. The wizard throws him back into the car. Years later, the adult Sivana (the eminently reliable bad guy, Mark Strong) has been funding research into what appears to be a delusion shared by dozens of people – being transported to the wizard’s lair only to be found unworthy. It finally gives him the key to return to the lair where he finally takes the power of the deadly sins into himself.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been in the Pennsylvania Child Care system ever since he was separated from his mother as a very young child. Now a teenager, he’s never given up finding his birth mother, which has kept him from bonding with any of the many foster families he’s had. In Philadelphia, he’s assigned to the care of Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans) who’d both been in the system themselves and now run a group home. They introduce him to the rest of their ersatz family, who range from college-bound Mary (Grace Fulton) to pre-teen Darla (Faithe Herman), though Billy gets closest to Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a super-hero fanatic with a bad leg. When bullies at school attack Freddy, Billy comes to his aid. Chased by the bullies, he gets away on the subway, only to be transported to the wizard’s lair himself. There he’s found worthy, and by uttering the wizard’s name – Shazam – he’s transformed into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) with muscles on his muscles, lightning that shoots out of his fingers, super speed and bullet-proof skin, but who’s still a kid inside.
Levi’s an excellent choice for the main role, since he demonstrated his ability to balance genres in the comedy/spy series “Chuck.” He bulked up with about 20+ pounds of muscle to embody Shazam, but he also gives the best boy-in-a-man’s-body performance since Tom Hanks in Big. Angel’s Billy manages to be a regular kid, though one damaged by his history, and Grazer’s Freddy fills both the sidekick role as well as being a conscious for Shazam when he becomes too indulgent of his power.
Sandberg and Gayden were unusual choices as director and screenwriter. After creating a number of short films, Sandberg did two horror features prior to Shazam!: Lights Out (based on one of his shorts) and the entry in the possessed doll series, Annabelle: Creation. Gayden only had one screenplay produced before this, the sci-fi light story Earth to Echo, and was an assistant to the screenwriter of one of my least-favorite movies, Spider-Man 3. But as has happened before in the superhero genre, unknowns have scored huge successes when given the chance. The Russo brothers (Anthony & Joe) had worked in television and directed a couple of forgettable comedy flicks before they were given the directing job for arguably the best Marvel movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They followed it up with Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and the upcoming Avengers: End Game, which will make them the only directors to have three billion-dollar movies to their credit.
You’ll laugh your face sore by the end of Shazam! It also manages a thrilling final battle that still has hilarious moments, including a twist on the bad guy explanation scene that’s just perfect.
As I related in my review of Captain Marvel, Shazam! shares an interconnected history with the Marvel character, and it’s a bit strange that both finally make it to the big screen within a month of each other. However, the two movies are completely different in tone. It’s unlikely Shazam! will beat Captain Marvel’s box office total, which has already zoomed past the billion mark worldwide. But Shazam! is a delight and worthy of its own success.