In this lively addition to DC’s otherwise serious catalogue of superheroes we find out what happens when a fourteen year old boy becomes an adult man of many powers simply by shouting “Shazam!” It’s not actually his name as it goes; in fact the film is amusingly peppered with potential namesbut for obvious legal reasons he can’t really be called Captain Marvel as he was named in the original comics. The premise is reminscent of those Eighties bodyswap movies- and there’s a little homage to Big included – only with super powers. And it’s great fun!
Spoilers from hereon..
Billy Batson is a foster kid who has run away from previous placings largely because he is searching for his mother from whom he became separated at a fairground. So he’s adept at trickery and deceipt as we see during our introduction to him locking a couple of cops in a shop while he hops into their car to search the local database for his mother’s name. Soon he ends up in the latest temporary abode only this time it coincides with an encounter with ancient wizard Shazam who is desperate to pass over his powers to someone who is “pure at heart.”
Like the best superhero stories there’s a parallel between the main character and his nemesis; in this case Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) whose even younger encounter with Shazam resulted in rejection for not being pure. As an adult he has scoured similar accounts to find a way back to take the powers for himself which he does by absorbing the Seven Sins represented by stone monsters. Now he wants to get Shazam’s power after he’s taken revenge on his father and brother in a scene that seems rather strong for a 12A film. It is true that these similarities of experience are never addressed directly by Sivana in particular whose early promise as an interestingly shaped villain fades. I was waiting for him to express his sheer jealousy at Billy over the powers but it doesn’t happen. He also does that thing where he vanishes from the narrative for a while till needed again and I do feel more could have been done with his character. The longer the film runs the more he becomes a generic villain though Mark Strong is very good every time he turns up and seems genuinely dangerous.
Rather than being an impression of the younger, more intense Billy (a well focussed Asher Angel), Zachary Levi’s adult version expresses unbridled fun with his persona as if the inner enthusiasm of the child has been released in one go. So the adult version is far goofier and accident prone than the cooler, bottled up teenager. Teamed with superhero savvy Freddie, we are given a well played youthful view of the genre whichever version of Billy we’re with. In one of the movie’s stand out sequences, Freddie puts the adult Billy through a series of superhero tests to discover what powers he has. Its not mentioned in the narrative that the word Shazam is actually an acronym derived from those very attributes because that would be too dull! While Deadpool would be the closest neighbour to such an irreverent approach to the genre, Shazam! replaces that character’s adult cynicism with childish wish fulfilment. If Deadpool mocked the tropes and traditions, Shazam! celebrates it as the best thing ever! Any kid who reads comic books wants to be a superhero and it reminded me of my own playground adventures complete with Time Ring (they weren’t real though!). This all climaxes with Billy’s first public act where he saves passengers on a bus falling from a bridge. That his messing about with `lightning fingers` caused the accident in the first place underlines what the film is about.
You could say it is more of a film for younger viewers who will enjoy Billy’s transformation from someone who can’t find a home to someone who can potentially do anything. As a metaphor for all the mistakes such freedom can lead to it’s spot on. Adults however will still find much to absorb in a thoughtful film that generally doesn’t opt for the obvious and reminds us of a more unguarded time in life. The film can be surprisingly intelligent too personified by the conflicting emotions raised by the surprising resolution to Billy’s search for his mother that may only really be fully understood by adults. It is a far more believable outcome than that infamous much derided Batman vs Superman mother scene.With an emphasis on belonging and family, Shazam! deftly adds leaner notes than many others who’ve been down this route.
Visually we’re worlds away from the grim colour palette favoured for certain better known superheroes which the Shazam costume seems to ape. The effects are tremendous, especially earlier on when first young Thaddeus and later Billy are transported to the wizard’s lair. Visually the movie makes good use of bright colours once those powers are unlocked while shading earlier sequences- the opening car accident, young Billy’s encounter with the police- in darker hues. Considering the 12A rating given in the UK, there are some moments that push at that age restriction in particular the opening car accident and the scene where Sivana confronts his father and brother in their boardroom.
It is certainly the case that the film's final confrontation traces more familiar territory losing some of the sass to become a standard end of superhero film sequence though its not without wit especially a prize moment where Billy and Sivana face each other in mid air. Plus is has another surprise during the final confrontation which has sort of been staring us in the face from near the start but is so triumphant you overlook the convenience of the numbers. Apart from Billy and Freddie, the other foster kids are rather thinly sketched; just a couple more scenes with them might have remedied this if only to give that final surprise even more of a fizz.
Though its over two hours, Shazam! hurtles by speedily, packed with interesting ideas, great character and a real heart. If you’re feeling overburdened by an abundance of superhero movies or that the genre has nothing new to offer then Shazam! could convince you that there is still room for different approaches and that sometimes having fun with the genre delivers excellent results.
My name is....?
One of the film's funniest strands is Freddy's suggested names for Billy to use. Here's just some of them- Red Cyclone, Thundercrack, Mr Philadephia, Maximum Voltage and of course Captain Sparklefingers!