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Movie Review: There’s a Lot to Like Beneath the Superhero Clichés in “Shazam!”

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Shazam! (2019)

B

Shazam! is the film for superhero skeptics who dislike both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and previous entries in the DC Extended Universe.

The Good
  • Funny, vibrant, with lots of heart
  • Excellent visual effects
The Bad
  • One-dimensional villain
  • Unimpressive performances, aside from Levi and Strong
  • Long third act that drags on

A massive disclaimer for this review: I’m no fan of superhero media. In general, I just don’t like the concept of superheroes except when they’re executed in a down-to-earth manner (a la Christopher Nolan’s Batman films). I’ve seen the MCU films starting with Civil War and beyond, but I haven’t seen any DCEU films. This puts me in a strange position reviewing Shazam!, a DC property superhero film.

In Shazam!, 14-year-old Billy Batson can turn into an older superhero version of himself, and revert back to normal kid form, simply by shouting “SHAZAM!” The film is a bit of a self-discovery journey, not just as he explores the extent of his own powers after acquisition, but also as he attempts to understand his own identity as he bounces from foster home to foster home while seeking out his birth mother when he can.

But is it a good film? Should you watch it? Will you enjoy it?

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The Good

The best thing I can say about Shazam! is that I stayed awake through the entire thing. I watched it opening night after a long day of work, plus a round of free-roam virtual reality, plus a heavy carb-loaded dinner just before the film, plus jet lag from having traveled from Philadelphia, US to Melbourne, Australia the day before. All that to say, I was dead tired. And while I was tempted to fall asleep at a few points, Shazam! was interesting enough and entertaining enough to keep my eyes open.

As I write this the day after viewing, what sticks with me are the visual effects. While there isn’t as much flash and bang as you might get in a Michael Bay movie, Shazam! has its moments—and they’re spectacularly beautiful. The magical and superhero effects are subdued but extremely well done, especially when the demonic incarnations pour out of the main villain in columns of wispy smoke.

I also love the film’s tone. From what I know of the DCEU, prior films in the media franchise are heavily stylized with dark designs and dramatic aesthetics. On the other hand, MCU films take the more grounded-in-reality approach to superheroes—or at least as “grounded” as they can be while involving aliens, wizards, and gods. Shazam! stands on its own: goofy, fun, vibrant, and just plain fun without the heavy, serious overtones.

Shazam! is bold, funny, and packs a lot of heart. The drama is mainly internal as Billy Batson struggles to know who he is and how he fits into the unstable world around him, but it all plays out as a package wrapped in humor and optimism. It’s a feel-good story that mixes wish fulfillment with loving acceptance.

The Bad

The most disappointing aspect of the film is its villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. The story begins with a flashback that explains how he came to be the man he is today and what drives him to do what he does, but even with these histories and motivations laid out for us, he ends up as a one-dimensional villain—the kind of bland “world domination” villain that you’d expect to stand opposite a comic book superhero.

And it’s a huge shame, because I love Mark Strong as an actor. He does good work with the material he’s given; it’s just unfortunate that the material is lacking. It’s also a shame because it appears, from the post-credit scenes, that Dr. Thaddeus Sivana will play an ongoing role in the DCEU—either as a recurring villain in Shazam! sequels, or elsewhere in the franchise universe. But unless he’s given more depth, he’s going to wear out his welcome extremely fast.

Aside from the performances put in by Zachary Levi (as adult Billy Batson) and Mark Strong (as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana), the acting in Shazam! left me wanting. The thing is, given that most of the film deals with adolescents or younger, you can’t really expect most of them to given Oscar-worthy performances. And it’s not like the young actors were terrible. But next to the shining acts of Levi and Strong, the difference was that much more apparent.

And remember how I said the film kept me awake all the way through? It did, but the third act dragged on for a while, and I nearly succumbed to sleep because of it. There’s a third-act twist that could have come 15 minutes earlier if the first half of the film was more tightly edited, and that would have lifted the entire film up by quite a bit—perhaps an entire letter grade, as far as our scoring is concerned.

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The Rest

The MCU franchise started off weak and progressively became stronger as it found its footing and capitalized on what made its films work. In a similar vein, Shazam! feels like it could be a huge turning point for DCEU, breaking away from Charles Roven and the Snyders and delivering an experience that’s substantially different and better than previous franchise entries.

All in all, Shazam! is a solid film that beat my admittedly low expectations going into the cinema. And if future films share more in common with Shazam! than Suicide Squad, I can say that I’ll be looking forward to them.

Watch Shazam! on Amazon Prime Video

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Tossaway
Tossaway

Shazam is the DCEU Ant Man. Lower key and lesser known hero, so a little experimentation from the standard formula is great if it works and not a big loss if it doesn’t. This one remembers that Billy Batson is a kid, much as the newer Spiderman movies do.

Joel

I agree, great comparison. I’ll definitely be more interested in DCEU films if they experiment like they did with Shazam!

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