Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a 14-year-old boy in the foster care system of Philadelphia. When he was four, he got separated from his mother at a Christmas carnival. When his mother couldn’t be found, he was put in foster care. Billy’s dream is to be reunited with his real family, not the fake family in foster homes. Billy has run away from nearly two dozen of them in the search for his mother. Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) was raised by a verbally abusive father (John Glover) and an equally vile older brother. In 1974, as a child, Sivana was magically transported by a wizard to be offered great power, but he proved to have an impure heart when he was tempted by the Seven Deadly Sins and was returned to his family. He dedicated his adult life to returning to the wizard and gaining the power of evil. When Sivana figures out how to return to the wizard, he finds him weak and unable to stop him. Sivana takes the Eye of Sin and is made enormously powerful by the Seven Deadly Sins. Billy is sent to live with a new family that has four foster children. One of them, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), walks with the aid of a cane. Freddy is being picked on and beaten up by a couple of older, bigger bullies when Billy intervenes. The bullies chase Billy, but he escapes via a subway train. On the ride, everyone in the car disappears and odd symbols appear on the electronic sign. When the train stops, Billy is greeted by the same wizard who tells Billy he must be the new champion to fight against the evil Sivana is about to unleash on the world. To gain the wizard’s power, Billy must hold his staff and say the wizard’s name: Shazam!
An early complaint about DC’s superhero films was they were too dark and depressing, along with being not very good. None of those complaints can be made against “Shazam” as director David F. Sandberg and writer Henry Gayden have produced a film that shines with humor and positivity without being saccharine and preachy. They also provide character development and growth for both the hero and the villain. As an origin story of a second-tier character, this compares favorably to Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Ant-Man.” Maybe DC has finally got their act together.
Zachary Levi is terrific as Shazam. I know his original name was Captain Marvel, but that requires a deep dive into various lawsuits and legal rulings I don’t want to get into. DC settled on naming the character Shazam during one of their recent reboots. Anyway, Levi is great. He embodies the spirit of a damaged youth suddenly given enormous power, and he behaves the way you would expect. He acts like a jerk. Using his powers to impress people and make money, Billy lives out his fantasies until he is faced with the threat posed by Dr. Sivana. He then runs away and doesn’t want to face the responsibilities of being a superhero, as you would expect an immature child to do.
Levi is a great deal of fun to watch as Shazam. He’s a playful dope and a weak-willed coward. He turns the modified Billy into an amplified version of the pre-super powered character, and he does it believably. It’s a performance that, in any other non-superhero movie, might be considered for awards season. Since he’s wearing a cape and a skin tight body suit (with fake muscles underneath and a glowing lightning bolt on his chest), Levi will have to settle for at least a couple of sequels and an appearance in a team-up movie should DC decide to try making another Justice League film.
As Billy’s new foster brother, Jack Dylan Grazer is fantastic as Freddy. The usually optimistic young man with a bum leg practically steals the movie from Angel and Levi. Grazer is a dynamo with an infectious laugh and love of life despite his problems. Freddy is Billy’s guide to the world of superheroes and he’s an enthusiastic coach and cheerleader. Grazer also is effective when the story calls on Freddy to tell Billy the truth about his obnoxious behavior while he’s also being honest about the hurt he feels regarding his lot in life. Grazer being so good in the film shouldn’t be a surprise as he was, for me, the stand-out character in 2017’s “It” as the hypochondriac Eddie. If he can avoid the pitfalls of being a talented child actor, Grazer will have a very long and productive career.
If there’s an issue with the film, it’s the hero’s learning curve for using his powers. There are abilities Shazam has he only figures out late in the movie, such as flight. That only shows up due to an attack from the villain. There are other powers he discovers early on, like shooting lightning from his fingers, that he doesn’t use when it would appear to prove useful. The inconsistencies of his using his abilities and not using them doesn’t make much sense.
That’s a minor quibble when you compare it to how good the movie is, not only from a story point of view, but also visually. The CGI used to create flight and the battles during it looks amazing. While there are shots similar to those in “Man of Steel” during the flying fights, the quality of the work in “Shazam” is vastly better. Faces look more lifelike. Movement is more natural. Considering “Man of Steel” had a budget more than double “Shazam,” it’s improved visual quality implies either major software advances or a more qualified effects team.
“Shazam” is rated PG-13 for language, intense sequences of action and suggestive material. There are several fights in the film. Some are between superpowered characters and others are just regular people. There’s only a little blood, but a character has an eye replaced by a glowing orb in a violent way. The suggestive material is a couple of visits to a “gentlemen’s club” we never see the inside of, and comments made about it. Foul language is scattered is consists mostly of variations on “s**t.”
If you want to put some thought into it, “Shazam” is a story of damaged characters and how they react to their damage. Some seek out world domination while others are looking for a family to belong to. Sex and relationship advice columnist and podcaster Dan Savage tells people they have a biological family and a logical family, and sometimes the logical one loves you more. While this movie is more about super heroics, it also says something about finding peace with your weaknesses, shortcomings and situation. We may not be able to fly and shoot lighting from our fingers, but we can find peace and help others to do the same or just not add to the pain of others. That can be heroic in a quieter way.
“Shazam” gets five stars.
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