Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman takes a look at Warner Bros’s Shazam!, out in cinemas from this Friday…
Director: David F. Sandberg
Stars: Zachary Levi, Michelle Borth, Djimon Hounsou, Mark Strong
The character of Captain Marvel, I mean Shazam, has had a particularly tortuous history in the comic industry. Originally published by Fawcett Comics (in many different titles), Captain Marvel and his gang were wholesomeness personified, yet outsold Superman comfortably throughout the 1940s until DC issued a lawsuit claiming that the property was plagiaristic, which promptly put the already declining Fawcett out of business. In the early ‘70s DC bizarrely brought the character back, even though they already had the evergreen Superman. Of course, Captain Marvel was revived and refitted for a younger demographic than the Man of Steel, and that is essentially this movie, with the now retitled hero (courtesy of a copyright injunction issued by Marvel Comics – oh, the irony) very much a juvenile Supes.
The classic C.C. Beck Captain Marvel, I mean Shazam strips were always lightweight fun, and this movie does manage to capture some of their essence. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is an orphaned itinerant who is forced by social services to join a foster family. Befriended by foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) who is paraplegic, Batson quickly turns saviour at the local high school where the outsider Freeman is regularly bullied despite his issues. On the run from the thugs, he is summoned into another realm by the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who transforms him into a dayglo retro-lummox with a duck-tail haircut, massive abs and immense powers. He’s every inch the 1940s version, except more ludicrous. And from there, the hi-jinks ensue.
There’s enough humour to sustain half of the movie, with the hero Shazam (Zachary Levi) behaving like a gauche, arrested Pollyanna being the entire point. His initial forays into heroism, obviously echoing Tom Hanks’s turn in Big, are thoroughly entertaining, but never stray into satire or anything deeper than mindless, knockabout farce. At best one could say it’s a necessary corrective to all the benighted, doom-laden farragoes churned out by DC until now, and to its eternal credit it eschews any kind of pretense whatsoever – but that is essentially everything bar the wish fulfillment, which is the only provider of any sort of catharsis (should one need such a thing in a comedy). Removing all the soapy sub-plots from the film (his search for his birth parents, dealing with the bullies, and his relationship with his foster family) leaves the viewer with an extended sketch about the pitfalls of teen-agers acquiring vast power. Although to be fair that is better than expected.
As far as arch-nemeses go, reliable panto villain Mark Strong is always decent value, very much looking the part of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana regardless of having virtually no connection with the bespectacled mad scientist from the comics. Having discovered (the wizard) Shazam’s lair at the beginning of the film, the dastardly so and so somehow contrives to find it again much later through the testimonies of others, who like him were brought there only to fail Shazam’s test for a champion. Once back in the lair he frees the seven deadly sins (nasty bunch of grotesques!) from their statue form and gains control of them, wreaks vengeance on the family that rejected him, and so forth. He is then obliged to attack Shazam to gain his powers, and the usual drawn out hyper-destructive slugfests begin, with Batson / Shazam and his conscience Freddy eventually finding a way to defeat the baddies, in a fairground, of course.
It’s never less than charming, undemanding fluff, and none of the characters (with one or two minor exceptions) made me wince a great deal, not to mention that (despite their being far too long) the action set pieces are very well choreographed. It’s good to see Strong back in the saddle after an extended absence, and the inversion between Batson and Shazam (Batson is far more mature and circumspect than his boneheaded hero alter ego) is wittily done. There’s enough in there to charm even the most curmudgeonly viewer (like me) and regardless of the whole thing being Archie on steroids, or Deadpool lite, it’s a refreshing change of pace. Beyond that, it plays very safe indeed.
Shazam! comes out in cinemas this Friday 5 April in the UK and the US
Here’s the trailer for the film too