Shazam is a rare breed of comic book movie, at least in the post-Batman Begins era that we’re in right now. An era where movies about men in tights are not only taken seriously but also go on to receive Best Picture Oscar nominations. An age where the Man of Steel wears cerulean blue and his underpants on the inside. A time where a superhero movie can end with the supervillain as the victor.
But even next to the more light-hearted comic book affairs like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Ant-Man, Shazam feels fresh. It’s not only light, bright and full of hope but also surprisingly buoyant, much like a helium balloon you’ll find in a Mary Poppins movie. Watching it brought back memories of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman. What you think of this movie will depend on how you respond to those last two sentences.
I prefer my superhero movies SERIOUS, but there is a certain charm to Shazam that is simply undeniable. That’s because this is a movie that knows exactly what it is — a big fat block of sweet Mozzarella cheese — and wears its cheesiness proudly on its sleeve like a Danish Turophile. A lot of it has to do with director David F. Sandberg, who found a way to infuse his brand of tongue-in-cheek comedy even in his first two pure-horror outings, Light’s Out and Annabelle Creation. There, he needed to tone it down a little, but with a character like Shazam, Sandberg doesn’t have to pull back his punches. He doesn’t.
Young Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a good kid but a bit of a troublemaker. He spent a majority of his childhood bouncing from one foster home to another, so when a new set of foster parents (Cooper Andrews & Marta Milans) take him in, he’s already got one foot out the door. One day, as he’s running away from a couple of thugs after protecting his foster brother (Freddy, played by Jack Dylan Grazer, a star in the making), he gets summoned by a mysterious wizard by the name of Shazam who gives him the power to transform into a superhero that has the combined power of all the Greek gods.
While most directors alter comic book characters to fit with the times, Sandberg isn’t interested in “modernizing” the Shazam’s aesthetic. Staying true to the 1939 comic, Billy Batson’s alter ego looks like a hybrid of a 70s disco dancer and a flamboyant pimp. There are also ridiculously comical “power testing” montages, in which adult-superhero-Billy (played to charismatic perfection by Zachary Levi — think Dwayne Johnson in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but better) tries to fly over and over again, while Freddy trolls him.
All of the over-the-top-ness works because we’re dealing with a couple of kids here. So yes, of course, Billy would use his newfound powers as a fake ID and buy booze from a convenience store. Don’t be surprised to find him blasting lightning bolts into the sky to the beat of Eye of the Tiger, either. But the film isn’t all silly slapstick — which could’ve gotten tiresome real fast. It’s also witty. This isn’t a movie for five-year-olds (though, five-year-olds can have a great time watching it too).
The writing by Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) is smart. There are jokes — dialogue oriented jokes — that will fly over kids’ head but have adults on our knees, cracking up for days. Guys, this is an unbelievably hilarious movie. What’s great is that unlike say Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, the humour doesn’t undercut the sincerity of the story. Gayden and Sandberg successfully strike a near perfect balance between fourth-wall-breaking comedy and earnestness.
Strip away the slapstick stuff, the witty lines and the meta jokes and you’re left with a heartwarming tale about love and family. Shazam is about a kid who’s desperate for his mother’s love. Billy’s fixation on his past has turned him into a cold and pessimistic individual, one who thinks it’s just him against the world and that if you’re not selfish, you’ll perish. Billy needs to realise, just like Rey did in The Force Awakens, that the belonging he seeks is not behind him, but ahead.
It’s also a tale of two brothers. Despite his disability, Billy’s foster brother Freddy is optimistic. He’s also a comic book geek through and through. (It’s funny how the world works, huh? That the pessimistic brother is the one deemed worthy of superpowers.) More importantly, he’s Billy’s rock! Shazam reiterates an idea that’s commonly brought up in fantasy stories but one that never gets old: there is nothing in this world that’s more powerful than love. That’s where the emotional weight of the narrative lies.
The central theme extends through to the villain’s side as well and I love it when a film does this. On the one end, you have Billy, who despite being an orphan, is constantly showered with love even when he rejects it. On the other, you have Dr Thaddeus Sivana whose older brother and father, the two people most men look up to the most, reject him and berate him ever since he was a little kid. They’re two sides of the same coin — the one who receives love becomes a hero, while the one who’s fed hate is seduced by evil.
This is a fantastic idea for a villain. The problem is, after the gripping opening scene, Thaddeus (Mark Strong) devolves into a one-dimensional cookie-cutter baddie with as much of a character arc as a piece of twig. He’s given powers by the Seven Deadly Sins come to life in the form of CGI gargoyles. But these personality-less “Deadly Sins” are nothing beyond their biblical name. They could be called the “Seven Gargoyles of Doom” or “Seven Horribly Rendered Rock Monsters” and nothing would change.
It also sucks that the deeper themes, while boiled are never allowed to really stew. The humour never undermines the drama, but it’s obvious that Sandberg is more interested in having fun than telling a deeply evocative story. I do fully admit that my annoyance with this, is more my problem than the movie’s problem — like I said, I like my superhero movies SERIOUS. But there’s no denying that Shazam is a damn blast! It’s a kick back and relax popcorn movie that’s disposable while also maintaining a level of smarts and having loads of heart. Shazam is 1978’s Superman of the smartphone generation.
Shazam! opens in Malaysian cinemas on 3 April 2019.