Marvel Studios has rightly been given credit for their Marvel Cinematic Universe, perhaps the first time in film history that the inter-connected world of superhero mythology comics has ever been brought to the big screen. A perhaps unavoidable consequence of this is that, with the exception of some singular movies like Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and the Guardians of the Galaxy, is that, well, watching Iron Man kind of feels like watching Captain America kind of feels like watching Hulk kind of feels like watching Spider-Man and I think you can see where I'm going with this. This is to say nothing disparaging as to the quality of the movies, since they normally rock. Still, it does feel like there's a certain commonality to the MCU, like you're going to a family gathering, and everyone there is pretty similar for the most part, except that your brother in law is a man who makes dressing like a giant cat look bad-ass, your cousin is a stoner mystic who's gotten into the new age trend of old age magick, and your nephew is a scruffy nerf-herder who brought his weird rock band friends over with their pet raccoon.
Comparatively, DC Comics and Warner Brothers Studios have stumbled when it comes to establishing their own extended universe. Dawn of Justice failed to give a clear reason as to why Batman was fighting Superman, Justice League's plot and villain were weak, and DOJ dropped the ball shoe-horning all of their characters into one film instead of giving each characters their own movies first which would have familiarized audiences with the characters thus making a later cross-over all the more meaningful. However, while the DC Cinematic Universe has failed thus far to establish any kind of shared narrative on the scale and with the quality of the MCU, they have, at least recently, been releasing at least decent to superb stand-alone films within an inter-connected mythos... that are all pretty different from one another. Wonder Woman was a poignant mythological drama and treatise on the importance of loving your fellow man and your fellow woman, even though your fellow woman and your fellow man are most likely as horrifically dysfunctional as the rest of humanity. Aquaman was a goofy fantasy flick that thankfully didn't take itself too seriously. The upcoming Joker movie (Which will not tie into the DC Extended Universe) looks like a hard-boiled crime thriller reminiscent of Taxi Driver. And Shazam is... well, by the time The Ramones' "I Don't Want To Grow Up" played during the end credits sequence of what looked like a funny cartoon drawn by high schoolers, it was clear to me that while Shazam is a touching family film about a boy becoming a man, it's also a tongue-in-cheek example of staying a mischievous kid at least to the extent that you don't become too much of a boring adult spending too much time at the business office doing whatever business your boss man tells you to do, or however else grown-ups waste their time when they could be playing outside.
Shazam follows Billy Batson, a teenager who was separated from his mother as a young boy and who keeps escaping foster homes in order to find his parent. Having been moved from home to home, Billy has become a loner, his "look out for number one" attitude being an attempt to prevent himself from being hurt by the world again. After being placed in a warm foster home that Billy regards with, at best, skepticism, a subway ride transports him not to the stop he wants but instead to the Rock of Eternity, a subterranean lair maintained by an ancient wizard named Shazam (The wizard is played by Djimon Hounsou, a fact that I enjoy typing, making this the second time in a single year that he's been in two super-hero blockbusters, the other being Captain Marvel. The irony of Shazam originally being named Captain Marvel and created by Fawcett Comics in the 40's, then being canceled by Fawcett due to being sued by DC Comics for plagiarizing Superman, then being bought in the 60's by DC Comics, then being renamed Shazam so that DC could avoid litigation with... Marvel Comics' Captain Marvel isn't lost on me. Although now I am a little dizzy). The wizard tells Batson that he is the last of the Council of the Seven Wizards, that he has spent centuries searching for a new champion who is pure of heart, and that a power-hungry mortal named Thaddeus Sivana has stolen the Eye of Sins, giving him the power to utilize the demonic Seven Deadly Sins in his intrepid campaign for power. Billy more or less accepts the wizard's power (Hounsou is good at screaming) and turns into a buff man complete with a high-end cosplay costume. Billy then proceeds to do what most teenagers would probably do with god-like super powers: ignore that whole "great power, great responsibility" blah blah blah blah thing and waste his powers making YouTube videos and demonstrating them in front of on-lookers for junk food money. It's not until Sivana attacks Shazam and demands that he give him his powers that Billy is finally smacked upside his head with the severity of the situation. Maturing now because of his plight, Billy gradually drops his childish "look out for number one" philosophy and sets out to stop Sivana from hurting anyone else, especially the ones who really matter to him: Billy's foster brothers and sisters.
The script is chaotic in an orderly way, with childishly hyper energy. If Shazam tried to go for a dark feel, it could have dragged down a rather straight-forward plot. Instead, by infusing it with a light-hearted but emotional tone, Shazam uses its plot-line to spring forth with buoyant energy. You could argue that jokes and comedy undercut some of the drama in some sequences, but considering that this is largely a comedy I would say that it's fitting. The cast is also impressive: Zachary Levi and Asher Angel play grown up and teenage Billy (respectively) so well that I never doubted for a moment that the kid stealing cheese-steak sandwiches from the police and the adult attacking the villain by throwing toys at him were one and the same. The film's editing and the actors' performances feel that smooth. I was especially impressed by Jack Dylan Grazer's performance as Freddy Freeman, Billy's loquacious foster-brother and superhero manager. Grazer uses a similar nervous energy that he employed playing Eddie Kaspbrak in the film adaptation of Stephen King's It, but here the effect is thankfully far more amusing (I loved It, but I didn't really want to see a kid's arm chomped off in Shazam) : Grazer provides many, if not most of the film's laughs, yet is serious enough to get Billy to take his head out of his butt. The rest of the cast, especially the kids, share a palpable chemistry, and never chafe against one another. As in the Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's New 52 Shazam comic, the use of a foster family feels refreshing, as does the racial diversity of the foster kids. (The foster mother totally deserved her "I'm a foster-mother: What's your super-power?" bumper sticker. You tell 'em, sister) A superhero move is often only as good as its villain, and at first I was a bit leery of Mark Strong as Sivana, as his Sivana seemed at first uncomfortable in his own skin. Thinking about it now though, this strikes me as an especially deliberate decision. Once Sivana gets his hands on the Eye of Sin and thus the Seven Deadly Sins, he acts far less stiff, as if his incredible new power has given him all the confidence he needs to act like a relentless Terminator. Strong's Sivana acts as a great foil to Billy, showing audiences the way that Billy could have turned out if he used his powers only for his own self-gratification, and makes for a genuinely hateful villain. And for a guy who looked as though he had a stick up his butt in the beginning, Sivana's fur collar leather coat and sunglasses help him ooze swagger even without ever cracking a grin.
I really only have two problems with Shazam, none severe enough to curtail its excellence. With regards to the first, I have to initially say that I find it ridiculous to criticize a superhero comic book movie because it didn't include your favorite villain or hero. Having said all of that, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson helped produce this movie and he's been cast to play Shazam arch-nemesis Black Adam, an overall brilliant casting decision. However, (GOODNESS GRACIOUS GREAT BALL OF SPOILERS), Johnson doesn't appear in this movie. Like, not at all. Is two minutes of seeing The Rock dressed like the ultimate bad-ass an impossible feat? Considering that his name was listed in the credits, it seems like a seconds long cameo isn't too much to ask for, especially considering that Adam plays a vital role in the comic the film is based on. (Johnson is set to play Adam in a stand alone spin off film. My hope is that this will help make up his absence in Shazam, if not explain why DC didn't try to at least dangle a worm before the fishes that are the audience). My second complaint is that there is one cameo appearance in the film towards the end which feels completely wasted because, well, you don't actually see his face or hear him say anything. The screenwriter has said that this was due to a certain actor's scheduling conflict and that the sequence they eventually ended up shooting allowed audiences to focus on Grazer's amazed expression at who decided to drop by... except that Grazer had already spent the last two hours proving to everyone that he's got plenty of acting chops. Which cameo by which famous DC character? Hint: He actually doesn't have that much in common with Friedrich Nietzsche's "Ubermensch", and that term is actually better translated as "Overman" (And now if you want to find out who was in the cameo before you see the movie, you'll have to study some dense and complicated philosophy. Enjoy. I would, but that's simply because I enjoy questioning as many pre-conceived societal notions as possible, much to the enraging of others). I will say that Shazam's references to other DC flicks felt smooth and not clunky like an awkward product placement, even conducive to the plot of a clueless child trying to figure out how in the name of holey moley does this superhero stuff work ("What would Superman do?", and all that, or "WWSD?", if you prefer). This hopefully raises the possibility that DC and WB will eventually have a cinematic cross-over of Marvel proportions, not some rush-job done with insufficient character development like Justice League. But even if this does not ever occur, viewers at least have, judging from DC's recent efforts, a good likelihood that they'll continue to receive strong stand-alone films.
The future of the DC Cinematic Universe feels bright, despite a rocky start. The house that Superman built did stumble with Zack Snyder's ambitious but poorly plotted entries, but instead of crashing DC has somersaulted and continues to race ahead. And with films like Todd Philip's Joker, Matt Reeve's Batman, James Gunn's Suicide Squad, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley's Flash, plus sequels for Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and, yes, Shazam, the future of the DCCU seems brighter than ever.
In the 1940's, DC Comics (Then named National Comics) sued Fawcett Comics for copyright infringement, that is for then Captain Marvel/now Shazam being a rip off of Superman, resulting in Fawcett paying damages and canceling all Marvel related material. How ironic then that Shazam has become a key player of the recovery of the DCCU. I do not find this irony to be cruel: I find it to be optimistic and hopeful. DC and Snyder's original mistake was in thinking that "dark" automatically means "better": dark can be fine, but so can light, and at the end of the day it's the quality of the film that matters most, the tone of the movie merely being a part of it, not the ultimate whole. It has been said before that so many stories, comics, movies, etc, claim to be "dark", in the same way that a child dresses like an adult in order to be mature, only to end up looking immature. Shazam reverses this polarity: in turning to childhood, it breathes new life into and helps mature the DC Cinematic Universe as a whole.
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