Cinema Dispatch: Shazam!

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Shazam! and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures

Directed by David F Sandberg

The slow course correction of the DCCU is perhaps not the most surprising thing in the world (you fail at something long enough, you might start to learn from those mistakes), but with Aquaman being a critical hit along with the… let’s say INTERESTING reactions to the Joker trailer, DCCU might just be on the upswing with this movie being the big test to see if this whole experiment can work now that we’re more or less in Phase Two.  Not only is this a fresh start in terms of being the first one more or less completely separate from the Snyder version of the universe, it’s also the first one to FEEL different from all the other ones; same way that Guardians of the Galaxy was a shot in the arm for Marvel after a somewhat serious phase for them.  Does this left turn into sunshine and happiness work turn out to fix many of the problems with the DCCU, or is Warner Bros beating a dead horse at this point?  Let’s find out!!

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is your typical teenager who loves to roam the streets of Philly looking for his mother who disappeared many years ago and is willing to any length to find her!  Okay, maybe that’s not the typical teenage experience, but it’s Billy’s whole deal and the state is getting real tired of him running away from foster homes to search for a person that clearly doesn’t want to be found.  Now they don’t want to just toss his butt into juvy just yet, so they’ve found ONE more family willing to take him in which includes Rosa and Victor as the parents (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews), a bunch of other kids (Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, and Pedro Peña), and his new roommate Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) who’s sassy, handicapable, and REALLY into superheroes.  That last one wouldn’t be TOO bad if it weren’t for the fact that he likes Henry Cavell’s superman, but I guess those are the only toys he can get on clearance, so what are you gonna do?  ANYWAY, while all this is going on (and for several decades prior) a wizard by the name of Shazam (Dijmon Hounsou) has been scouring the Earth for decades to find SOMEONE worthy of taking his power and being the new protector of the planet which depressingly is a much harder task than you’d imagine.  Even with that caveat, I can’t say I’m too fond of his methods as he just pulls kids out of nowhere to give them a test and then send them back to reality when they fail to disappoint; especially when of these candidates is a young Thaddeus Sivanna (Ethan Pugitotto) who will one day grow up to be the ADULT (and doctor) Thaddeus Sivanna (Mark Strong) and is still obsessed with finding that weird dude who told him he wasn’t good enough to be a super hero.  Thaddeus does get his… revenge I guess (perhaps more of a make-up test?) when he finds the secret to accessing this magic realm and steals the EVIL version of Shazam’s power for himself.  Well darn it!  Now that Shazam has plum run out of options, it’s time to just pick one before it’s too late, so Billy?  It’s your lucky day!  The wizard scoops him up, gives him his powers, and then kicks him back to reality as well only now he’s in the rockin’ bod of the superhero Shazam (Zachary Levi).  Can Billy learn how to use his powers and be the best superhero on Instagram, or was the wizard’s desperate Hail Mary ultimately a bad move?  Will he be ready by the time Dr. Sivanna realizes the wizard’s champion has been chosen and goes after him to take his power as well?  Be honest!  If you got super powers, you’d be an obnoxious attention seeker as well!

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“Free drinks are part of the superhero tax!  I don’t make up the rules!”

It certainly seems like ripping off Marvel movies has been a good move for DC because this remake of Spider-Man Homecoming is pretty darn good!  Alright, MAYBE it’s a bit dismissive to say that one movie about a super-powered teenager trying balance their home life with stopping a super villain who was burned by someone more powerful than them and tries to steal their power for themselves is exactly like ANOTHER movie about a super-powered teenager trying balance their home life with stopping a super villain who was burned by someone more powerful than them and tries to steal their power for themselves, but when the results end up this good it’s hardly something worth complaining about!  Besides, the devil is in the details which is where this movie excels as its yet another stake in the heart of the original DCCU’s grim and gritty tone in favor of something… well closer to Marvel but still a distinct FLAVOR from Marvel.  All the bologna Warner Bros was spouting about being “auteur driven” back when Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad were underwhelming might actually be coming true as there’s a distinct feel to all of this that makes it hard to put into one box or the other which makes it certainly a compelling experience if not entirely cohesive one; a problem that many of the DCCU movies have had but those ones weren’t even good to begin with, so definitely a step up here!

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He’s not only the hero DC deserves, but the one it DESPERATELY needs right now!

What this movie gets right that SO many of the DCCU movies get woefully wrong is tone.  It’s not portentous like Batman v Superman, it doesn’t have a chip on its shoulder like Suicide Squad, and it’s not even like the ho-hum to pretty great movies from them that are all BIG MONUMENTAL EPIC STORIES OF WORLD ENDING CATASTROPHE.  I mean it’s still KIND of that given the nature of the powers being thrown around, but frankly the film has more in common with a hijinks kid adventure film like The Goonies or Adventures in Babysitting than Wonder Woman or Aquaman.  Now I’m not about to say that ALL of the DCCU movies should be like this one because Shazam is a very specific case in the DC canon, but it’s probably the DCCU movie that’s needed right not to really get the ball rolling again as being a legitimate alternative to Marvel (and maybe even shrug a few of its more… obnoxious fans).  But this is getting a bit too much into the stuff AROUND the film instead of what’s on the screen.  What’s ACTUALLY good about this movie?  Well it’s smartly written, it’s cheesy but not to the point of being annoying, and while the pacing feels off as there’s no real conflict for the middle section of the movie (this movie should have taken a page out of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in building an effective middle act in an origin story like this), it’s compensated so much by its great sense of humor that it’s hard to get too mad at it for feeling a bit disjointed.  It’s also just a feel good movie which is so far removed from the bad films we’ve gotten from DC so far, and while that’s not to say “edgy” material doesn’t have its place, it’s not something that has been working out for them so far; especially when fun family comedy with goofy action was sitting right there the whole time!

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“SAVE ME BEN AFFLECK!  USE YOUR BOSTON MAGIC TO PROTECT ME!!”

We should probably get a bit into the weeds here rather than broad platitudes or industry stuff.  The movie is pretty cleanly split into three sections with an origin to start with, superhero shenanigans to fill up most of the run time, and a more traditional superhero punch up to close things out.  I think it does a good job of conveying a lot of information and doing so with JUST enough detail that you don’t start questioning the mechanics of it all.  It’s MAGIC, so just roll with it is about as complicated as it gets, but it works and the story even does a good job of setting up the urgency of the situation and how important it is for Billy to be the right kid for the job.  All of that is solid material, but where things get A BIT off the rails is when he’s more or less left to his own devices. The thing is that Billy is thrown into the deep end right off the bat with no coaching, no mentor, not even an instruction manual to figure out what he can do and even what he’s supposed to do with the powers which leaves the whole movie feeling rather directionless once Shazam is introduced.  The benefit of this though is the comedy which they mine a lot of from having Billy awkwardly figure out what his powers are and also what being a superhero is like with the whole world watching.  On top of the stuff him and Freddy are intentionally putting on YouTube, he becomes a local celebrity along the lines of Kick-Ass (a completely DIFFERENT super hero movie where Mark Strong is trying to murder a teenager) which is a solid vehicle for the aforementioned Super Hero skits.  As good as a lot of these are though, it also means that there’s no real sense of stakes or forward progression until Dr. Bad Guy decides to just pop his head in out of nowhere after being gone for like forty minutes.  We don’t even get a scene of him figuring out that THE CHAMPION is out there by him… I don’t know, passing by someone watching a YouTube video or seeing one of those new reports.  It’s just another scene of Shazam bumbling his way through heroics and then, oh look; Bad Guy at twelve o’clock, so the transition from goofy fun to serious action drama can be heard with an audible clunk.  Considering how good the third act is and where the story ends up going, I’d be tempted to say that the film should have sacrificed a bit of the comedy in order to make more of the movie like that, but on the other hand the third act may not have hit so hard and gone over so well if it WASN’T distinct from everything we’ve seen before, so I guess they had to choose their poison and they went with the one that had a lot of laughs but not much in terms of structure.

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“And with this you’re a super hero and I’m on vacation!”     “Wait, you’re not gonna teach me!?”     “I’ll leave a forwarding address with my secretary.”     “What secretary!?”     *POOF*

Now of course the one thing we still need to talk about is the villain, who… let’s just say I have a few thoughts on.  Dr. Sivana is sadly underdeveloped and lacks much of an arc despite having a fascinating premise and a phenomenal performance from Mark Strong.  I always liked the idea of someone being told they’re not “the good guy” or are “unworthy” who then does everything in their power to prove everyone wrong on their own terms.  Not in a “you were right the whole time and I see the light” sort of way, but in a “I’m going to be the most awesome person in the world just so you can eat crow for all eternity” sort of way; which invariable leads to the villainous character failing to do that; but even then I still kinda want to see them succeed.  Especially in THIS movie where the wizard keeps pulling kids out of thin air, telling them they could escape their crappy lives and become a hero to all and then go “on second thought, screw you” and booting them back to their boring dull lives or even worse in the case of Sivana.  It feels like the movie is always on the cusp of coming to some sort of realization about this, but it never really comes to fruition; nor does the film fully acknowledge that this great threat against the world was created by the wizard himself.  It’s a shame because I think Mark Strong is a great enough actor to really encompass that duality of a guy who wants to do the right thing for all the worst reasons, but once he gets his powers he doesn’t even seem to know what to do with them.  He gets his petty vengeance, and then… what?  Take up jogging?  Heck, if they made his character more shallow or if his entitlement complex was more directly tied to him being a spoiled brat of a rich kid, it might have felt a bit more appropriate to sideline him for half the movie, but with Mark Strong doing THIS good a job with a character that could be REALLY interesting, well it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity if nothing else.

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This guy should TOTALLY play Colonel Klink!  On second thought… let’s NOT do the wacky Nazi movie right now…

There are a few other points to talk about like the acting from everyone (including the kids) being pretty solid, the subplot with Freddy that KIND OF brings about Shazam’s character change, and even the subplot about Billy looking for his mom, but really I think my overall point of this movie being flawed yet still great is quite clear and I do recommends seeing this movie in theaters?  Is this the end of the DCCU being a bad punchline for cinematic universes?  Who knows?  We were asking that when Aquaman made a bajillion dollars and even back when Wonder Woman was the first GOOD thing to come out of it.  It’s probably best to take these one at a time as they still haven’t gotten a unified vision in place the same way Marvel seems to have effortlessly done, so let’s just enjoy there being good movies while we’ve got them!  Depending on how that Joker movie goes we may not get them for long, and I’m not even sure if that movie bombing or being a smash hit is the worse outcome…

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