Shazam! (****1/2) – All hands on deck

Shazam! – 2019

Director David F. Sandberg
Screenplay Henry Grayden based on the story by Grayen and Darren Lemke
Starring Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Michelle Borth, Iain Chen, Ross Bulter, Jovan Armand, D.J. Corona, Faithe Herman, Meagan Good, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is on cruise control. Captain Marvel is an example of when someone is so comfortable with the overall structure, branching out into new territories is an acceptable risk. Even if it means the quality dips a bit here and there, the track record is good enough to loosen the reigns.

Comfort is something no one would associate with the DC. They’re movies have alternated between forced epic (Man of Steel, BvS) to completely frivolous (Suicide Squad), forced playful (Justice League) , to playful (Aquaman) to a celebration (Wonder Woman). And now this, most joyful experience.

The last I heard of Shazam!, it was a crappy after school television show that I loved as a kid and forgot as a teenager. The idea of going this gonzo for the overall tone of the series would have been a stretch when Man of Steel arrived. It feels overdue and entirely welcome now.

The concept of the film is relatively simple, Big with super powers. If we limit our expectations to this idea, we’re in for a decent surprise. The characters are painted simply, but given a shade by a plot that seems predictable in hindsight. The pleasant part to the viewer is one enjoys the film enough to be swept into the story without necessarily considering that fact.

The story parallels the journies of Billy Batson (Angel) and Thaddeus Sivana (Strong). Both have traumatic experiences with their parents. Each handles it in a different manner.

Batson wanders from home to home, trying to locate the address of his mother, whom he lost contact with as a child. His new foster family is delightful, but he doesn’t realize this. He is miserable and hope is fading. He finds a friend in foster brother Freddy (Grazer). It takes them both a while to discover how powerful their bond can be. This says nothing about the rest of his new clan.

Thaddeus becomes obsessed with an early vision and then dedicates his years on a quest to obtain the power behind that vision. He had a chance for the good power at one point, but his temptation was for the other power held in check.

These powers are contained under the watch of Shazam! (Honsou). He gives those who seem worthy a chance to make a choice. If they choose poorly, like Thaddeus did as a child, they are shunned. Shazam!’s powers are fading, though. In desperation he reaches out and makes the offer to Billy. It becomes more of a command than a test, though. After some cryptic words, Billy is given new powers in the form of his best adult self (Levi).

From here the stories begin to intertwine. The presentation of the two friends is comical, with ideas that real teenage boys would pursue if they had the chance. The family is given a sweetness that is delicately realistic and beautiful. It’s great seeing how a real family can create bonds like Andrews and Milan present. It’s got the right touch of realism to combat the saccharine. This is no surprise given Sandberg’s record with handling disparate groups of kids like those in (Annabelle The Creation),

Sivana’s path is a darkly and excellently staged. So stark is it that it feels like a splash of cold water to the face when he first comes upon the young hero. Their confrontations are somewhat shocking, almost to the point of wondering how Batson and his new family could ever escape, even though we know they should. Right?

There are a few scenes that completely tear into one’s soul. Seeing the youngest version of Billy getting lost feels almost like a sad poem in two parts. This is countered by the climax, which feels like Christmas when it comes.

Shazam! is not flawless. The 7 deadly sins look only slightly better than Steppenwolf from Justice League. Fortunately, ones enjoyment of the story doesn’t hinge on the beasts. My daughter and I both loved this film. It feels like a celebration worth revisiting.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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