Shazam!

Review by Adam Woodward @AWLies

Directed by

David F Sandberg

Starring

Jack Dylan Grazer Mark Strong Zachary Levi

Anticipation.

Zachary who?

Enjoyment.

Did not see that coming.

In Retrospect.

Emphatically earns its exclamation mark, but very little rewatch value with this one.

Beat it, Batman. Step aside, Supes. The DC Extended Universe has got itself a new golden boy.

Given the choice, would you rather have the ability to fly or the power of invisibility? If you’ve ever read a comic book or watched a film or TV adaptation of one, chances are you’ve pondered this fantasy scenario at some point. Yet superheroes are rarely afforded the luxury of self-determination. Some are simply born with great power, while others have great power thrust upon them. Hardly any achieve great power through purely autonomous means. When it comes to being a superhero, however, it’s not the power you possess but what you choose to do with it that counts.

Responsibility has always been the chief watchword of the watchmen and women of these heightened fictional realms, which invariably hold a mirror to our own world. With systematic abuses and misuses of power a depressingly common feature of modern society, it’s perhaps unsurprising that accountability has become an increasingly prominent theme in contemporary superhero culture. In the past few years Captain America: Civil War, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Incredibles 2 have all tackled the ethics of collateral damage head on, asking to what extent superheroes are liable for the destruction they may cause in their pursuit of truth and justice.

There’s a similar predicament in Shazam!, when Zachary Levi’s eponymous caped crusader prevents a bus from crashing off a bridge having inadvertently zapped it moments earlier while showing off his newfound powers. It’s an early test of his superhero credentials, and he manages to scrape a passing grade – but as the shaken passengers express their gratitude and stunned onlookers applaud his bravery, his close friend and confidante, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), reprimands him for the reckless exhibitionism that put these innocent people in danger in the first place.

At this point in the film, Shazam is a superhero in appearance only. He isn’t even going by the name “Shazam” yet, that’s just the word he knows to say when he wants to switch between his alter ego and his regular teenage form. Streetwise Philly foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has only recently acquired his superhuman abilities through magic he doesn’t understand – via an interdimensional encounter with an ancient wizard played by Djimon Hounsou – and he’s got a long way to go before he can realise his full potential.

Director David F Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden explore Billy’s accelerated coming of age with great humour and perceptiveness (though regrettably they miss the opportunity to insert a moustache joke at Justice League’s expense), most memorably during an extended montage in which our hero tries out different aliases and catchphrases while Freddy plots the pair’s next move. What exactly would two 14-year-old boys do if one of them suddenly transformed into a full-grown adult? Well, they’d buy some booze for starters, maybe find out what goes on inside a ‘gentlemen’s club’, and most definitely seek revenge on the wedgie-administering bullies at their high school.

A true superhero, of course, must have a higher purpose, and Shazam’s soon manifests itself in the form of Mark Strong’s Dr Thaddeus Sivana, who obtains his supervillain status courtesy of a group of gargoyle-like demons known as the Seven Deadly Sins. Though set on divergent paths off the back of a fundamental decision – one choosing darkness, the other embracing light – these adversaries share one crucial similarity in that they both seek the approval of an absent parent: Sivana is hellbent on settling a long-standing family feud; Billy is determined to track down his maternal mother, from whom he was separated at a tender age.

This is by no means the first comic book movie to centre on a protagonist dealing with pent-up anger and abandonment, but Shazam! is notable for the way it attempts to relate to younger viewers, speaking to them about a range of complex issues without ever being condescending or oversimplifying things. Where today’s blockbusters often feel like cynical, self-important exercises in corporate synergy, Shazam! offers a joyous, soul-nourishing remedy. Unapologetically sweet-centred and infectiously silly, it’s a first-rate family adventure in the mould of Penny Marshall’s Big and Joe Dante’s Innerspace that says it’s totally okay to just be a kid sometimes.

It’s also a film that tacitly promotes diversity and inclusivity, and which features a main character with a disability but doesn’t use this as an emotional crutch or lazily equate it to having a superpower. The story isn’t supplemented with cheap meme-humour or pointless Easter eggs and, save for the usual mid-credits scene nonsense, it doesn’t intrusively service the expansion of the DC Extended Universe. (Batman and Superman appear briefly, but for a long time it’s unclear whether they exist in the world of the film in a literal sense.) It’s certainly a welcome change of tack for DC and Warner Bros, whose joint cinematic output has tended to veer towards world-weary dourness. Less Dark Knight, more Dork Knight in future, thanks.

The key ingredient in all this is Levi, who looks like an accidental movie star and as such is well-suited to the role of accidental superhero. He’s classically handsome but not impossibly so, filling out his crimson spandex onesie like a cut-price Christopher Reeve or a less distractingly buff Henry Cavill. But his performance works principally because it captures the paradoxical nature of adolescence, which for many is a period of anxiety and vulnerability but also growth and possibility. In order to defeat Sivana, Shazam doesn’t need to be faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive – he just has to prove that he’s strong in spirit and pure of heart.

Is it cool that he can shoot lightning from his fingertips? Fuck yeah it is! Yet while the film packs plenty of high-grade spectacle into its two-and-a-bit-hour runtime, even more impactful is the low-key manner in which it espouses the virtues of accepting the consequences of your actions, of keeping a secret to show that you’re a good sister, and of being a devoted foster parent even when the unconditional love you give is not always reciprocated. Most pertinently, Shazam! subscribes to the agreeably corny notion that real heroes don’t wear capes. So, what superpower do you choose?

Published 4 Apr 2019

Tags: Batman David F Sandberg DC Comics Jack Dylan Grazer Mark Strong Michelle Borth Superman Zachary Levi

Anticipation.

Zachary who?

Enjoyment.

Did not see that coming.

In Retrospect.

Emphatically earns its exclamation mark, but very little rewatch value with this one.

Related Reviews

10 years on, Watchmen remains a vital comic book adaptation

By Hannah Woodhead

Zack Snyder’s ambitious and divisive take on Alan Moore’s graphic novel deserves a second look.

Justice League

By Hannah Woodhead

The latest film off the DC production line sees Batman and co team up to fight an ancient evil force, with underwhelming results.

review

How superhero culture helped me to overcome my depression

By Christopher Aguiar

As a kid, I found solace in the comic book characters who resembled my own outcast existence.

What are you looking for?

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

Editorial

Design

Sign up to our newsletter to hear more from team LWLies