Big meets Superman.
“The bigger they are, the harder they fall” is the old adage. Just as DC were once ground-breaking leaders of comic-book films, their downfall was just as seismic; cluttered efforts in a desperate effort to sync up with the titanic opposing universe were continually poo-poo’d by critics. But from successes like Wonder Woman, Aquaman and now Shazam!, a dawn of justice is perhaps on the horizon.
Billy (Asher Angel) has been on the run for years. He’s no criminal though; he’s a teenage orphan trying to sniff out his mum. Though his life is radically changed by an ancient wizard (Dijimon Hounsou) who gifts him the powers of a god (he could give Superman a run for his money) – powers he can use at will by saying “Shazam!”, transforming him into a red, gold, white-caped, adult-sized superhero (Zachary Levi).
Of course, this attracts the attention of Doctor Sivana (Mark Strong), a real adult with a furious resentment for the new hero, after being rejected the very same powers as an unworthy youngster (and the requisite tragic backstory that accompanies such).
As Sivana wrecks havoc around a cloud-smothered Philadelphia (with the colour palette here it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Rocky jog by), Billy has to get to grips with his abilities; alongside superhero-extraordinaire Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Their friendship throughout is incredibly charming, with Grazer proving himself to be quite the versatile young comic, from hilariously squeamish in IT to cheekily self-deprecating. We’ve seen it plenty of times, whether it’s climbing walls or soaring across icy landscapes; but Shazam! is playfully subversive, chucking in gonzo handheld flourishes, well-crafted juvenile humour and a little bit of Queen to spice up what’s often noticeably by-the-numbers.
The film is clearly shot on a lower budget than other efforts, but it does it no harm; city-wide Man of Steel-style bouts keep their fighters in focus at all times, and the comically extravagant costume holds your attention as he flicks off crisply rendered lightning bolts. The director, David F. Sandberg, isn’t known for comedy; his web-shattering short film and subsequent feature length Lights Out is arguably his most famous work. But here he balances joyous levity, tropes we’d all miss if they weren’t employed and even some schlocky monster fun under the skin of quite serious subject matter.
First Instant Family, now Shazam!; the brilliance of foster parenting is being showcased. A major thread of the film follows Billy’s pursuit of his mother after an unfortunate incident as a boy; the end result of this is a brave one, unexpected and rather heart-breaking (hats off to writers Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke). But importantly, it highlights how kids in a group home band together like super-glue (Billy believes that families are for people “who can’t take care of themselves”).
But the hard realities are not the focus; this is very much bright, bombastic and gloriously silly. The smallest touches shine brightest; Zachary Levi’s indisputably boyish performance anchors all the story-beats with aplomb (his everyday counterpart, Angel, isn’t as effective), encouraging robbers to shoot him in the face when he discovers he’s bullet-proof, or wearing his best smile to purchase some “of your finest beers please”. Strong is a menacing but forgettable foe, grappling with a shaky accent and run-of-the-mill motivations – although nothing says mad with power more than one terrific little moment, when he uses a lighting bolt to push an elevator button.
It’s only in the end, despite some giddy turns, that the film descends into CGI, drawn-out mayhem, adding about 15 unwelcome minutes. It’s at its best when the gags are flying, the super-powered slapstick is bracing and the real-world observations are hitting hard. Still though, what a breath of fresh air.
Big for today’s superhero crazed world; hilarious, packed with heart and carelessly breezy.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm