Sunday, April 7, 2019

Review: "Shazam!" could pave the way for a better DCEU!

Shazam! Review
You want to know who the arch-nemesis of DC Movies is? Its the studio itself.

I had a brief conversation about the current legacy of the DCEU and the DC movies in general, and one thing I've noticed over the years is that the studio itself is its own worst enemy. Every time they take a step forward, they are almost destined to take one step backward. Hey, I try not to be biased. I can give you a list of all things I don't think work in the Marvel movies, and it wouldn't be a short list. But Marvel has done a good job slowly building a world onscreen, and they've been particular about what to expect from this world, what the rules are and how things work. It seems DC has been so desperate to catch up with their rival, that they are creating a world that really doesn't make a whole lot of sense onscreen.

I don't want that to sound like DC should just mimic what Marvel is doing, because the DC and Marvel worlds are so different. Sure, they are both superhero worlds, but the tones and ideas displayed make them very different. In their journey to course-correct, DC shouldn't be so eager to take their complaints to the extreme. They don't need to do what Marvel is doing, and they don't need to try as hard as they think they need to. The secret ingredient to any good superhero movie is the same that makes any adaptation great. Hire the people who are passionate about the story and the characters, then stay out of their way. After almost a decade, DC may finally be getting that hint.

I never reviewed it for my site, but I thought "Aquaman" was a fun movie. Certainly not a great movie, and possibly not even a good movie. But it was definitely fun. Its definitely gorgeous to look at. Its absolutely hilarious watching Mamoa throw-down, because he's destined to be a star. There's a ton of crazy freaking action packed in it too. There some missteps, but they almost don't matter. With that said, it feels like everything I've been missing from DC movies was found in "Shazam!" I think its the only DCEU movie to work the most overall. I hope that statement means something, because I actually really like "Wonder Woman" and (believe it or not) "Man of Steel." Is "Shazam!" a perfect movie? No, not quite. But it comes the closest to getting there. I can only hope that DC uses this movie as a template of what they should be doing instead of just throwing things at the wall and seeing what will stick.

You could describe "Shazam!" as "Big" with superpowers. Essentially there is a teenager named Billy Batson, played by Asher Angel. He's a kid who has been bounced around foster home to foster home. Pretty much on the road, running away constantly. He's trying to find his mother, who he lost in the middle of a carnival when he was very young. Billy gets taken into a huge foster family, while Billy's foster siblings Darla (Faithe Herman), Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Ian Choi) and Pedro (Jovan Armand) are all accommodating, it's Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) who instantly gravitates towards Billy. Its clear that Billy's new foster parents have (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) have created a real, loving home.

The underlying message of this movie is family, and that instantly grabbed me even before any superhero shenanigans really start taking place. I've talked about it a few times now during certain reviews. But I was adopted, and thankfully I've got the best example of loving parents you could ask for. I see a lot of my own parents in the foster parents Billy gets here. Easily one of the biggest attributes of Billy's character is how we watch him chase a family he'll never find, when the best possible family is right in front of him. Yes, we get to choose our friends, we don't get to choose our family. Sometimes friends become our family, and sometimes our family is right in front of our eyes. You definitely feel this as you watch the movie. 

Billy is eventually transported to another dimension, and meets a wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). The wizard claims Billy as his champion and he plans to give him his magical powers to protect Earth from evil. Now, every time Billy yells Shazam, he transforms into an adult with a huge host of superpowers. This is where the movie really brings in the silly. I've always thought that DC had a weirder world compared to Marvel, and Shazam is definitely one of the strangest superheroes there is anywhere. What I think "Shazam" did that I wish "Justice League" did was it really leaned into its silliness, and because the movie did that it was more emotional and more fun. I'm sorry but its a lot sillier to treat a weapon of mass destruction called a Mother Box seriously than it is to embrace the fun of watching Zachary Levi play a fifteen-year-old stuck in a 38-year-old's body. Zachary Levi is one of those great actors who has just been waiting for the right role, and I hope this is the one that turns him into a star. There is a fine line between "childlike" and "childish" that I think Levy walks that line well, its great starring role for him.

It's equally rewarding to watch Levy bounce off of Grazer. I've seen Grazer in "It" from 2017 and "Beautiful Boy" from last year. After those two movies plus "Shazam!," I'm convinced he'll be one of the best actors of his generation. Grazer's Freddy is a superhero fanatic, and there are long stretches of the movie between Freddy and Billy where they are testing Billy's powers, making YouTube videos. Yes, lots of it goes to Billy's head, he's a teenager. He also happens to be a teenager who has lots going on in his world. So of course he becomes a cocky little shit. Freddy is a good foil to that. He's disabled, he understands the responsibility and watching the eventual clash of ideas is wrenching and well-earned.

The best superhero movies have an equally potent villain, and they did good picking Doctor Sivana. Mark Strong can play great villains in his sleep, so there was no problem there. But what's great is how Sivana's origin mirrors Billy's in some ways, just more distorted and tragic. At the beginning of the movie we see a young Sivana being tested by Shazam, and ultimately not chosen to be Shazam's champion. He spends the rest of his life trying to find the wizard again. He comes from a broken home much like Billy. Between the wizard and his father and his brother, Sivana is constantly told he's never good enough. It sickens him to learn as an adult that some punk teenager was chosen as Shazam's champion but he wasn't. Which leads him to do some not-so-good things. Like I said, Strong runs with it and he's the perfect foil to Levi's Shazam.

Which also leads to one of the film's oddest decisions. Like many DC movies, tone becomes a problem with this movie. "Shazam!" is being heavily advertised as a kid-friendly, fun-loving, lightly-toned superhero movie. For much of its runtime, it certainly is that. But when Doctor Sivana becomes a vessel for demons that represent the seven deadly sins, things become nightmarish quick. I am not exaggerating at all when I say that the CGI design of the demons is absolutely scary, and the scenes that involve them can cause nightmares. They went way too dark with certain scenes, and I have read that parents of already been complaining. If you thinking of taking your kids, be warned. There is also some harsh language for a PG-13 rated movie.

Despite these decisions, it was the gracious story arcs and fun nature that eventually won me over. Nothing like Shazam should be gritty, and it was just a fun ride to be on. Its also a movie that has fun with the overall history of the character while also being a contained story. The cameo with D.J. Controna and Adam Brody made me cackle, because if you know DC history, you know back in 2007 D.J. Controna would have played Superman and Brody would have played The Flash in the Justice League movie that almost got made that year. While also being vocal about being in the greater DCEU, it remains a contained story. It isn't connecting the dots like Marvel does. Marvel movies have been very Marvel. In their comics, there are plenty of hero crossovers and grand plans. That's just the nature of the brand. So I really like that "Shazam!" swung in the other direction. Perhaps DC is finding its feet again, and maybe...just maybe, they'll become a real box office challenge for Marvel in the future.

FINAL GRADE: B+

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