MOVIE REVIEW: Shazam!
SHAZAM!— 4 STARS
Thanks to the infusion of catchy comedy, there are many synonyms of “funny” that can be used to lovingly describe Shazam!. Most all of them are suitable, if not repetitive for all of the smiling and positive buzz this comic book movie has and will continue to generate. There’s one more fitting adjective worth branding on all the sparks and lighting coming out of this movie. It’s a word that’s not on that synonym list for “funny.”
LESSON #1: THE DEFINITION OF “ZANY” — The Merriam-Webster Dictionary splits the word into a noun meaning “one who acts the buffoon to amuse others” and an adjective meaning “fantastically or absurdly ludicrous.” Dictionary.com piles onto the noun form adding “a comically wild or eccentric person,” “a professional buffoon; clown,” and “a silly person; simpleton.” It’s a light term that is a few steps down from the “mentally unbalanced” descriptor of “bonkers” (think Deadpool there).
This website has used the term “zany” plenty over its nine years of reviews, but Shazam! might be the new exemplar for the word. What is fantastical and ludicrous was just what was needed for this DC Comics material. Zachary Levi’s schtick of superpowered shenanigans becomes the epitome of both the adjective and the noun variations. Zany is the bullseye of Shazam! and, boy, is that all kinds of satisfaction. Go get that synonym list next.
Not everything is bubble-gum bright for every minute of Shazam! The film leads with the origin story of its villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, played by professional movie villain Mark Strong (clearly looking to put Green Lantern’s Sinestro behind him). A belittled boy of privilege, Sivana was summoned by The Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) to be tested. The ancient being has spent decades searching for a worthy soul to become his new champion wielding mythic magical powers of wisdom, strength, stamina, lightning, speed, and flight to defend the mortal world against the horrific bestial embodiments of the Seven Deadly Sins. Sivana’s darker fiber of anger led to his failure. That rejection has since fueled Sivana into adulthood to seek the power and secrets of magic on his own.
On the other side of the tracks from Sivana is 14-year-old Philadelphia orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel of Disney Channel’s Andi Mack). He has a good heart, but has delinquently and resourcefully been bouncing through foster homes for most of his life after being found lost from his mother, a mystery woman he still investigates to hopefully find. Billy’s latest and most promising group home belongs to the Victor and Rosa Vazquez (Cooper Andrews of The Walking Dead and Marta Milans), two former foster alums themselves who know the adversities and give back accordingly. Their loving home houses a ragtag bunch of fellow pre-teens led by the geeky and handicapped superhero fanboy Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer of It).
Through diminished desperation in defeat to Sivana, the Wizard’s bestowed power comes to Billy Batson. With the incantation of the titular exclamatory name, Billy is turned into a white-caped and impossibly buff adult beefcake (Levi) of immeasurable power adorned in red and gold. Billy’s freaked-out befuddlement of what to do in his godly guise leads to a hilarious arc of discovery, celebrity, vanity, and, ultimately, a mettle-proving clash with Sivana who wants Billy’s power for himself. Naturally, their throwdown puts the whole city and everyone Billy comes to love in peril.
As flashy as all this is in blockbuster origin story fashion, Shazam! is uneven to a degree. Despite the plucky marketing highlighting the seemingly all-ages vibrant fun of a flossing superhero, Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation director David F. Sandberg brings a level of fright on the villainous side that is radically not kid-friendly (and singularly maniacal like too many other comic book movie baddies). Buyer beware, this one should be reserved for teens for that reason. In addition, not all of this semi-irresponsible comedy will work for everyone. Plenty may find Shazam! to be as dim as its himbo hero from time to time. Nonetheless, by the end, far more zingers impress than depress thanks to the boundless charm of the headlining lead.
Anyone who’s seen Chuck knows that Zachary Levi can do dorky and nerdy in his sleep. Put him through a workout routine, a few tanning bed sessions, pad his spandex suit for a little extra hubba-hubba, and now the ageless 38-year-old actor can do it awake too. Levi is absolutely aces as this muscular man-child. Unafraid to make a complete ass of himself and echoing a whole bunch of Penny Marshall’s Big, his acclimation scenes of tests and tales-of-the-tape with Grazer are the gleeful center of the movie. Levi’s gift of gab serves him as well as his power to swoon.
LESSON #2: WHAT TRUE GOOD LOOKS LIKE — While Zachary Levi looks the part and lives the part to perfection, that kind of higher ideal is the also the core personal push in the movie. Billy must learn to be more than his new gilded exterior. Faces can show the guilt and guile in less heroic people. No matter if he’s the big caped wonder who flies or his teen true self, Billy’s face needs to stare in the face of danger and have his actions show the good and bravery he truly is. Powered or not, he must act with empathy, confidence, and spirit to help not harm those around him, both familial friends and strangers alike. In Shazam!, it’s asking “what would a good brother do?”
LESSON #3: WORDS MATTER — This might be out of order from the usual “actions speak louder than words” axiom, but with this emotionally bruised orphan in Shazam!, the good words come last in this verification of valiance. Billy’s powers definitely make actions easier and his witty humor may BS him out of a jam or two, but those can be fronts instead of truths. There are no magic words other than the honest and authentic ones that need to be said to prove your real character.