Irreverent 'Shazam' deconstructs superhero movie tropes

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 4/6/19

There’s a scene in “Shazam!” when the crimson-clad hero and his nemesis scamper across a giant piano mat while barreling through a toy store. It’s an apt …

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Irreverent 'Shazam' deconstructs superhero movie tropes

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Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer star in Shazam!
Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer star in Shazam!
Posted

There’s a scene in “Shazam!” when the crimson-clad hero and his nemesis scamper across a giant piano mat while barreling through a toy store. It’s an apt homage to Tom Hanks’s “Big,” another film about a child protagonist who suddenly finds himself trapped in a man’s body. It’s a mirthful moment; it made me chuckle. It’s also on the nose, the sort of broad, obvious gag that’s par for an otherwise enjoyable superhero film that still feels about three years behind the genre.

Orphan (natch) Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a juvenile delinquent placed in a loving foster home alongside the sarcastic, disabled Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, “It”) and their four fellow foster siblings. But Billy remains restless, eager to locate his birth mom. During a ride on the subway, Billy takes an unplanned detour into an alternate dimension, the home to an aging wizard (Djimon Hounsou) looking to bestow his formidable powers to a suitable successor, thereby tasking him with corralling the marauding spirits of the Seven Deadly Sins. The spirits escaped the wizard’s cave with the help of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a scientist with daddy issues who has held a grudge against the wizard since Sivana was a tyke for rejecting him as the wizard’s successor. Inhabited by the seven spirits and his own powers, Sivana goes in search of an unsuspecting Billy, looking to destroy him before he’s strong enough to pose a threat.

Meanwhile, Billy and Freddy are sussing out Billy’s new-fangling abilities. By uttering the titular exclamation, a bolt of lightning transforms Billy into a muscular man-child (played terrifically by Zachary Levi), who conspicuously never settles on a particular lofty name (certainly not Captain Marvel, his original comic book moniker that became the subject of litigation between DC and Marvel Comics). In the DC realm, Shazam has always been viewed as Superman’s oofish antecedent, and director David F. Sandberg finds a way to retool Shazam’s cartoonish aura as emanating from a child’s perspective. Most of the fun of “Shazam!” is seeing the buffed-up Billy and Freddy’s Mutt and Jeff act, flailing around in search of Billy’s super skills without any guidance besides the example of other DC heroes inhabiting their universe (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman are all referenced). They employ Billy’s adult bod to buy beer and feel out a real estate agent about procuring a suitable lair. They lack any how-to manual, and the film’s emotional heft is the joy they exude when Billy happens upon another talent.

Figuring out how to put Billy’s powers to proper use proves the bigger quandary, one that’s frankly forced upon him once Sivana arrives to do battle. Indeed, it’s Sivana who coerces Billy to adopt the mantle of benevolent savior, and that’s one of the many quibbles in the film. The seven sins using Sivana as their vessel are snarling CGI creatures that have no apparent connection to pride, greed, gluttony, wrath, sloth, envy, or lust (“I thought that one would be a little hotter,” Billy/Shazam wonders aloud.) Armed with seemingly limitless abilities, defeating Sivana becomes a matter of when, not if, which makes the final third of “Shazam!” feel like marking time, even despite a twist that ushers in some unexpected familial assistance.

“Shazam!” is the story of a millennial kid who, with the little help from his friends and newfound family, learns how to become an accidental hero. It’s a tad irreverent, and it deconstructs many of the superhero movie tropes developed in the DC and Marvel film universes. It’s other words, it’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse,” and a dash of “Deadpool,” and a tidbit of “Ant-Man.” Those are good films, and so is “Shazam!” But while this light-hearted approach is new to the angsty DC oeuvre, the rest of us have already seen this schtick.

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