DC’s Latest Makes Being a Superhero Fun Again
DIRECTOR: DAVID F. SANDBERG/2019
Pop culture has always had plenty of idols. Think flavor-of-the-week stars and hits that define a year or season, such as Will Smith’s Mr. July era or when Avatar blew everyone’s minds in 3-D. But since 2002, Hollywood has only had one kind of god and goddess, and that is the superhero.
Like the ancient Romans and Greeks had variations of the same mythology, DC and Marvel Comics have been telling us two versions of the same stories for years (which, yes, I know I’m oversimplifying on both counts). A billionaire with a super suit? Batman, meet Iron Man. A super strong do-gooder that stands for truth, justice, and the American way? Captain America, meet Superman. Wonder Woman is to Captain Marvel as Minerva is to Athena, and the Justice League is the answer to the Avengers. But like any good metaphor, this one had break down sometime.
Shazam!, the latest from DC, has no equivalent in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even though he shares traits and experiences with Spider-man, Ant-Man, and even the Guardians of the Galaxy, Billy Batson occupies a space all his own. Part angsty teenager, part goofball man-child, he sounds like a recipe for the most unlikeable super yet. But somehow Asher Angel and Zachary Levi keep the worst of his dual personalities in check, together creating an endearing character part wounded and part silly.
When Billy (Angel) gets mixed up in magic, he’s just been transferred to a group home. His runaways from foster families have racked up into the double digits, and he doesn’t have much hope for his newest, even if his foster parents (Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans) and siblings (Jovan Armand, Ian Chen, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman) greet him with a warm welcome. But when he crosses paths with a bizarre wizard (Djimon Honsou), his future takes just as bizarre a turn. He can now transform into Shazam (Levi), a caped hero with a gamut of powers in an adult body. With his superhuman abilities and his new foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), he must pick up The Wizard’s mantle and battle a bad dude (Mark Strong) backed by the power of the 7 Deadly Sins.
DC is detouring from the course of comic book movie plotting with Shazam! The story may start with the super-serious exposition we expect, but it gets that necessary evil out of the way in the first half hour. From there, the tone flips to an action comedy, and the jokes just keep rolling, including ones at the expense of that exposition. We leave behind the grim color palettes this cinematic universe is known for in favor of one that (gasp!) actually looks like it could come from a comic book. It’s the first movie in awhile to acknowledge how weird it would be to become a superhero and the first since Spider-man to acknowledge how cool it would be. Heck, you might even say it makes being a superhero feel fun again.
That tonal jump doesn’t 100% work—Angel and Levi often feel like they’re playing completely different characters, and not just because one’s hair and makeup makes him resemble an actual cartoon. That said, the real surprise of this movie is how often it does work. Example: Strong’s antagonist would feel more at home in the über-serious world of the Justice League than Billy Batson, but because he’s given an unusual amount of development for a supervillain, he never feels out of place here. Another example: A twist in the third act left me downright giddy, a rare experience at the theater these days. I suspect I won’t be the only one, and I would be forever grateful if you sent any and all mash-up memes of this movie with The O.C. my way.
Perhaps it’s because Shazam! feels like a single movie first before a cog in a franchise. Though Freddy’s Superman obsession connects us to other DC movies, this chapter can stand on its own gold-booted feet. Charming, warmhearted, and, yes, a smidge juvenile, Shazam! is a welcome addition to the modern pantheon of pop culture gods.