Sunday, March 24, 2019

All of The Fun Found In Shazam! Comes From Total Creative Commitment

Considering that the modern conception of the superhero movie has been running since the 1998 release of Blade, you'd think this subgenre would be running on fumes by now. Perhaps it is to some, but from my vantage point, the superhero movie subgenre seems to be flourishing in recent years simply because producers, perhaps in an attempt to prevent the superhero movie from getting long in the tooth, seem to be willing to let filmmakers take both new and old characters into fresh new directions. Just look at what Taika Waititi did with the Thor mythos or the work done by the cast & crew of the first solo Black Panther movie or anything related to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Shazam! certainly continues both the creative boldness and high-quality seen by a number of recent superhero movies in a story that works as a family movie about a kid getting the ability to become a superhero with recurring detours into monster horror movie fare. Now that's a fun mixture! The lead character of Shazam! is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old foster kid who's developed both a passion for finding his birth-mother and a selfish personality over the years. While staying in his newest foster home, which pairs him up with foster sibling Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy is visited by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who gives Billy the ability to become a powerful superhero (played by Zachary Levi) once he utters the word Shazam.

Now that Billy can become a grown man with Superman-esque powers just by uttering a single word, he's fascinated by simply discovering what kind of superhuman abilities he's got, which turns out to be highly amusing to watch and results in the best scene of the whole film, a montage of him discovering his super-powered skills to the tune of an impeccably chosen Queen song.  While all of that is a hoot, it's not the only thing Billy/Shazam has to attend to as a superhero. The nefarious Dr. Sivana (played by go-to actor for blockbuster baddies, Mark Strong), armed with a long-standing hatred of the wizard who gave Shazam! his powers, is on the prowl armed with both evil plans and a group of demons known as the Seven Deadly Sins.

Though the overall film is certainly not devoid of flaws, which include some wonky CGI effects and some minor pacing issues in the second act, Shazam! is, most importantly, a ton of fun to watch and much of that comes from the total confidence it has in its tone and style. This story of Billy coming to terms with his newfound powers plays out in tone like a family movie comedy with a sprinkling of 80's Amblin horror thrown in there, a genre I'm surprised hasn't been referenced more in modern superhero movies given how much Amblin fare like The Goonies has influenced modern pop culture. That's a great way to execute this particular story and the film just runs with it in a manner that's totally endearing. The jokes here work especially well since the comedy isn't coming from a place of mockery towards the character of Shazam, rather it plays out comedy from imagining what would naturally happen if a kid was suddenly able to turn into a superhero. Of course a kid with that kind of power would use his abilities to humorously try score beer at a convenience store or make money through selfies rather than immediately become a polished do-gooder.

In addition to delivering enjoyable comedy, Shazam!'s story also manages to handle Billy's struggles related to his desire to find his birth-mother in an emotionally affecting manner. Henry Gayden's screenplay has a great opening scene that depicts this craving of Billy's in a manner that's both humorous while also getting one emotionally engaged in his journey for the rest of the movie. It reminded me of the opening scenes of Lilo & Stitch related to introducing the character of Lilo in how it manages to grab the viewer right away in its empathetic portrayal of a realistically troubled child. Also working on a character level is Billy's relationship with the various members of his foster family, a gaggle of endearing characters that, aside from one or two underdeveloped members like Mary (Grace Fulton), prove to be a whole bunch of fun, particularly because of the charming performances that bring the individual members of this group to life.

Jack Dylan Grazer, for instance, makes for a charming motor-mouthed sidekick to Billy Batson, Cooper Andrews & Marta Milla are like the personification of a warm bear-hug in their performances as Billy's foster parents and Faithe Herman steals the whole show as Billy's younger foster-sister Darla. As for Zachary Levi's performance as the lead character (a role that see's Levi adorned in a great-looking superhero outfit), he's exceptionally fun depicting Shazam's goofball naive energy, there's a constant sense of inexperience in Levi's humorous performance that makes this larger-than-life character feel like an underdog in any given scenario.  It's quite the fun lead turn that makes for a fun foil for our villain, Dr. Sivana, a character that finally affords the highly talented actor Mark Strong the chance to play a memorable blockbuster villain.

The all-around strong cast of Shazam! is working under the direction of David F. Sandberg, a filmmaker who follows in the footsteps of Sam Raimi and James Gunn as horror directors who managed to also thrive as superhero blockbuster directors. Considering his two prior feature films (Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation) had only sporadic instances of dark comedy, it's impressive how well he adjusts to such an overtly comedic film like Shazam! Sandberg and company's work here shows a beguiling sense of commitment, whether it's the light-hearted tone, Billy's personal relationship with his foster family or a Christmastime setting that ends up resulting in a bizarre but amusing recurring gag involving Santa Claus. Shazam! is constantly going all-in, there aren't any half-measures to be found here and that makes for an utterly delightful motion picture even if it is disappointing that they never found a chance for Shazam to shown on an island he owns, rested and alone, surrounded by enormous piles of money.

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