Shazam! (2019) Review

Rating: 3 Stars

The following review contains spoilers.

Overview:

For decades, the Wizard who guards the Rock of Eternity has been searching for an heir. He’s cast a seeking spell to find someone pure of heart to take his place, but apparently he’s not all that good a wizard, because they’ve brought him dozens of people who fail his purity test and get rejected. Also, if he were a better wizard, this is probably when he’d cast a spell on them to forget their temporary abduction, but instead he just sends them back to Earth with all their memories of being summoned to a magical realm and told they were a hopeless failure by some long-bearded jerk.

This is what happened to Thad Sivana, who spent the rest of his life obsessed with finding a way back to this magical place. He searches the world for people who had similar experiences, trying to glean some common information that will unlock Eternity’s secret. Eventually, he finds the key, and he confronts the Wizard, stealing the power of the Seven Deadly Sins and escaping back to Earth, where he proceeds to kill his family in revenge for their mistreatment of him.

Meanwhile, Billy Batson is a street kid on the search for his birth mom. After years of walking up to every woman with the same last name and asking if they’re his mom (though according to Wikipedia, her first name is Marilyn, not Martha, so at least we dodged that bullet), he ends up with a large foster family that actually seems pretty nice. A day or so into his stay with them he’s on the way home from school when he suddenly finds himself in the Rock of Eternity. The Wizard explains that he’s given up on finding Mr. Right and will settle for Mr. Right Now, and doesn’t even bother with the purity test, bestowing his powers on Billy Batson, and turning him into the superhero Captain Marv—err, actually let’s just call him Billy.

Now that he’s Earth’s Mightiest Mortal, Billy spends the next hour of the movie buying beer, visiting strip clubs, and charging people for selfies, until Sivana learns of his existence and decides he has to kill Billy and take the Wizard’s power for himself.

Best Parts:

Most of the cast is quite good, especially Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Freddy. He has great chemistry with both young Billy and superhero Billy, and does most of the movie’s emotional heavy lifting. I also liked young Darla and Mary, though we don’t spend a lot of time with them. Zachary Levi does a good job as Shazam, though he never once felt like he was playing the same character as Asher Angel. You could almost think the actors never met or discussed the character at all, and that Levi was directed simply to act like big kid.

Despite feeling like it has nothing to do with the greater narrative, I have to admit that the middle of the movie, in which Billy and Freddy are testing out his powers and seeing what kind of adult hijinks they can get into, basically works. It’s fun, funny, and entertaining. I didn’t like that Billy’s first big hero moment was saving a bus accident that he also completely caused, but I guess it fits into this movie’s more cynical take on the character and his universe.

I thought the Marvel Family was mostly… fine? But the standout was definitely Meaghan Good as superhero Darla, who in only a few minutes of screentime came across to me as the most purely heroic character in the movie.

I’m not sure how this fits into the greater DC movie continuity, but I also don’t care, because we got Billy throwing a giant Batman toy at Sivana and yelling “Get him, Batman!” and that was very good.

If nothing else, at least they don’t seem to be shying away from Mr. Mind.

Worst Parts:

So, like, was the Geoff Johns “New 52” version of Shazam literally the only research the filmmakers did into this character?

This movie has a villain problem. Dr. Sivana is absolutely boring, and it’s bizarre that they made the decision to change this mad scientist character into basically another Black Adam (though Black Adam also apparently exists in this universe, as alluded to when the Wizard drops some exposition on Billy). There are so many superhero origin story movies where the hero has to confront his dark mirror, and at this point that idea starts on a baseline of “boring” and some special work has to be done to make it interesting, and they didn’t do that work. Besides having dull powers, Sivana has no personality, and his goal in the movie basically amounts to, “There is power and therefore I want power.”

Almost worse than Sivana are the Seven Deadly Sins, who have even less personality and fewer goals. This is such a missed opportunity, as you’d think these Sins would be basically concepts made flesh, existing to tempt man into sin and drive our society into ruin. The Wizard states the last time they were let loose civilizations fell and millions died. But they’re just monsters, and all they do is claw people and eat them. It’s almost impossible to tell them apart, and they tempt man into nothing. You’d think at least when they’re in Sivana’s head that he’d start exhibiting their traits or something, but all they truly represent is the idea of “power”, and all they actually want is to eat humans.

And because the villains are so terrible, the movie doesn’t really have a strong point-of-view. The actual antagonist of the movie is Billy’s mom, who abandons him, and Billy himself, who refuses to let anyone become close to him. There is potentially something there with Sivana, as the movie implies that he hoards power, whereas Billy shares his power with his foster family, and therefore Billy wins. Except Sivana loses because he disperses his power when he lets the Sins out, not because he hoards it, so it doesn’t quite work. Plus the movie is so obsessed with being “what if Big but a superhero” that Billy spends virtually no time with his new family outside of Freddy, and so there’s hardly any connection with most of them.

Finally there’s a sense of carelessness to Shazam! that bothers me a bit. There’s a whole subplot with Mary not sure whether to move away to attend college that is quietly dropped, the “big reveal” of Billy’s mom deliberately abandoning him was already completely spelled out by the social worker at the beginning of the film (and having the one Asian kid “hack” mom’s location after Billy spent years fruitlessly searching was an odd choice), and most confusingly there’s a huge spotlight on this moment where Billy sees that Sivana can bleed when the Sins are outside of him that is later re-framed as a realization that Freddy has and shares with Billy, despite Freddy absolutely not having been in a position to learn this info. And hey while we’re at the carnival, in what universe does college-bound Mary think the small children in her care should be used as bait for the Sins?

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