In some mysterious turn of events, I managed to get myself to an advance screening of Shazam! I wasn’t particularity excited for this film — the trailers looked cute but it wasn’t even really on my radar. I figured that, if I remembered, I could wait until it was out for streaming. Even early-leaked reviews hadn’t really swayed me, no matter what they said. Still, when I got the offer to tag along, I didn’t have anything better to do.
But after having seen it, it’s something I really ought to have been getting excited over. It wasn’t as breathtaking as Infinity War, as fresh as Black Panther, or as brazenly political as Captain Marvel. But it did do something that I didn’t think that any movie could have done at this point.
Wonder Woman may have been a fluke, especially because it was followed up by Justice League. But after Aquaman is the DCEU’s first film to cross a billion for being a shameless hot mess that you can’t take your eyes off of, Shazam! makes me think that… yeah, the DCEU is entirely salvageable.
The Film Itself
The narrative structure is surprisingly tight for a Comic Book movie. Which, you’d think DC would have a lockdown on. DC characters have undergone so many back-story changes that it really ought to be easier to root out the underlying philosophy that drives these characters.
Shazam! is at it’s strongest when it’s being goofy. Areas where the film is trying to take itself seriously are few and far between, though thankfully, these opportunities are used to drive character beats rather than trying to re-enforce some kind of seriousness about the cinematic universe as a whole. Which has generally been the opposite approach of the larger part of the DCEU.
In many ways, Shazam! exists in this strange kind of Twilight Zone where the concept of Superhero-dom is both more grounded and more absurd. On one hand, we have an at-home view of how superheroes factor into the daily lives of average citizens. Which is, almost not at all. Superheroes are the subject of commercialism, collectibles, and curiosity. They aren’t the kind of Gods that Snyder had gone to great lengths to try and insist they were, but rather the subject of dinner-table debate in the same way we talk about risky celebrity antics. There are arguments to be made about who they are under the proverbial mask.
And this is something that Marvel hasn’t even really touched on to date.
But on the other hand, you have a bizarre, angled approach to this universe that matches Thor: Ragnarok for tone. There’s a kind of detachment about it, where the property simultaneously respects itself, and isn’t afraid to make fun of itself. This is something that Marvel has been quite good at. And I like to see that Comic Book films are learning from each other. Before Civil War, we had Tony Stark making fun of his 1963 golden armour.
Comic books are weird. They’re super weird. You have hundreds of writers, artists, and editors constructing what is ostensively an ongoing story since the 1930s. We’re coming up to a hundred years of Superheroes — that’s longer than Soap Operas. And as we’ve seen in Soap Operas, when you run out of good ideas, you have to sell your bad ideas as being just as important.
Of course things are going to get weird. When you need to push out half a dozen titles a week, anything will do as long as you use the opportunity to advance the characters. Comic Books are always less about the actual events that happen, and more about how the characters respond to it. It’s raising a question of what you, as a reader, would do in this situation. It’s a giant kind of philosophical thought experiment about how people would react in certain absurd situations. And comic books are often at their best when these absurd situations embody very relevant discussions in the cultural zeitgeist.
Shazam! doesn’t really do this, but that doesn’t count as points against it.
The DCEU, to date, has been largely trying to focus on a kind of carnivalesque realism by disqualifying the more embarrassing elements of the stories and isolating the cathartic elements of the properties. Yes. You can take all of Marvel and DC and find War and Peace in there, but that’s not why people are drawn to comic books.
At some point you have to address the talking raccoon in the room. And the greatest thematic strength of Shazam! is that it points out that a talking raccoon isn’t really all that more absurd than garden-variety superpowers. Shazam! treats the powers with a heaviness of consequence, and points out the ridiculousness of a lot of overused tropes and plot beats in comic books and associated films.
But this shouldn’t suggest that Shazam! doesn’t get dark. And rightly, I find it does get quite dark in some places. Not to mention some nightmare fuel that you wouldn’t have guessed would be there from the trailers. (Trailers do an excellent job at keeping you away from a very significant portion of the movie.)
On the subject of putting normal people in absurd situations, this is a huge component of what the film is about. And unfortunately, this is where the film falls flat. The stakes are never quite made abundantly apparent, and I wasn’t really sure what the consequences would be for failure.
Shazam! has the additional dimension of foster care that plays out in a very satisfying way, but the larger theme about family, and the choosing of a family I felt was a little… straight-to-home-video. It was tied off at the end with a neat little bow, whereas I felt it could have been much more nuanced. But this raises a question: was the family drama interfering with the superhero movie, or was the superhero movie cutting into the family drama? Suffice, at the heart of this movie, family and foster care seem to be at that core.
That said… Billy Baston’s emotional growth and development progresses at a very accelerated rate compared to how many foster children deal with the kind of trauma he went through. But then again, the entire reason he got his superpowers are because he’s pure-of-heart, so I guess that kinda wraps it up? Because aside from magical ethical qualifications entitling him to a slew of super-powers, he doesn’t really have as much of an excuse for describing how well-adjusted he is, given his circumstances. And that’s even when the film goes out of its way to depict him as poorly-adjusted!
Poorly-adjusted by kids-movie standards!
As far as the other kids go, I think they were great to watch on screen, but I didn’t quite get ‘group home family’ out of them. (My mother was a social worker and foster mother for a lot of my childhood so I have a bit of insight.) I’m alright to write it off as a testament to the foster parents, but even the youngest of them seemed very much at peace with being foster children. Not really something that took away from my experience of the movie, but if we approach Comic Books as a deconstructive study of characters, that would have been a lovely layer of sprinkles to see in these children.
By all means, this movie had better child actors than it had any credit for. Their performances, in many ways, outshone the adult actors (but maybe that’s because they had much more to do). And once again, that is not something you would have gathered from the trailers. And removing the element of foster care, I found that the behaviour and quirks of the children were very convincing.
One thing I’m not quite sold on is Zachari Levi. At first, he was a little bit irritating, but turned out to be a delight to watch on screen. My problem remaining is that I didn’t quite see him portray the same Billy Baston as Asher Angel. Angel was definitely the takeaway performance of the film, and I would have liked to see Levi embody more of that version. I think Levi played Super-Billy as a bit more broad-strokes adolescent, and as much as it was fun to watch, it didn't really help the character.
And if you’re hesitant to go because you don’t want to see how another white person becomes special and has to do special things to save the day, there’s a bit of a twist to that. Something that I could construe as political messaging. But, that’s for spoilers, and I’m very excited to write about it when the film actually comes out.
There was plenty that was set-up in the movie, and a lot that can be done with a sequel. And I certainly hope we get a sequel, not just to see more of what we have, but so that the filmmakers and actors can improve on what they brought to the table this time.
This is, of course, assuming there is a DCEU at the end of this. With Wonder Woman: 1984 (are they married to the title?) possibly setting up a flashpoint-type event… we may have a vastly different universe.
OR MAYBE Shazam! is already taking place in this alternate-flashpoint universe. I will say (mild spoilers?) that it’s a little bit… detached from the DCEU. Certainly it’s in a universe that Superman and Batman exist in, but it doesn’t feel a whole lot like the same universe as Batman v. Superman. It’s a nice kind of pocket where Warner Bros. executives can shove to the side and keep going if it doesn’t do well.
When really, I’d like to see more of this from the rest of the franchise.
Not only is this movie embracing the absurdity of the comic books, but it’s thinking about how it can fit into the mundanity of the real world. Not only that, but it’s very clear that everyone on set is having a lot of fun bringing it all to life. And once again, we find ourselves in a pattern. A pattern that seems to persist through every comic book movie outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When producers decide to go hands-off, they end up letting the creators make a movie that people actually want to enjoy. Deadpool, Logan, X-Men: First Class, Wonder Woman, Aquaman — they’re all movies that producers threw some money at while they went to micro-manage Suicide Squad, Justice League, Fantastic Four, the other Wolverine movies, and Age of Apocalypse.
(Now, because Marvel has to be different, Kevin Feige was at his weakest when he let Joss Whedon get a creative leg up on Age of Ultron.)
Shazam has me hoping that Wonder Woman: 1984 won’t flashpoint the DCEU. They can salvage what they have. They don’t have to retcon or recast, they just need to stop trying to turn their properties into something that they were not intended to be, and they need to stop using every movie to try and set up a future movie.
And that’s another reason why I’m worried for the follow-up to Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. When the only thing of substance in a movie is that it lays the foundation for a future movie, you feel like you’ve been cheated out of a ticket.
The first Wonder Woman didn’t do that, Aquaman didn’t do that, Shazam doesn’t do that, and few and far between are the Marvel movies that do that. For all people gripe about the Marvel formula, it sure seems as if it’s difficult for anyone else to do!
But if Warner Brothers continues going with the same direction as the three aforementioned films, I think they may have a shot. They key is to let movies be movies on their own.
My overall recommendation is to go check it out if you're on the fence about it. And if you don't have any interest in it, then maybe give it a chance. Shazam! hits American (and Canadian) theaters on the 5th of April.