Helmer vs. Holmes: ‘Shazam!’

Courtesy of Collider

Alex Helmer and Alex Holmes

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Alex Helmer:

Rating: 7.3/10

With the release of the newest and one of the most controversial MCU films Captain Marvel, and the anticipation for one of the decades most stirred about films, Avengers Endgame, rocketing through the roof, it’s quite easy to understand why the buzz for DC comics latest film, Shazam, hasn’t been too stimulating. Although not as charming compared to Tom Hanks’ Big or not as witty as Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool, Shazam still packs a punch, mainly by virtue of the charismatic performances given by Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer.

Shazam tells the tale of a 14-year-old foster kid by the name of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who acquires the ability to become a superhero (Zachary Levi) by shouting the word “SHAZAM”!

While many of the the past unsuccessful DC films have tended to go for a darker tone, Shazam thrives by means of its clear narrative and fun and entertaining characters. Levi and Grazer’s on screen chemistry is undeniable. This is hysterically demonstrated by Billy and Freddy teaming up throughout the film to solve the mystery: What are Billy’s new attained powers? Evaluations for flight, strength, speed, and others, are put to the test as the bond between Billy and Freddy grows.

Levi’s performance is similar to that of a Chris Pratt in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: very charming and a beacon of light. Freddy is a perfect character to be matched up with Billy as his deep knowledge of the superhero world assists Billy in his quest. Levi and Grazer’s performances aren’t put to waist by the script which (although with some cheesy and at times eye rolling dialogue), is very humorous and at times, heartfelt. Although Levi and Angel both play the same character, the writing for Billy when he isn’t in his caped crusader form is bland. Billy comes off as a grinch with mommy issues as he sucks the fun out of many of the scenes that he’s in. Regardless, of this feature of Billy’s character, Levi and Grazer became one of my favorite comic-book film pairings and their amusing antics had me asking for more.

The main issue with this film was the writing of the antagonist, Doctor Sivana (Mark Strong). The first act of the film provides source material for a great villain with understandable motivations. Although given a good backstory, Sivana is given his powers by the Seven Deadly Sins which transform his character into a cliche mustache twirling villain. Sivana commits some very dark deeds early in the film that were shockingly entertaining and had me liking his character until the seven CGI demons were introduced and had me dreading his next appearance. To waist a high caliber actor like Mark Strong is very disappointing (especially when his character started out very promising).

Although Strong’s antagonist was a big weakness in the film (which can easily be fixed in a sequel with the the conformation from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson that he will be playing Black Adam, Shazam’s arch rival, in a sequel), Shazam remains one of DC’s top films and leaves me pleading for the announcement for a sequel ASAP. Hopefully DC continues with its hot streak under new DC film production President, Walter Hamada. I would suggest this movie to anyone.

 

Alex Holmes:

Rating: 6/10

The DC superhero movies we’ve gotten so far have mostly been dour, downbeat movies that were a slog to sit through, such as “Man of Steel” in 2013, and “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” in 2016. Fans and critics alike pleaded for a more lighthearted approach, something akin to the Marvel comics adaptations, which are filled with one-liners and constantly quipping characters. With “Justice League” in 2017 and “Aquaman” last year, Warner Bros. seemed to overcompensate, taking a much too comic stance. The problem with “Shazam!” is not that it is too comedic in tone, but that there is not enough comedy. In essence, the parts that are funny or heartwarming are good, and the parts that are serious or action-filled are not.

“Shazam!” takes its name from the wizard who passes on his powers to foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel). Those powers include flight, super strength, super speed, and the ability to zap electricity out of his fingertips. The catch? Billy is transformed into an adult played by Zachary Levi when he utters the titular word. Then, and only then, can he use his powers.

Billy has gone through a series of foster homes, all while still searching for his long-lost mother. We know that he is a kid that has not lost hope because we see him approaching a potential parent with the last name of Batson with the same jittery nerves as the last 50 or so on his list.

Billy ends up in a group home headed by two charming parents who were once foster kids themselves. His new brothers and sisters are a motley bunch of more than one cliche, but they are likable enough to make you forget that. Jack Dylan Grazer plays Freddy, the fellow foster kid that Billy becomes closest to. He helps Levi’s Billy discover his new powers, and the two form a dynamic duo of laughs. They are given plenty of juicily funny lines and the two were clearly having a raving good time, in wonderful sequences of childlike fun that are filled with joyful energy.

Unfortunately, that energy is rapidly sucked out of the movie whenever the terrifyingly dull villain, Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), shows up. Not helped by a manipulative score that attempts to sound impending doom whenever he takes off his glasses to reveal one blue eye, Sivana is a villain as boring as they come.

His family looked down on him, saying he wasn’t good enough when he was a kid (shocker), and the same wizard who provided Billy with his powers passed on Sivana because he didn’t have a “pure” heart. Sivana (who is an adult, to be clear) now wants to destroy Billy with the help of the seven deadly sins (basically, just average CGI movie monsters). The sins could have been an interesting concept, adding some level of nuance to a movie trading in the obvious, but instead they are cut down to the bare minimum: they just want to kill people.  

There are too many scenes of Sivana up to no good, and they go on for too long. The real core of the movie is Billy interacting with his foster family. Those scenes bring the humor, emotion, and conflict. Quite frankly, this movie didn’t need a villainous villain like Sivana to shake things up. It was doing fine on its own until he showed up again and again and again. I would have loved to see a superhero movie without the average melodramatic action and instead with a real heart.

“Shazam!” does have consistent themes of family and working together, celebrating outsiderness. It is at its best when the charismatic Levi and Grazer are on the same team, joking around with each other and their brothers and sisters. In the end, “Shazam!” suffers from the same pitfalls as most superhero tales: a weak villain, weak action, and not enough of that “special sauce” that makes a movie memorable.