Monday, April 22, 2019

The big red cheese


SHAZAM!

Better than most movies about kids meeting wizards, and one reasonably terrific addition to the DCEU's growing stable of very good superhero movies.

2019
Directed by David Sandberg
Written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke

Spoiler alert: moderate


Shazam! treads a pretty thin line, and for the most part treads it very, very well: it's a winking throwback that has very little interest in being epic (or, sometimes, even being taken seriously) while still retaining a whole lot of genuine enthusiasm for its characters and concepts and conflicts, and for letting you share in the extraordinarily lo-fi but nevertheless genuine sense of wonder they conjure up.  This is to say, it's mostly a joke, but it's kidding on the square, and I believe that at least one little boy in the theater just flat-out adored it.  That doesn't mean Shazam! is not "for adults" (this adult doesn't think so, anyway), but that it is "for kids"—the only indication it isn't for kids is the 2000 minute, I mean 132 minute, runtime—and this really isn't something that live-action superhero movies try.  It's weird when you think about it even if you mostly like the results (a strange irony of Shazam! being for kids is that the superhero movie it most reminds me of is Kick-Ass); but, in any event, it's especially rare for the DC ones.

The best DC movies are distinctive, but Shazam! really leaves the house style behind, and without swerving toward Marveldom, either.  It's very much its own thing.  That thing is awfully lovable, and so I think I must love it, despite a couple of choices that are definitely missteps even on Shazam!'s own reduced terms, along with one or two choices that I'm apt to perceive as missteps now, even if I might be convinced otherwise later.

For brevity's sake, I'll skip over the seemingly-obligatory "gee wilikers, did you know DC had their own Captain Marvel?" part of this Shazam! review, mostly because you either already do know, or you already don't care, and it's not a very efficient use of our time to go into all the little ins and outs of the tortured publication history of the Golden Age powerhouse that DC destroyed in the 1950s, resurrected in the 1970s (without the benefit of being able to use his name in the title), and finally, begrudgingly renamed "Shazam" at the beginning of the 2010s.  Yet it's worth mentioning that the essence of the character, strange as it may seem, arrives much later than his creation at the hands of Parker and Beck in 1940; that essence, of course, is the transformation of young urchin Billy Batson into an adult with superpowers, the physical incarnation of his own personal dream of flight and strength.  It's astonishing to think that neither the foundational Fawcett Comics stories nor the DC books till as late as the mid-80s actually seized upon this one key thing: in those tales, by contrast, Captain Marvel is more like a godly parasite, with Billy as its host.  (A theme to be explored in deeper, often-terrifying ways in Moore's seminal reboot of Britain's Captain Marvel knockoff, Miracleman.  It was a copyright infringement of a copyright infringement, to be sure—but aren't they all?)

But I bring it up because Shazam!, the film, totally understands the core of what's truly appealing and unique about this iteration of the Superman.  This, as thousands have pointed out but is no less true for being obvious, is essentially Big, But Now Tom Hanks Is a Superhero; and yeah, when it comes to this aspect of the character, Big still didn't come first, but in this film still feels like it does.  In due course, Shazam! tips its hat directly to its influence by placing one of its several superhero punch-outs inside an homage of Big's toy store.  Its action-adventure remix results in what I would probably call the single coolest shot of the film, as well as its most pleasurable gag.  Anyway, what I'm driving at is that Shazam! is wish-fulfillment of the sweetest kind, finding its specifics once again in the story of a sad young boy, updated for a new age where kids don't often invoke the holiness of moly, but still an orphan and still shit on by the world.

And so, if not necessarily in this order, we find Billy (Angel Asher) in flight from yet another foster family, in search of his long-lost mother, picked up yet again and sent back into the system, where he's given one more shot at a family with the Vasquezes (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews) and the group home they run for Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand), Darla (Faithe Herman), and, most importantly, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer).  Freddy rankles Billy with his various geekdoms, including a worship of the superheroes we hear of but thankfully don't see.  But it's to Freddy that Billy naturally turns when, during his inevitable attempt to run away again, he is spirited off to the Rock of Eternity, where a mighty wizard (Djimon Honsou in a very shiny dress) grants him the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, and so on until you have all six of the letters of the invocation that is his name, which he likewise offers to Billy in turn: SHAZAM (Zachary Levi).

Just forget that the digraph "sh" is still a single phoneme and so mostly only works in English plus a few other written languages, all of which our wizard explicitly predates.  You God damned nerd.

But! What we know, and what Billy does not, is that the wizard Shazam, his mortal vessel waning, has been in search of a pure soul for many years.  One such candidate who failed his interview has not in forty years given up on stealing the power that was once denied him, and this Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has spent a lifetime and a fortune looking for a way back to Eternity.  Now, he's finally kicked down the door, and become a willing host to the Seven Deadly Sins that Shazam and his fellow, dead wizards had caged, centuries before.  Worse, Sivana's run out Shazam's clock at last, and so Billy is Shazam's choice of champion by nothing but default: the wizard's dying act was to gamble on the heroism of a random youth against the villainy of a grown man literally powered by evil.

It actually doesn't look like that good a bet for a long stretch of the film, and the consensus is that Billy's ass-backwards fall into the crassest possible uses of his powers and adult body—YouTube stardom, strip clubs, becoming a street performer who uses his superpowers for tips—in which he is aided and abetted by an initially-ecstatic then increasingly-disappointed Freddy, is the best part of Shazam, despite ambling in what amounts to a plot-free hang-out mode.  And this time the consensus is spot-on, even if it misses the forest for the trees; the shaggy ambling wouldn't have nearly the same effect if there weren't a world to save, so you can't blame Shazam! for putting it in peril.  Still, it's where the heart and soul of the movie lie: the easy comedy with a Ambliny bent (there's so much Joe Dante in this); the deliberate visual contrast between gritty Philadelphian streets and the chinzty preposterousness of Shazam's bulbous bright red musclesuit (which Levi has, as is his right, taken great pains to assure us is still mostly him); and above all the absolutely terrific triangular interplay between Grazer and Asher on one side, Grazer and Levi on another, and, in the film's most interestingly invisible relationship, Asher and Levi on the third.  The performances of Billy the teenager and Shazam the demigod are in perfect dialogue with each other, so seamless you never once question whether Freddy is still interacting with Billy, regardless of which form he takes; but they're not the same.  Billy runs a gamut of emotions throughout the film, often complicated ones involving reluctance and shame and grief, expressed through sarcasm and anger and hopelessness when hope is actually called for, paired with great big assumptions of hope when none is actually on offer because, apparently, the dude simply likes punishing himself.  But Shazam—Shazam is Billy, but only if Billy were capable of joy.


It's exceptional ensemble work, and this includes the kids of the Vasquez house, who are written to embody their individual stereotypes (only Darla's blinding cuteness truly rises above the mob), but whose performers always make them feel correct; in fact, one of the single most likeable things about Shazam! is the unorthodox family it creates, if for no other reason than it's a media representation of adults who collect unwanted children, yet are actually good.  I chalk all of this up to director David Sandberg, whose work I'm only half-familiar with, and whose movie-before-last, Lights Out, is B-horror trash that doesn't even live up to the backhanded compliment of "boilerplate."  But Lights Out did boast a tremendous little child performance from the heroine's little brother.  Reportedly, the same can be said about Annabelle: Creation, and Shazam! exploits the crap out of this very important skillset.

It also exploits the crap out of that ghosts-and-jump-scares background, too, and somebody (who might be me) could plausibly make the argument that Shazam! is a better horror movie than (at least) Lights Out; it's kid's horror, but diabolically effective when it wants to be (like I said, lotta Joe Dante here), particularly the first foray of the Seven Deadlies back out in the wild, which uses a wall of frosted glass exactly the way the grown-up horror version of this scene would, except without the several buckets of blood.  (The choice to have the Seven Deadlies speak telepathically—they gaze with glowing red coals for eyes, but their mouths do not move—is likewise a strong, subtle touch.)  The film's nastier moments, of course, all revolve around Sivana's insane quest, and good ol' Mark Strong is terribly effective, as Mark Strong usually is.  The downside is that Shazam! is constitutionally not capable of anything more than "effective" for its antagonist—a good villain more than a great one, and one whose film stops caring much about his tragic background beyond its use for setting up Shazam's mythological backstory.  That doesn't mean there's nothing to Sivana except Strong's menace and budget CGI horror imagery.  The way Sivana breaks back into the Rock of Eternity is magic-as-science perfection, and, even if it's only one scene, does everything it needs to do to redeem the character's (not universally well-received) reconception from manipulative mastermind into magically-fueled mean guy who punches things.  I'm also very fond of the Matrix Revolutions/Man of Steel parody that inheres to the film's aerial battle climax—it's testament to the success of Strong's performance and Sandberg's horror imagery that Shazam! can be this funny in this crucial moment without wholly destroying his threat.


All along, Shazam! is doing something with Billy and "Thad" in a nicely unstressed way—practically nothing in Shazam! is really stressed—which is to ask about the nature of heroism and the nature of chosen ones in heroic fiction.  Sivana tells the wizard there's no such thing as purity.  If you're paying attention, Billy's the proof of his argument.  But there it is, simple as you might find it: choices make the difference between good and evil.

Shazam! is not always great or even good, though; on a structural level, the script, or Sandberg's interpretation of it, is more than a little shoddy, continually forgetting that events are supposed to have consequences, and putting things in an order that would seem to preempt the scenes after them, but then those scenes happen anyway.  This is noticeable enough with Freddy's bullies (Freddy's bullies are straight-up time travelers, and even for the 1980s they're extravagantly cruel), who probably would have bigger things to worry about than Freddy after Billy drops their truck out of the sky.  But robotically single-minded bullies are a staple of kid's fiction you can deal with; unfortunately, Shazam!'s mish-mashy storytelling is actively offensive when it comes to Billy's quest for his mother, which is so foregone in its conclusions that it briefly turns Billy into an idiot so stupidly pathetic you can't even properly pity him, and which plays out in the midst of metahuman mayhem in Philadelphia, so it's also tacked on in the most awkward place it could possibly be.  Shazam! is too long, as all superhero films are; it is almost entirely this subplot that actually makes it too long, and while there's heads and tails of lots of scenes that could be cut to Shazam!'s benefit, it's solely within this subplot that you ever genuinely feel it being too long.  The denouement with Billy's real family, too, is at least questionable: it's an outright great emotional beat, no doubt, and funny too, but it has a utopian kind of finality to it that feels like it comes from a last Shazam story, not the first.  (Obviously, it wouldn't be the first time Geoff Johns felt differently.)

It's certainly nothing that hurts Shazam! too bad—heck, you could argue that the last objection is something that makes Shazam! too good!—and you have a film that stoops to its real audience without ever forgetting the rest of the people there to see it.  It's solid superhero cinema, and, like I said, treads an exceedingly careful line, and never more skillfully than in the one shot it offers that does reach out for the epic.  For a moment you're permitted to take this throwback to a 90s superhero pseudo-parody completely seriously, in a leap of faith and a blast of lightning.  It's no Aquaman, nor Batman v Superman, but if everything were, there wouldn't be room for any Shazam!

Score: 8/10

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