For quite a while the idea of new film in the DC Extended Universe would be a pretty bleak one. The franchise started out incredibly poorly, dishing out three of the absolute worst superhero films ever made, establishing this new connected universe as a grim, petulant, and depressing slog. But, things took a pretty shocking departure with Wonder Woman, a film that actually seemed to enjoy its characters, and try to tell an enjoyable and engaging story. But, that optimism seemed to be in serious doubt when it was followed up by Justice League, a movie that felt like an entire franchise just throwing its hands up and admitting it had no idea what it was doing. And yet, much to my extreme surprise, things are kind of picking back up. Aquaman was shockingly fun, colorful, and embraced all of the weird mythology and goofiness that used to make DC Comics so fun to read. I had essentially given up on the DCEU, losing what little hope I ever could have mustered for it, but Aquaman seemed to point to a very different direction. And, it worked. The movie made a ridiculous amount of money, and it seems like Warner Brothers has all but admitted that they’re giving up on trying to copy the MCU, essentially going back to making self-contained movies that are actually pleasurable to watch. Which, is a bold idea! And, that new trend is continuing with their latest offering, a film that I never would have assumed would have been up my alley when it was first announced. I don’t have a whole lot of experience with Shazam, or Captain Marvel, but what little I knew made me seriously doubt that he would fit in with the angsty nonsense that the DCEU seemed to be peddling. But, thankfully, much like Aquaman, Shazam! has done the impossible, and made another fun DC movie.
Shazam! opens up by laying a lot of the complicated mythology of the character on us. There’s an ancient wizard named Shazam who has been tasked with keeping personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins imprisoned in his home, the Rock of Eternity, but his powers are failing and he needs to find someone pure of heart to take over for him. He initially meets with a young boy named Thaddeus Sivana, but Sivana is too easily seduced by the Sins and is banished, with Shazam promising that he’ll wait to find someone good enough. Almost forty years then pass and we’re in present day Philadelphia where a young orphan named Billy Baston is placed in the care of a group home parented by Victor and Rosa Vazquez, along with several other children, Freddie, Mary, Pedro, Eugene, and Varla. Billy doesn’t really want to live with these people, even though they do seem nice, because he’s convinced he needs to find his birth mother who he got separated from when he was a child. And, while Billy is getting used to this new home, sort of making friends with the awkward and superhero obsessed Freddie, we find that Sivana has spent that ensuing decades obsessed with returning to the Rock of Eternity. He’s been researching people who have also met with Shazam, and finally finds a way back to the Rock where he embraces the Sins, and becomes their champion, destroying most of Shazam’s base and leaving the wizard in bad shape. So, with no time left to find a perfect candidate, Shazam reaches out and ends up finding Billy Batson, summoning him to the Rock of Eternity and offering him the chance to become his champion. Billy is more than a little confused, but he does agree, and is transformed into a hero known as Shazam, a superhero with the body of a grown man.
Billy returns to Philadelphia and ends up coming to Freddie for help, since he knows about superheroes. Together the two begin to test the extent of Billy’s powers, learning he is super-strong, invulnerable, has super speed, and can generate electricity. They also begin dabbling with the idea of heroism, while also learning that if Billy says the word “Shazam” he can transform back and forth between his real form and his champion form. However, Billy starts to lose patience with his real life, choosing to spend more and more time as Shazam, showboating and goofing off, alienating himself from Freddie. And, as an unexpected side-effect, he also draws the attention of Sivana, who is told by the Sins that he can become even more powerful if he kills Shazam. So, Sivana begins attacking Shazam, and Billy quickly realizes he has no idea what he’s doing. But, when Sivana begins targeting Freddie and the rest of the siblings, Billy realizes it’s time to step up and fight for his new family. He saves the siblings, and after realizing that Sivana becomes mortal again when the Sins leave his body, they concoct a plan to get all of them out. But, that would leave Billy pretty out-numbered. Luckily, he decides to try the same ritual that the wizard used on him, and he’s able to give Freddie, Mary, Varla, Pedro, and Eugene the powers of Shazam as well. So, as a superpowered family they fight against the Seven Deadly Sins and Sivana, before finally pulling their magical eye out of Sivana’s head, saving the world from the Sins. And, realizing that it’s now their duty to guard the sins and protect the world, they become a crime-fighting family, taking up the duty of the wizard.
I really had no idea what to expect with this film. The idea of a movie based on Shazam seemed like it could work, but not in the hands of the usual people behind the DCEU. Thankfully, that era seems to be completely over now, and they’ve fully embraced an almost Silver Age sense of goofiness, which couldn’t make me happier. A dark and gritty Shazam would never work, in my opinion, since the source material is so wonderfully weird. Full of magic powers, wizards, and goofy 1930’s concepts, Shazam works best when you embrace how silly a character he is. And, thankfully, this film understood that. But, it also didn’t go the route that I became very worried this film would take, creating a film that seemed embraced of everything Shazam stood for and making a movie that was essentially mocking him the entire time. Instead they did the seemingly impossible and made a film that embraced Shazam, lovingly lampooning some of the sillier aspects of his character and legacy, but generally accepting all of it and just telling a really fun story. It feels so rare to have a good time with a DC movie, watching a storied character have fun adventures that doesn’t involve him murdering some other superhero. It was just a good old-fashioned superhero flick, full of action, heroism, and fun.
It’s a common sentiment among a certain type of superhero fan that superhero movies shouldn’t be “fun.” They should be deadly serious, and feature death, destruction, and all manner of adolescent moodiness. It comes from the same impulse to call comic books “graphic novels,” and toys “action figures.” It stems from a shame that the things they love are “for kid,” and since they aren’t kids anymore, the things they love need to be explicitly no longer for kids. This is a sentiment that I have repeatedly insisted is ridiculous. It’s all based around shame, and I just don’t have time in my life for that way of thinking. There’s too much legitimate sadness and misery in the world to spend my time engaging with purely escapist narratives that seek to reflect that misery. There’s a time and place for gritty examinations of the horrors of the world, and I personally don’t think that stories about people in tights beating each other up is either. Superheroes are escapism. They’re exciting and fun adventure stories that are meant to entertain us while also imparting very basic moralities upon us. Superhero stories are a bizarre mixture of larger than life mythology, and deeply human stories. Which, is one of the things I’ve always found most interesting about the superhero genre. The ways that these gods among men interact with the world around them. And that’s one of the strongest aspects of Shazam! Because this is a movie that takes place in a world full of superheroes, features characters who love superheroes, and who are given the chance to become superheroes. And, they love it. Billy has a some issues accepting his call to action at first, but by and large this is a story about people getting the chance to become superheroes, to be good and decent people and save innocent, and they happily did so. It wasn’t a story about a crushing burden, or whatever the hell they thought they were doing with Batman v Superman, it was a story about people who have lived in a world of superheroics, and have learned that heroism is and when given the chance to do the same thing, they gladly accept it. Because that’s what heroes do.
Shazam! was written by Henry Gayden, directed by David F Sandberg, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk