Shazam! is a delightful throwback
Even as a comics reader, I have to admit that I was skeptical of anyone making a Shazam! movie. There’s a few reasons for that. First, the comic character’s apex of popularity was the early 1940s, when he was more popular than Superman. Attempts to revive the character in the preceding 70 years haven’t been all that successful. The concept–a kid says a magic word and transforms into a super-powered adult–largely hasn’t resonated with comics fans as the average age among readers has climbed ever upward since his inception. And the original stories are somewhat more fantastical than we’re used to in superhero comics–one of my favorite characters from his comics is a talking tiger named Talky Tawny, he rules–the character fought a group of villains called The Monster Society of Evil which not only included a guy named Captain Nazi, but also Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, Crocodile-Men, and was led by a genius worm. Comics were so much weirder back than, if you can believe it.
The character has had some great moments since then, but has never been much of a marquee name (I have a couple of reading recommendations at the end of this review). Even more, this is a PG-13 movie aimed at a wide audience. Most of the recent successful Shazam comics have been aimed at kids. And with the main character of the story being a kid who can turn into an adult, you’d think it would be more marketable as a film aimed at children.
Not only am I surprised by the existence of this movie, but also by its quality. This movie is as earnest as they come, and is devoid of much of the cynicism that has marked WB’s DC comics output of the last decade or so. It’s a nice change of pace, even a few steps forward from James Wan’s effervescent Aquaman. That’s not always the easiest sell in our current era (it’s been easy to forget the skepticism that resulted when Marvel said they were making a Captain America movie), but Shazam! is as nice-forward as Paddington, even if it more actively confronts the darkness in all of us. And it is a reminder that what defines good and evil isn’t always how well one adheres to the law so much as how we overcome emotional hurdles.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster kid runaway, placed in a new group home. He keeps searching for his mother, but he ends up finding a wizard who makes him a champion for good. By saying the wizard’s name, Shazam, Billy is transformed into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). He is tasked with returning incarnations of the Seven Deadly Sins into captivity. The Sins are working with Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), a wealthy man obsessed with consolidating all of the wizard’s power. Sivana is a pitch-black villain. He is as evil as they come, and it is a smart contrast to the pure goodness that Shazam is meant to represent. Mostly Billy uses his new power to try to acquire money and fame, but eventually learns that he needs to use his power for good. Along the way he forms a bond with Freddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), his superhero-obsessed roommate.
Some of the most fun parts of the movie are Shazam and Freddie hanging out. They try to figure out all of his superpowers, buy beer, and skip school without getting caught. These are perfect examples of the film’s retrograde charm. Its attitudes about the importance of family are traditional, but it places an extremely non-traditional one as the beating heart of the film. The film is relatively simple. Rather than trying to ground anything in reality (using a lot of second unit and CGI to give Philadelphia our second superhero film of the year), it embraces the idea of magic to explain everything. It’s refreshing. Only pedantic nerds care about how Aquaman can talk underwater, and the same principal is found here. Shazam! is more concerned about moral lessons and brightly colored spectacle than it is trying to create a sense of realism. It’s closer to Power Rangers than The Dark Knight.
While we aways want our genre fare to become more sophisticated and complex over time, Shazam! is a great reminder that there is so much joy in the simple nuts and bolts of superheroes.
Some reading recommendations
Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil by Jeff Smith - this miniseries by legendary cartoonist Jeff Smith (Bone) is the perfect self-contained story that manages to capture the timeless feeling of the best Shazam stories but fit well with contemporary sensibilities. Comixology link.
Convergence: Shazam! by Jeff Parker and Evan “Doc” Shaner - These two issues are part of a larger crossover you don’t need to read, but this has Shazam meeting the dark “Gotham by Gaslight” steampunk heroes. Shaner’s artwork is extremely clean and classic feeling. Comixology link.
The Multiversity: Thunderworld Adventures by Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart - this single issue is also part of a larger, multiverse spanning story. This one is also mostly self-contained, but it is a loving tribute to Shazam as a concept and keeping that alive. Comixology link.