Since the execs at Warner brothers started dissecting the formula for Marvel Studio’s indefatigable success at the box office, discussion had been rife about how DC was just too dark and depressing for any casual movie-goer (let’s face it, most of us are) who just wanted to have a well-rounded, wholesome superhero action. This singular aspect gathered so much momentum that Warner, in their desperation, brought in an ex-Marvel Director Joss Whedon, who helmed the very first ensemble Marvel movie The Avengers. As the world waited with bated breath for the first ensemble DC movie in Justice League, word got out that Whedon had been tasked with re-shooting scenes which were tonally dark as envisioned by the original director Zack Snyder. The final result, when it came out, was a movie which was trying hard to rise up to its funnier cousin (Marvel) but was falling flat with its half-baked humour that felt like an after-thought rather than a part of its very fabric. Aquaman did little to alleviate that image. It was a brighter and more colourful movie for sure but there was no tangible humour to speak of. All that’s changed with Shazam! .
With Director David Sandberg, Warner bros. took a gamble that is increasingly becoming a trend in the comic book film-making business. Instead of working with established directors with a set style and a reputation to boot, you give the project to an upcoming director with a promising angle about your character. This not only gives the Production house a lot more control over the story since the power of negotiation would lie with them, but it also allows them to control the budget while keeping the director in a tight leash. Although this feels tyrannical at the outset, this works surprisingly well. Tim Miller’s debut film Deadpool that was filmed at a measly (from superhero movie standards) $58 million and earned back $783 million at the box office. Compare this to Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, and the difference is stark with a budget of $228 million and a box-office revenue of $668 million. Shazam!, however, has been filmed at a little less conservative budget range of $80 – $100 million based on its Wikipedia page but still half the budget of most superhero films.
For Sandberg, who debuted with the James Wan produced 2016 horror film Lights Out, Shazam! is only the second film, and a vast departure from his previous genre at that. This makes it all the more special in hindsight. What’s with horror directors and their knack with breakout superhero films ? Shazam! tells the story of a 14-year-old Billy Batson who has run away from various foster homes all his life trying to find his long-lost mother. Although he is put up with a family that really wants to care for him and love, he still feels unattached. On a fateful day, while riding on a subway train, Billy finds himself whisked away to a strange cave where an old man stands guard. He tells Billy that he is the last of the seven wizards and has been looking for a “pure heart” who was worthy enough to inherit his powers. All Billy has to do is put his hands on the staff he held and say his name – Shazam. Overwhelmed by this strange situation, Billy does what the old man says, and voila! He is suddenly a fully grown man in bright red tights! Still confused and completely bamboozled, he is transported back to the Subway train in that get-up. Slinking away from snide remarks from strangers, Billy gets back home and gets his comic-book nerd foster-brother Freddy to become his confidante. Freddy becomes obsessed with finding out what powers Billy has and asks him to do things that superheroes did like jumping off of buildings, dousing him with fire, shooting lasers, and what not. Before returning home, all Billy had to do was say the magic word and he would return back to his old 14-year-old self. In a parallel arc, a 40-year-old man Dr. Thaddeus Sivana has been bestowed with powers from the adversaries of the old wizard. While Billy gets the power to do good, Sivana gets his powers from the seven deadly sins, manifested as monsters, who ask him to kill Billy before he realised his full potential.
Shazam!’s appeal comes from the fact that it is a fully self-aware of where it comes from and of the universe that it exists in. When Billy meets his room-mate Freddy at the foster-home for the first time, Freddy shows him a squished bullet which he claims to have come from a bullet hitting Superman himself, complete with a certificate of authenticity. He also shows him a Batarang collector’s replica. More than that, the writing jibes at the fact that orphans are not always as moody and angsty all the time as is typically shown in DC films, through Freddy’s opening monologue and the general dynamics between all the kids there. More than a superhero film, Shazam! has been treated as a story where a kid is trying to find his way back home and also his identity. He has been a nobody all his life with no one to call family. Suddenly he gets all these powers which he doesn’t know what to do with. Inside he is still the same kid who is always scrounging for money from strangers to go through another day. He uses his powers as street performances hoping that people would give him some money after the spectacle. This whole premise lends itself a humourous aspect as you don’t see superheroes performing tricks for people, saying things like – “Y’know people usually pay money after that…but you don’t want to…you’re a nice couple…that’s okay.” Sandberg also subverts some of the typical superhero film tropes into hilarious re-enactments like when Shazam-Billy and Freddy go into a grocery store to buy beer, well, since they can, and have to fight a couple of masked men who decide to loot the store that instant. Freddy prods a scared Shazam to go ahead and “act like a superhero”. They shoot at him as they always do, and the bullets just bounce away. Freddy is elated but not quite satisfied. “Let’s see if it’s just your suit that is bullet-proof or you are. Shoot him in the face.”, he tells the goons in a purposeful, matter-of-fact tone.
It is not just the fun writing that stands out. Zachary Levi breathes life into the “14-year-old in a 30-year-old’s body” premise through his phenomenal facial expressions and a jumpy teenager vibe. You forget that this is grown man playing a teenager.
It is not just the fun writing that stands out. Zachary Levi breathes life into the “14-year-old in a 30-year-old’s body” premise through his phenomenal facial expressions and a jumpy teenager vibe. You forget that this is grown man playing a teenager. With a character which is played by two different actors in the same timeline, it becomes a risky transition. For the movie to feel seamless, the transitions between the characters would have to be exactly same tonally and behaviourally. Even the slightest deviations in characterization would mean a complete disconnect making it feel that they were two distinct individuals. That doesn’t happen here. When Billy un-Shazam!s himself, you still believe that he has gone through the same battles that Shazam has. And vice versa. Asher Angel, who plays the young Billy Batson, gets you invested in his cause even with the limited screen-space that he gets. He provides a poignant back-story to what would become the character-foundation for Shazam.
Jack Grazer as the comic-book nerd Freddy is one of my favourite characters from the movie besides Shazam, of course, and perhaps, the best written. Freddy jokes about his life as a foster-kid. He shows off his crutch and makes up a story about it as he points at the window and tell Billy – “It’s high. Trust me, I have tried.” We never get to know if that was true as we never get to know how he got injured in the first place. Freddy is constantly bullied at school and outcast by everyone at lunch. So, when another foster-kid his age gains super-powers, you may imagine how it would have made him feel. Although he is a sport about it, he does vent out his frustration in one of the most poignant scenes in the film. Mark Strong who plays Shazam’s nemesis Thaddeus Sivana is as good as he can be with the script that he is allowed. He is a typical unidimensional purpose of gaining Shazam’s power. The theme of the film is, however, consistent with his back-story as well wherein he is always belittled by his father as a kid. When he is transported to the magical cave, there too he is rejected by the old wizard basically telling him that he wasn’t good enough. This is interesting because here was a boy who was alone even when he did have his blood family with him, which proves to show that family is whoever loves or cares about you the most. They don’t need to be related.
With Shazam, DC has finally managed to find that elusive groove that it had been missing. The film balances heart-warming moments with great comedic timing to deliver us a fun-filled joyride that never lets down the pace. There are a few plotholes, for instance – it takes a years for Sivan to figure out that he had to write the sequence of symbols seven times instead of six even though he always knew about the seven deadly sins. But then I would be nitpicking. Shazam checks all the right boxes and launches a brand new superhero arc all the while enjoying itself. It would be interesting to watch how the character would tie in with the overall DCEU but for now, Shazam is here to rule our hearts !