SHAZAM! (2019)

Review by LL Soares

This might be a confusing time for fans of Captain Marvel.

Back in the 1970s (1974 -1977, to be exact) there was a little Saturday morning show called SHAZAM!  where young Billy Batson (Michael Gray) said the secret word and transformed with a clap of thunder into Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick). But the most recent movie to be called CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019) stars Brie Larson as a superheroine with cosmic powers, who is soon going to be helping the Avengers kick Thanos’s ass in AVENGERS: ENDGAME later this month.

And now we’ve got a new SHAZAM! movie as well, where Billy Batson (Asher Angel, from the Disney TV show “ANDI MACK,” 2017-2019) turns into…er…Shazam? (Zachary Levi, “HEROES REBORN” 2015-2016)…when he says his own name. Holy lightning bolts, Batman! What’s going on here?

For brevity’s sake, here’s a crash course in the history of Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel was originally created by writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck in 1939 and was a very popular comic book hero whose peak was in the 1940s. There was even a live-action serial (short films with a continuing plot, for those who aren’t familiar with them) about the character called Adventures of Captain Marvel, starring Tom Tyler as the titular superhero. But in 1953, Fawcett stopped publishing the comics, due in part to waning sales (the superhero genre wasn’t selling as well) and partly due to a lawsuit from DC Comics, claiming Captain Marvel was a rip-off of Superman. In the 1960s, Marvel Comics got the trademark for the name Captain Marvel, which they used for a new line of characters. In 1972, DC Comics got the rights to the actual characters of Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family (Cappy has a whole family of superheroes, another similarity with Superman at the time), but couldn’t use the name Captain Marvel. So the series was called SHAZAM. This latter property is the basis of the new SHAZAM! movie.

Up to speed?

Anyway, the basic idea is Billy Batson, a normal everyday kid, is given the gift of turning into an adult superhero (who’s a lot of Superman) when he says the word SHAZAM which stands for the great heroes of the past: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. This power is bestowed upon him by a wizard named Mentor (referred to as just “Wizard” in the credits of the new movie, and played now by Djimon Hounsou of “GUARDIAN’S OF THE GALAXY,” 2014, and, ironically, currently in Marvel’s “CAPTAIN MARVEL,” 2019) The gimmick of the new movie is that even though young Billy turns into an adult superhero, he still has the mind of his 15-year-old self. So sometimes thing get goofy.

It’s a more light-hearted plotline than most DC Comics movies these days, although there’s some gritty stuff here, too. When we first meet Billy, he’s at a carnival with his mom. At one point, he gets lost, and can’t find his mother. The police find him, and he ends up in a series of foster families. This, right off the bat, had me scratching my head. A kid gets lost, knows his name and his family must be nearby, and the police can’t track down his mother? This seemed incredibly stupid to me. But hey, we have to keep going…

Billy runs away from every foster family he’s placed in. He runs away because he’s trying to track down his mother. He has a list of names from the phone book of women named Batson, who might be his mother. But he keeps coming up empty. Now he gets placed in a new home, which is run by the couple Victor Vasquez (who you might recognize as “THE WALKING DEAD” character JERRY!) and his wife Rosa (Marta Milans, “NO TOMORROW” 2016 – 2017). The other kids in the group home include teenage Mary (Grace Fulton, “THE GHOST WHISPERER,” 2005-2007, “REVENGE,” 2012-2013, and “ANNABELLE: CREATION,” 2017) who’s trying to get into college; video game enthusiast Eugene (Ian Chen, from the TV shows “FRESH OFF THE BOAT” and “GREY’S ANATOMY”); introverted Pedro (Jovan Armand, from the show “THE MIDDLE”); cute little Darla (Faithe Herman, “THIS IS US”); and disabled Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, also in “IT,” 2017 and the upcoming “IT: CHAPTER TWO”). Billy gets closest to Freddy, since they share a room. But obviously Billy doesn’t have plans to stick around very long.

Meanwhile, that wizard I mentioned (Hounsou) is trying to find someone who is “pure of heart,” so he can transfer his magical powers to them before he dies of old age, and random people find themselves suddenly transported to the wizard’s cave, so he can test them to see if they’re good enough. Of course, no one’s ever good enough. But one of the kids he rejected carries a grudge, and grows up to be the evil Dr. Silvana (Mark Strong, also in “KICK-ASS,” 2010, “JOHN CARTER,” 2012, and “KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE,” 2014, as well as 103 other credits on IMDB.com). He’s intent on finding that cave again and teaming up with the wizard’s enemies – the Seven Deadly Sins – which are imprisoned inside stone statues in the wizard’s cave. They promise to give him powers of evil, so he can defeat the wizard’s hero (if he ever finds one).

A lot of this comes from the comics, but man, is it a slog. I found the first half hour of this movie really tough to sit through. I didn’t care about Billy Batson or his mom, or Sivana and his grudge, or the dopey wizard and his tests. All of it bored me to tears, and I kind of wondered why I spent the money for a movie ticket, and then something happened.

Billy Batson, of course, passes the wizard’s test and is transformed by magic into the mighty hero SHAZAM! whenever he says the word SHAZAM! which is also his name (I believe it’s also supposed to be the wizard’s name here as well, so that’s a tad confusing). At this point, Asher Angel’s Billy turns into Zachary Levi, the actor who plays SHAZAM!, and suddenly, the movie’s worth watching.

JUST LIKE MAGIC!

Like I said, I didn’t find Asher Angel’s Billy all that riveting, but once he’s transformed into Zachary Levi’s SHAZAM, things get interesting. Here’s where it becomes a combination of BIG and SUPERMAN. The best interaction in the movie is between Levi’s Shazam and his buddy Freddy, especially when they do a series of “stunts” to determine what Shazam’s powers are. (Super speed, CHECK!). While he tries to figure out all the cool things he can do (including buying beer), Dr. Sivana has absorbed the Seven Deadly Sins—they look like crazy CGI monsters!—who turn into smoke and go inside his glowing eye to give him evil super powers (doesn’t that sound amazing!). Unfortunately, those CGI monsters don’t have much personality and are kind of generic, and they’re as exciting as flat soda.

I like actor Mark Strong a lot, he’s a terrific actor, but man, the dude gets no respect. He should be a big star at this point, but instead he’s playing second-rate bad guys like Dr. Sivana! When is this guy going to get his big break and become a leading man already!  

Eventually Sivana and Shazam meet, and we get some superpowered fisticuffs, culminating in a big showdown between Sivana and the CGI Sin Monsters vs. Shazam and some unexpected allies (they’re actually pretty cool).

SHAZAM! is directed by David F. Sandberg, who also gave us “LIGHTS OUT “(2016) and “ANNABELLE: CREATION” (2017), and he does an okay job here. The screenplay is by Henry Grayden (“EARTH TO ECHO,” 2014), and frankly, if they hadn’t cast people as talented as Levi and Strong, this would have been a complete waste of time.

Overall, my feeling is that when Levi is onscreen, especially with Grazer, the movie is a lot of fun. When Levi isn’t around, it drags. So I’m really on the fence about this one. Is Levi enough to justify the whole movie? Not really. But I give SHAZAM! a score of 2 ½ knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives SHAZAM! ~~ 2 1/2 knives!

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