It’s April. The news comes with the dichotomous anxiety that anticipates warm summer Chicago months yet can’t shake the bone-petrifying cold and emotionally grueling days that started the year. And it’s a bitter pill to swallow, knowing just how heavy the first 90 days of Q1 has settled into my marrow. So like any mentally well-adjusted person, I needed a diversion and I needed one fast. Case in point: David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! The film, a product of a cultural movement demanding protracted, world-building nonsense, is part of Warner Brother’s Pictures’ intended DC Universe. That’s about all the information I had walking into the film. I knew nothing of the character, nothing of his origins or superpowers or the film’s cast or filmmaker. It was a blank slate. It felt anonymous, unknown, and ready to be discovered. For someone who felt found out, exposed, and without a communion of support for the past few months, I saw this facelessness as something incredibly appealing and approachable. Little did I know just how much I would relate to this film’s ethos. I’m perhaps inflating my appreciation for Shazam! because of a certain, personal vulnerability. You’ll just have to accept this asterisk-filled endorsement with the caveat that Shazam! ended up being exactly what I needed when I needed it.
The film opens with a notably terrifying passage set in 1972, whereby a ridiculed child seated in the backseat of a moving car, witnesses his father and brother’s sudden disappearance. The boy is transported to another dimension, where he’s tested to choose between, essentially, a path of good or evil. It’s a compelling sequence, insofar that it demonstrates a certain existential crisis that is rarely placed before children – the only recent example I can think of that demonstrates this in any convincing way is how Jonah Hill examines childhood loneliness in Mid90s. The child’s “wrong” choice transports him back to his father and brother, and the subsequent horror he witnesses just adds to his mounting guilt and anxiety.
The boy, Thad, is now a man (Mark Strong) and has spent his adult life trying to return to the dimension that denied him promises of power and control. Motivated by guilt and greed, we have our villain established. Our champion, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), doesn’t initially suggest the virtues of a hero – he’s first seen fooling police in an attempt to retrieve information about the mother that abandoned him as a child. The teen is filled with angst and has more or less exhausted his options, left now to a group home. But it ends up working in his favor, as Billy finds an unlikely kinship with the house children and its guardians. And in an attempt to rescue one of the kids from a beat-down at school, Billy ends up on his own journey to a new dimension, where he’s afforded a set of superpowers that he’s ill-prepared to inherit.
I think Shazam! is smart in how it lays out its premise, paralleling its two central characters as not oppositional forces but rather mirror images – two boys prone to mistakes, disappointed by their parents, and unsure of themselves. One boy, as it were, takes the disappointment of childhood and harnesses that towards acts of self-fulfillment and avarice, while the other is… not all that different. But timing is key and the film and both its characters seem to understand that. Moreover, writer Henry Gayden borrows extensively from other, better, films that explore the exponential and ostensible responsibilities that can sometime be thrust upon us. When Billy ends up inheriting the special powers of a wizard, his transformation from a teen to a full-grown superhero of a man (played with commendable doe-eyed naivety by Zachary Levi) contains numerous passages that reminded me of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, including a scene where Billy saves a woman from a mugging, along with a convenience store robbery sequence.
But Shazam! above all, demonstrates a clearheaded sense of communal belonging with an obvious intention of underscoring the importance of taking part in something. As you’d expect with a contemporary comic book film, this tries much too hard at winking and nudging its way through self-referential and genre-deprecating humor. Much like Deadpool, its brand of hip cynicism is often times more off-putting than actually funny. But when afforded moments of sentimentality, I was actually taken aback by the sincerity of those moments. This has a lot to do with the performers, who uniformly embrace the material and elevate the filmmaking as a result. As someone who has actively found a majority of contemporary superhero films to be skull-clutchingly dumb, I considered Shazam! to demonstrate a quality that’s been otherwise fairly absent in these films: a quality of good-natured sincerity.