Shazam!: Power Fantasy, by Tyler Smith
David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! is an enjoyable experience. It harkens back to a simpler time in superhero movies, when goofy humor and campy fun could balance out the darker elements inherent in the genre. The tone of the film is often dictated by the whims of its main character, a 14-year-old boy who suddenly attains almost-godlike powers but none of the maturity required to fully understand them. It is mostly refreshing but, as one might expect, locking the film into the emotional roller coaster of adolescence does cause the film to be a little uneven at times.
The story begins with young Billy Batson (Asher Angel) as he searches for his long-lost mother. Abandoned at an early age, Billy has bounced from one foster family to another, before finally landing in a group home full of adorable moppets and troubled teens. Billy is quickly befriended by fellow foster kid Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) a disabled smartass with a love of superheroes. Soon enough, Billy finds himself magically transported to the lair of an aging wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who determines Billy to be pure-of-heart, passing his powers along to the boy. Billy is shocked to discover that he can now turn into a grown man (Zachary Levi) with the ability to fly, shoot lightning, and take bullets to the face. As Billy tests his new abilities, the evil Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), once rejected by the same wizard that imbued Billy, has harnessed the dark powers of the seven deadly sins, here represented by seven disgusting demonic entities.
As I write that description, I am struck by just how unabashedly silly this film is. Struck, mind you, but not angered. After creating a uniquely optimistic character in Wonder Woman, DC has now tapped into every child’s fantasy of casting off weakness and embodying strength and independence. At the core of this fundamental wish is the desire to be a grown-up. Or, more specifically, what a child thinks a grown-up is. Strip clubs, beer, and staying out all night long; these are the pleasures of adulthood, and Billy takes advantage of it all, while foiling the occasional crime along the way. But, just as we saw in Penny Marshall’s Big (which this film pays a playful homage to), the responsibilities of adulthood will eventually reassert themselves, and Billy is soon having to protect his loved ones from Sivana.
And it is in this concept of “loved ones” that Shazam! displays a desire to tackle larger issues while never fully committing to the weight of them. Billy’s abandonment is clearly meant to be the defining moment of his life, and understandably so. His journey to find his mother dominates the first act of the film, and is briefly revisited later on. Unfortunately, the emotional impact of this, along with the makeshift family at the group home, never fully lands. Instead, it is touched upon and then quickly forgotten, making it all seem perfunctory. Parental abandonment – or, in the case of Dr. Sivana, parental abuse – is a traumatic experience for any child, and should never be taken lightly. In this film, it is treated as an overly-simplified motivator at best and a half-hearted plot device at worst. These are important character moments and deserved more than the filmmakers were apparently willing to give them. This plot thread should either have been explored more deeply or completely scrapped, with my personal preference being the former.
The inconsistency in tone doesn’t simply come from the thematic elements, but also from the characters themselves. While Zachary Levi’s enthusiastic performance as Billy’s superpowered alter ego is enjoyable, it doesn’t really match the upbeat-but-sad work that Asher Angel is doing. While I understand that the sudden attainment of unlimited power could unlock a deeper joy within any kid, it’s hard to believe that somebody as guarded as Angel’s Billy would ever let himself cut this loose. Don’t get me wrong; both Levi and Angel are doing good work. They just don’t seem to be doing it together.
The supporting cast fares a bit better, with Jack Dylan Grazer being a particular standout. The nervous energy that Grazer brought to his role as Eddie in It serves him well here. Like Billy, Freddy is a foster kid who has built up emotional defenses of his own, but his desperation occasionally breaks through whenever he feels a genuine connection with another person. There is a tragic quality to Freddy and Grazer shows enough understanding of the character to display both his flaws and strengths in equal measure. He has our sympathy, but never asks for pity, which can be a tough balancing act.
I had a very good time watching Shazam!, despite its inconsistencies. It felt like a fun stylistic throwback to a time before the superhero film structure was so painfully familiar to us. Like its main character, the film is clearly enjoying itself, even as it has difficulty maintaining balance. But, in the end, the film’s problems begin to fade and its eagerness to have the audience share in its joy comes to the forefront. The film’s enthusiasm may be a little overwhelming at times, but it is contagious.