I have taken the time to go through three phases of Marvel films. The enjoyment and quality factor is definitely mixed, but at least once things got going they seemed to be going somewhere. Largely I have avoided the DC Universe, even though when I was a kid and read comic books I can definitely said I preferred Batman and Superman over most Marvel stuff, save Spiderman.
The DCU really has no excuse for how bad it's been. After all, they have had Superman forever. He's been a staple of radio, television, comics and movies since the 1940s. When it comes to superhero films, he was the first one to star in any that were worth anything, namely the first two Superman movies directed by Richard Donner. Batman did just as well in both the hands of Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, and Superman Returns, flawed as it was, did its best to ignore the two not directed by Donner and give us a decent movie. Unfortunately, none of this makes up the DCU at this point.
From Man of Steel forward we have been subjected to a number of virtually plotless CGI fests with the color palette of the Los Angeles sky. When not every shade of brown they have been doing their best to imitate Blade Runner. They have been financially successful, largely because of Chinese audiences and high hopes on behalf of American audiences, but before Shazam! the only one worth seeing was Wonder Woman. While it still looked as ugly as the other DC films, it at least was an enjoyable movie and not just a bunch of disparate scenes strung together.
Gone is the feeling that someone rubbed mud all over the camera lenses. In fact, director David F. Sandberg films everything clear, with a good amount of the action happening in broad daylight. No birds, no rain, and not an overload of slow motion heroes and villains screaming soundlessly at each other as they run dramatically against a green screen. Instead, Shazam! is about the fascination of young kids when it comes to being a superhero, and the consequences of becoming one.
One person that doesn't get to be a superhero, however, is young Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto), who is constantly put down by his older brother and his father. The last straw comes when he is transported to another realm by a Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who is looking to pass on his burden of keeping the Seven Deadly Sins at bay. Thaddeus fails like many before him and is cast out, but events lead him to make it a lifelong obsession to get back to the realm and claim what he believes is his.
Years later we meet Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a teenager who has been in numerous foster homes, running away from each of them to search for his mother. In his new group home he meets his roommate Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fan of superheroes, who collects memorabilia. Billy first decides to steal some of it and sell it, but is abducted by the Wizard in a last ditch attempt to find someone to take over. His desperation comes about because Sivona (Mark Strong) has returned but, instead of taking over as the Wizard's champion, he has taken the eye that contains the spirits of the Sins and returned to his own world to take revenge upon those who wronged him. Predictably, Batson isn't really prepared to be changed into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi), and he and Freddy soon begin to work out exactly what he can do. While they do, the Sins inform Sivana that he must seek out the new champion and take his power before his rival gets too strong.
What I most like about Shazam! was that it included much of what I liked about DC comics while growing up. The superhero himself, though seemingly invincible, must have a specific vulnerability, and so must the villain. Neither should be revealed at first, but once they are they should be consistent and a major part of any fight between the two. Also, the villain often has to be a true villain; occasionally you can have your Catwoman or Harley Quinn, but your typical rogues gallery has to be inhumanly obsessed in their quest to achieve their goals. While many of Marvel's villains may be more complex than those of DC, this black and white distinction is refreshing. Yes, Sivana may have been treated horribly as a child, but Batson's life was not wonderful, either, and in many ways much harder.
That said, Asher Angel is okay as the 14-year-old version of Billy, but Jack Dylan Grazer, although the sidekick, is more memorable. Even his fellow housemates, particularly the overly talkative Darla (Faithe Herman), seem to be more developed than him. He has issues with being abandoned by his mother, but that's really the only motivation given, as it seems that the foster homes he has been through haven't been any of the worst examples. Otherwise, he's the typical mopey teenager we have seen in a number of movies, although I really do love the reaction when he finds out what the Wizard's name is.
Zachary Levi, however, is a completely different story. He embraces playing a 14-year-old in an adult body who finally realizes he can do almost anything he wants. Unfortunately, the maturity doesn't go along with the body at first, but that is part of the point of the movie is seeing how he is forced to suddenly grow up and think about someone other than himself. I don't thinking Angel has the range for it, so it was a good thing that Levi does the majority of the heavy lifting. As his nemesis, Mark Strong is what I keep hoping for in villains when I watch these films - arrogant, but with the power to back that arrogance up, even though it will lead eventually to his downfall. I feel in their scenes together that Sivona is a true challenge to Batson and, even though we pretty much know how a superhero story is supposed to go, at least some tension that things could go either way.
The Sins themselves are another great addition to the story, taking a number of Lovecraftian forms that are also influenced by the Keymaster and Gatekeeper from Ghostbusters. The only times I had problems with the CGI this time around was some of the times when Batson was getting thrown around, as due to a combination of his suit's colors and the usual ragdoll animation it sometimes looked like Dr. Sivona was tossing around a rubber chicken. There is also still the usual tendency from both universes to unnecessarily blow up everything in site. All I know is that if I lived in either of these worlds I would make sure I learned my trade skills, as construction would be the most lucrative career choice.
In the end, Sandberg and writer Henry Gayden didn't do too bad of a job adapting one of the lesser DC superheroes for the screen, even if they didn't exactly get to use the Captain Marvel name that the character has had throughout a good part of its history. There was another movie that came out the same year (and practically the same time) from that other studio using their character of the same name and, while it was pretty much okay for what it was, this is one of the times where DC wins that particular character battle.
Time: 132 minutes
Starring: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mark Strong
Director: David F. Sandberg