glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | may 2019
DC is finally beginning to shift its course. “Wonder Woman” had a rather charming lead that didn't make me hate her even if the story was a bit limp and “Aquaman,” for all its faults, had some likeable characters with more moments of humor and most importantly a lot less focus on the misery that marred the previous entries. Don't get me wrong; I obviously haven't jumped ship yet from Marvel to DC with this shift. A glance at my previous reviews shows I had plenty of problems with both of these films, especially “Aquaman,” but I do appreciate how things are shaping up.
This brings us to the latest film from the DC stable: “Shazam!”
Our story follows young Billy Batson, a foster kid who's bounced from home to home in his search for his mother. Winding up in a new home, he finds himself surrounded by similar misfits with whom he soon bonds and after defending his foster brother against bullies, Billy's chosen by the sole remaining member of the Council of Seven Wizards to fill his shoes. Endowed with the power to transform into an incredible and powerful superhero simply by saying the name Shazam, Billy soon has to face a previously rejected candidate for the council, Thadius Sivana, who's aligned with embodiments of the deadly sins and it's a battle he's not quite ready to win without the help of his new family.
“Shazam” is a rather different film in the DCEU, for one thing, it's a smaller and more positive story. The film focuses very closely on Billy/Shazam and takes us through his incredible transformation from being a normal, if troubled, boy to becoming a superhero and it does it in increments through the course of the story as he learns his powers, his limits and his responsibilities. As stories go, it's basic and not exactly new but it's a very nicely handled story that actually gives the impression that Billy has the qualities of a hero before he even got anywhere near becoming the oddly puffed up superhero. This isn't like the DCEU films that came before it; the film doesn't revere the characters superpowers over the characters themselves and the powers he has are not what make the difference when the chips are down. Beyond being surprised by how good a story and character arc this film has, I'm delighted to say I finally got to really enjoy a DCEU film at last.
Has it all become a bit Marvel? Well, no. “Shazam” is still very DC in most regards. The cinematography often goes to that dreary, overly dark color palette and the story does go into some darker places including a gruesome death for Silvana's colleague, but it doesn't feel like it's sulking, it doesn't feel like Shazam/Billy is ever going to resort to murder or intentionally destroy everything around him.
The action is far more restrained here and that's a good thing, it's something that the film itself jokingly points out in a shot where a kid is smashing Batman and Superman toys together while in the background Shazam and Sivana are fighting and just because it dials it down, it's not to say that it's dull, it's just that this time we don't find every pixel of the screen filled with its own little battle. Instead it's all more focused and feels appropriate to the smaller scale story that it is. Of course it is an origins story and as such it has to go through all those motions, in this regard, it's a bit limited in what it does and that's most heavily demonstrated in the bad guy Silvana who's rather two dimensional, having just enough motivation for his deeds; but he feels noticeably shallow going from an admittedly sad childhood to being an evil supervillain with just a little too much ease. Mark Strong, unfortunately, doesn't really have much to work with in this character and his allies, the Sins, seems a bit daft, typically ethereal and more conceptual than you'd expect; they don't quite feel like they're part of the world this story is set in and that's a world where there's a Council of Wizards.
That and the ridiculously dark scenes are really the only complaints I have about this film, though. It should be noted how good most of the child performers are here including the very young sister in the foster family who's as charming and funny as you could want. They're warm, likeable and thankfully, not just window dressing. When it comes to Billy/Shazam himself, his powered up self is not always the answer, in fact his power is something he has to grow into and isn't always the answer. On several occasions it's his powerless state that's what's needed to get him out of trouble. It would have been very easy to have had Shazam be the answer to all of Billy's problems, instead, sometimes the superhero persona is part of the problem and most importantly it's his trust for his new family and lack of selfishness that saves the day. That's a superhero, that's someone I can get behind because it's aspirational and inspirational — two things that have been seriously lacking in the DC universe to date. It's also hopefully the start of a new direction for DC, not that everything has to be as breezy as “Shazam,” but hopefully the lessons of what makes a superhero admirable and that having a sense of humor doesn't detract from telling a solid story will be learned by the studio. If this is the new benchmark for DC then Marvel will need to take notice. If someone like me, who's hated the majority of the DCEU so far, is being won over while Marvel is hitting a slightly shaky transitional phase of its own, then Kevin Feige needs to step up the game and avoid dropping the ball once “Avengers: End Game” has run its course. It's not like Star Wars is going to be doing Disney any favors for a few years now. Watch out Marvel, you may now have some serious competition coming.
He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.