Directed by David F. Sandberg
Watching and reviewing “Shazam!” is an odd exercise in what seem like backhanded compliments as it’s a story and set of characters that exist in DC Comics but, as a film at least, it feels more like a Marvel production. And for material like this, that’s a good thing. Most of the recent DC films, with the exception of the (good) “Wonder Woman” and (not so good) “Aquaman” have tended towards the dark and brooding. Henry Cavill as Superman and Ben Affleck as Batman are dominated by square-jawed determination and angst. Meanwhile, Marvel has managed to produce an extended run of films based on its pantheon of characters that can tackle tough subjects while remaining light and breezy by comparison. And “Shazam!” has that light and breezy tone down.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has grown up in the foster care system, routinely running away from homes in search of the mother he’s sure would want him if only he could find her. His latest placement introduces him to his new roommate Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a kid who knows all there is to know about superheroes. Which is extraordinarily convenient when Billy encounters an old wizard and is transformed into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi).
The result here is like a combination of the youthful discovery of a Spider-Man narrative layered on top of a child-adult switch story like “Big” – a reference the filmmakers make directly within the movie. Angel, Grazer and Levi are all solid in their roles, but it’s Grazer who has to do much of the heavy lifting here. As the sidekick to both teen Billy and adult Shazam!, the character of Freddy represents the continuity between realities as well as both spirit guide and conscience – and Grazer is up to that task.
David F. Sandberg, as director, is up to the task too. Although you have to follow a short trail of breadcrumbs to figure out why he got the job – as his resume is almost entirely in horror films, both feature length and shorts. But one of those horror features (“Annabelle: Creation”) was produced by “Shazam!” producer Peter Safran – who perhaps ought to be given the task of finding future DC directors.
The Shazam! Character has an interesting history too. Originally Captain Marvel at Fawcett Comics, he was considered a little too similar to Superman, by DC Comics, who eventually bought the character only to have to rename him after Marvel Comics, who by then had their own Captain Marvel character (also recently seen on the big screen). (Thanks Wikipedia!)
Which adds to the irony or awkwardness of the film’s overall impression. “Shazam!” is a DC film which ends up feeling like a Marvel film – not one of the best Marvel films, but that’s a very high bar. And managing to convey that impression at all is quite an achievement that bodes well for what could be a lighter breakout franchise for DC.
Tim Burton’s take on “Dumbo” is a big top letdown that could threaten Disney’s run of live action remakes. While it still tells the basic tale of a little elephant with outsize ears that enable him to fly, it feels like it lost its heart along with its music. And it’s a crowded production with far more characters than there appear to be things to do – it feels almost like a weak film plus a weaker sequel cut down into a single jumbled screenplay. The odd thing is that Burton has earned his reputation turning what might have been relatively ordinary stories into lively shows of wonderful freaks – and yet somehow he’s managed to take this actual freak show and turned it into something quite ordinary.