Review: ‘Shazam!’ (say my name)

“Seven downward slopes, Seven bloodied hopes; Seven are your burning fires… Seven your desires…”

Riding in the back of a car on a wintry night in 1974, a boy named Thaddeus Sivana is abruptly pulled into a hidden dimension. When the ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who summoned him deems him unworthy of becoming his empowered champion, the boy is cast out… and no one believes his story. In the present, a different boy named Billy Batson (Asher Angel) thoughtlessly takes up for his foster-brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) against a pair of bullies; summoned like others before him, “the champion” is named at last! By speaking the wizard’s name, Billy is imbued with arcane superhero-like abilities, transforming him into an ideal (and adult) costumed version of himself (Zachary Levi). But with great power comes great envy, and a grown-up Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) still seeks his due.

It’s no coincidence 1974 is also when the live-action Saturday morning show “Shazam!” by Filmation originally aired, although the character himself was created in 1939. The trademark “Captain Marvel” is often a source of confusion since “Shazam!” is only a magic word (acronym of six “immortal elders”: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury) and not the name of the character. Because Marvel Studios owns the trademark, DC officially changed the character’s name for their New 52, but purists persist. The brand confusion and timing of an MCU Captain Marvel film coming out a month earlier was unfortunate, but is the World’s Mightiest Mortal distinct enough to earn his own box office success for the now Snyder-less DCEU?

On the surface, Shazam! arguably looks like Tom Hanks’ Big mashed up with “The Greatest American Hero,” but the real arc is about finding your tribe; family don’t end with blood (shoutout #SPNfamily). While many parts are certainly hero’s journey, a good third is devoted to a villain’s journey; the similarities of both seeking acceptance is an idea that both young and old can relate to. Billy initially does all the wrong things before to stepping up for all the right reasons, and while it might appear Zachary Levi was playing Billy younger and sillier than Asher Angel’s part, imagine having the power to do whatever you want and no one ever knowing who you really are; who doesn’t act like a kid with a new toy when we think no one’s looking? Resisting the power of a consequence-free existence to embrace what’s important in life is a noble goal, and tapping into that is the film’s true magic.

Everything isn’t all fun and games, however. Shazam! wasn’t as “darkness-free” as audiences may have been led to believe. In fact, the film pushes the boundary of PG-13 with some Venom-worthy blood-free imagery — not exactly an all-ages kind of thing. The story gets into real emotions and real danger, too; resurrecting the dead isn’t one of the included powers. The monsters are a bit cartoony, but that may have been intentional given the target audience; these entities could have also been cast as more human in origin, but that would have also added distraction to an overstuffed production already.

It’s a safe assumption that Shazam! was at least in part built around Zachary Levi’s natural boyish charms and enthusiasm for the part. Those who knew him as NBC’s “Chuck” hoped there would be new fame to be found after the show ended — a wish that came true. With a mid-credits teaser and an after-credit bit of fun, Shazam! is a welcome addition to the New DCEU; if only they’d found that Magic 8-Ball sooner.

Shazam! is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, suggestive material, and magic… the darkest magic.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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