Edwin Arnaudin: I’m a complete newbie when it comes to the title character of DC’s new superhero movie, Shazam! Do you mind providing a little background on him?
Ian Casselberry: Shazam goes back to the 1940s, when Fawcett Comics created Captain Marvel as an answer to Superman. Billy Batson was a kid granted the power of the gods (strength of Hercules, speed of Atlas, etc.) when he spoke the magic word “Shazam,” but the resemblance was too close to the Man of Steel, and DC Comics acquired Captain Marvel after a copyright infringement lawsuit. (That resulted in Marvel Comics gaining the trademark for the name “Captain Marvel.” Decades later, the title was given to a female character now in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and headlining a movie currently playing in theaters as well.) The movie makes winking references to past comics but is based on a 2011 reboot that changed the hero’s name to Shazam and Batson into a troubled teenager.
Edwin: Unfamiliarity aside, the joke parade in the trailer piqued my interest, as did the film’s unusual opening. An ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou, Gladiator) seeking a champion to carry on ancient magic and keep the seven deadly sins at bay is fairly standard myth-building. But it’s a welcome narrative twist having that quest be the origin story for our villain Thad Sivana (played as a kid by Ethan Pugiotto, with Mark Strong taking over as an adult) before Billy (Disney Channel star Asher Angel) enters the picture. So far, so good?
Ian: I liked how the hero’s origin was told through the villain and made the bad guy’s motivation clear. A knock on many superhero movies is the villain mirroring the hero. But in this case, it worked well. Dr. Sivana could have been Shazam, but lusted after power instead of wanting to help people. Billy is intrigued by the celebrity of being a superhero and looks the part when he transforms into his adult version (played by Zachary Levi, TV’s “Chuck”) but doesn’t realize his full potential until Sivana tries to take his power. The villain unwittingly trains the hero, which is a different spin on this kind of story.
Edwin: But is the film overall a respectable presentation of the character? Director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out; Annabelle: Creation) comes from a horror background, and screenwriter Henry Gayden’s lone feature credit is the so-so tween sci-fi adventure Earth to Echo (2014). Their convergence produces a few spooky images and funny lines, but overall I found Shazam! visually unmemorable, overlong and often aggressively unfunny.
Ian: To me, it’s a faithful take. Longtime Shazam fans, pre-2011, might not think so. This isn’t the virtuous “Big Red Cheese.” But the elevator pitch is “Big with superheroes” — and there’s an obvious reference to the Tom Hanks classic in the film — which emphasizes “kid in an adult’s body” wish fulfillment. The movie gets most of its laughs from a 14-year-old trying adult things. There are also many nods to the comics, which I enjoyed, especially a midcredits scene that nearly made me yell with joy.
Edwin: Sounds like the 8-year-old on my row, who straight up cackled whenever possible. Big and 13 Going on 30 do an excellent job of making the premature grown-up theme accessible to and fun for all ages, and hopefully the upcoming Little will put an entertaining spin on the concept in the opposite direction. But the writing here feels sloppy, rushed and borderline improvised. Am I simply not the target audience?
Ian: Maybe. This is geared toward a younger audience (which apparently worked with the cackling junior moviegoer), but that’s no excuse for not appealing to adults, too. I looked at it more through the prism of previous DC Comics movies, which have been so dark and serious. Trying to be more fun and mocking superhero tropes felt refreshing, and there are a lot of surprises. But the tone is inconsistent, and when the story moves toward a conventional superhero narrative, it’s far less compelling.
Edwin: It might be overcompensation on DC’s part to distance itself from the bubonic seriousness of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Most viewers point to Wonder Woman as the saga’s turning point, and while it was definitely a step forward, I was more taken with the humor of Justice League — thanks, The Flash! — and especially Aquaman. After those major gains, Shazam! feels like a significant regression. What surprises worked best for you here?
Ian: Yes, this is a lesser movie next to Wonder Woman and Aquaman, but it doesn’t have the same ambitions. It’s a smaller, “glue” story, much like the Ant-Man films are for Marvel. DC surely hopes this reaches a large audience, yet through younger viewers. Lighter fare instead of grim, dark drama is the right path. Some surprises are spoilers, so I’ll avoid those. But so much isn’t shown in the trailers, notably the arc of Strong’s Dr. Sivana. He’s a departure from the comics but could be part of a bigger tale. Billy’s foster siblings also bring fun and poignance, with a big payoff. What I appreciated most was that Shazam! doesn’t take a sequel for granted. It’s not all set-up, but rather a stand-alone tale. I enjoyed this more than I expected to and give it 3.5 stars.
Edwin: The sloppy first Ant-Man is a perfect MCU analog for this film, though it was able to rebound spectacularly with Ant-Man and The Wasp, so perhaps the Shazam! brain trust will similarly wise up should their film produce a sequel. There’s potential here for smarter entertainment as the story progresses, but I’m giving the mostly dumb first chapter 2.5 stars.