Our Favourite Films: Shazam!

shazam indexThere is hope for DC superheroes yet.

Looking back at the trilogy (‘Batman Begins’, ‘The Dark Knight’, and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’) Christopher Nolan breathed into life, it struck me that those films actually didn’t have the DC badge and only had the Warner Bros logo. Is that a bit of a coincidence that there hasn’t been a DC film that has managed to make it into my list (‘Aquaman’ made a decent attempt and I had yet to see 2017’s ‘Wonder Woman’)? I did have very high expectations of ‘Man of Steel’ as Christopher Nolan was credited as a producer. After viewing the film, this made me realise that it really isn’t the same if he was in the director’s chair. After learning that it’s unlikely that DC would be able to churn out something that is a fit for me as a viewer, I was not expecting to make it to the end of this one.

A film usually doesn’t fare well when it introduces its antagonist first. But then I’m reminded that to the first time viewer (don’t worry…it’s not too much of a spoiler) that isn’t the case as there is a possibility that Thad isn’t the same guy who unleashed The Sins. Looking through the credits, it make sense that Mark Strong is given the character name Dr. Sivana. That means that right before he forcefully takes what isn’t his, we’re still hoping that there’s some good in him.

The Setup: Billy Batson (Asher Angel) got separated from his birth mother when he was a toddler and has been searching for her for years. Even after going through a number of foster homes, he still holds out hope that his mother is searching for him as he is for her. After a run-in with the cops he is placed with Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor (Cooper Andrews) a kind couple who also went through the system themselves. They are old hands and already have five other foster kids: Mary (Grace Fulton), Pedro (Jovan Armand), Eugene (Ian Chen), Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Darla (Faithe Herman). Mary is bound for university, Pedro’s into bodybuilding (his goal: get ‘swole’), Eugene plays handheld video games whenever he gets the chance (including during the walk to school), Freddy is a fan of superheroes (particularly Superman), and Darla just likes people.

The Inciting Incident: The Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) picks Billy to be the one to be next in the long line of ‘Shazams’. Because of what happened in previous foster homes, Billy would have likely ran away. However, since is he no longer himself (sort of), he has no choice but to ask the only expert on superheroes he knows, Freddy. After an understandable reaction when meeting the new Shazam (Zachary Levi), they go through the journey of discovering the kind of powers Billy has. As Billy’s superhero self gets more and more media exposure, he is eventually found by the other guy in the spectrum, Sivana. The scientist was a child when he was sought out as a possible successor to the Wizard, unfortunately he did not pass the test and returned to the throne room to free the Seven Sins.

The best bit of the film is the underlying message that it is important to cheer for the success of others, particularly your family. Thad’s life took a darker turn because his dad planted that seed of doubt. It also didn’t help that the Wizard didn’t say anything different. I quite like citing neuroscientist James Fallon’s experience upon finding out that he had the brain of a psychopath but had not ended up being a violent offender because he was surrounded by a healthy environment during his formative years. There’s also the fact that the film reminds us that no one is perfect and Billy only was able to be the recipient of the Wizard’s power because Sivana already unleashed the Seven Sins. Yes, we may be let down by other humans, but the important thing is that we don’t take it out on other people (if they prove to be apologetic and willing to learn from their mistakes) and give them the best chance for success.

Comedic Moments:

  • Dispatch asking Billy his age because he used the wrong term for radio

  • Freddy helps Billy test his powers

  • The recurring gag of saying the wrong name

  • Victor’s reaction after the whole house shorts, thinking that it was him that caused it

  • Work gets done at the ‘business office’

  • Superheroes that can shoot bolts of lighting might also be capable of charging electronic devices really quickly

  • Billy frantically trying to figure out how to fly as he hurtles towards the ground

What made the film work is that it knows what it is (cheesy and cheeky) and built on that. However much that Mark Strong has significant ability as an actor, I agree that he isn’t given much to work with. I know he has good range as he has proven to play both enigmatic and heroic as Rodolfo Schmidt in Jonathan Perera’s screenwriting debut ‘Miss Sloane’. If it was a development issue (that there was no more time to invest because the project needed to move closer to shooting) then at least the protagonist was able to get the right treatment. Because if it were the reverse, I’m not sure if I could have lasted past 10 minutes. So if you are looking for the next exercise to help work as much of your muscles as you can, then here it is: see if you can bring Dr. Sivana to the same level as Martin McDonagh was able to with Jason Dixon (the antagonist in ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri‘).

Another sequence that I felt that was too much compared to entirety of the film is when Sivana visits his dad. It seems like David Sandberg wanted to prove that he isn’t straying too far from his horror background. Instances like this make us forget about Thad (the child within) and just see a madman and look at him as the Abbotts view the creatures around them in ‘A Quiet Place’. Of course such a change is possibly going to result in a completely different arc (depending on how the producers interpret the phrase: best version of the story).

The MVP goes to Ian Chen playing Eugene Choi. Ian basically popped off the screen as he was first introduced with his wild eyed innocence (part of me thinks that he is playing his foster parents, but then I realised that it might be just that he comes across as cheeky). I think the honourable mention goes to Djimon Hounsou playing the Wizard. I did not recognise Djimon, not just because of the beard, but more of the role. I usually link him to very dramatic roles (like ‘Blood Diamond’), so it was a surprise to see him in a comedic context (even if he is playing the role very seriously). The interaction right before Billy Batson becomes Shazam works brilliantly that I was laughing every few seconds. I could only imagine in the wrong hands (director or performers) that sequence could have gone very wrong.

I struggle with the term ‘satire’. Mainly, I see it as close to dark humour. So, if there’s some sort of dark comedy undertones, I remind myself that satire might be present as well. I am not like other viewers who would continuously seek the genre or nod at a scene and refer to it as such. So, I was a bit surprised to find out that a film that is as close to family friendly modern superhero film could get, has satirical elements within. Could it be an opportunity for parents to teach their kids about how to deploy satire? I bet the most curious of your brood would appreciate the discussion!

If I understand what Owen Gleiberman is saying, ‘Shazam!’is an alternative to the two Deadpool instalments. It makes sense to me that the one that comes across as kinder (and healthier) would pull me in, than something that is constantly trying to wall itself off (as pointed out by Chandler Bing: sarcasm is a defence mechanism). It is worth the risk to add to your Blu-Ray collection if you’re looking for something during Christmas and New Year to watch with your 8-year-old (though maybe you might want to skip the scenes when Sivana visits his father). If your ‘mini me’ doesn’t end up liking it, maybe you might.

Leigh Lim.
https://twitter.com/LeighLim / https://leighlim.tumblr.com/ /

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