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April 10, 2019

Has D.C. Figured It Out With ‘Shazam!’?

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Shazam!, starring Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer and Mark Strong, is the seventh film in DC’s foray into the crowded superhero-universe genre (and it is absolutely its own genre at this point). And it’s really fun? It feels weird saying that but it really was. I suppose, though, most things would be more fun than the death of Superman, the Suicide Squad scrambling to avoid execution and Wonder Woman crusading through a grim World War I. Chock full of good performances and good, if not above average, writing, Shazam! is a self-aware yet still somewhat hard-hitting superhero movie and could serve as a stepping stone for DC on its way to Marvel-esque success. Fingers crossed. Anyway, Sun staff writers Nick Smith and Olivia Bono team up with assistant arts editor Jeremy Markus to discuss the film. Here goes:

The Good:

N.S.: For me, the standout here was Zachary Levi as the transformed Shazam. To explain that “transformed” bit — in the film our hero Billy Batson (Angel) gains the ability to turn into the magically-powered Shazam by saying his name. When he does, we get the comically beefcake-ified Levi, who was an outstanding casting for a surprisingly complex role: playing an initially poorly-tempered 15-year-old who knows nothing about superheroes inside the body of a superhero. I think Levi works so well here because I didn’t really know him beforehand (I never watched Chuck and only recognized his voice from things like Tangled after I searched through his IMDb page), all of which is to say he didn’t bring anything distracting from previous roles into this one. His comedic timing was great and he really looked the part physically, which is pretty crazy considering the musculature of the character.

O.B.: Shazam! is a story about the importance of family, and I thought the writing told that story really well. The film was at its best when it leaned into the interactions between Billy and his foster family. I already knew Levi was fun from his appearance on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but the kids really surprised me. It was really satisfying to watch Billy learn not only to adapt to his new powers, but his new life in a group home with five eccentric siblings. There were also a lot of fun connections to the comics and jabs at some of the more well-known DCEU heroes, which I definitely appreciated.

J.M.: If I could describe this film in one word, it would be “cute.” Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though I get how that sounds. I think it is a fantastic divergence from the overly heavy, (literally) dark theme that seems to have infiltrated the DCEU. Shazam! was lighthearted and dealt with more than just good guy needs to defeat bad guy because movie. The villain felt more secondary to the real plot of Billy connecting with his new foster family, which is definitely unique among superhero films.

The Bad:

N.S.: Complaining that a superhero movie is formulaic is to complain that the sky is blue but as of late, films from both major players (think Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok) have done pretty bang-up jobs subverting their own genre. Despite those recent exceptions to the rule, Shazam! plays out exactly as you’d expect it might. A foster kid who’s initially resistant to a family at yet another foster home gets superpowers? (Warning: some spoilers in the next couple sentences). I could’ve written “he shares the powers with the other kids and they become a family” on the bottom of my popcorn bucket by minute 20 . . .  I ate the whole popcorn during the previews but that’s not the point. However, that doesn’t totally take away from the movie’s appeal. If you go into the film understanding what it is, you’ll almost certainly have a good time.

O.B.: I don’t think that the plot was formulaic, per se, and I was impressed by certain story/casting choices that they managed to keep out of the marketing. I thought that kept the story relatively fresh, even if it wasn’t as subversive as others. But I’m not going togonna lie, I was kind of disinterested for the first 20 minutes of the movie. Shazam! really takes its time fleshing out its villain, Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), which I would normally enjoy. I think Black Panther did a great job of having an empathetic villain, and I’d love to see more superhero movies follow suit rather than “space alien blows things up because it moves the plot along.” However, it felt like we spent so much time following Sivana through his quest for revenge. It felt so unnecessary, I understood Sivana’s motives after three minutes and anything else just bloated the runtime, so I spent a lot of time wondering when Zachary Levi would show up.

J.M.: Why the hell were there so many Santas? Is it some gag from the comics that I don’t get? Also, it wasn’t a great film. It was a fun family film, which is, unfortunately, the category DCEU films seem to be falling into, rather than mind-blowingly innovative action epics, which is what Marvel tends to churn out.

O.B.: Seriously, the commitment to the numerous Santa gags was so bizarre.

The Surprising:

N.S.: The child acting! Do Angel (Billy) and Grazer (Freddy) count as child actors at 15 and 16? Either way, they (and all of the other foster children in the Vasquez home for that matter) are great. I never know if I should chalk my liking of younger actors’ performances to the actors themselves or a combination of good writing and directing, but the two high schoolers nailed playing, well, high schoolers. Shazam! is at its best when Billy and Freddy are hanging out around school and especially when the two start experimenting with Billy’s newfound powers. Like Olivia mentioned earlier, the two play off each other well and regularly had my mom (who’s a good barometer for superhero movies as they pertain to “regular” people) and I (an irregular person) laughing out loud.

O.B.: Everyone talks about how fun this movie is, and they’re right. There are some solid comedic moments and by the end credits, you’re left feeling excited for more Shazam. However, a lot of the movie (especially in the first third, when the story follows Sinestro — I mean, Sivana) is surprisingly dark and disturbing. A lot of backstory scenes focus exclusively on traumatizing children (and certain adults in the audience, like the 20-year-old writing this) with cries of “this was all YOUR fault!” and people being eaten alive by Sin Gargoyles. It felt more like horror for shock value’s sake than anything that added depth. It’s still a fun movie, but a few parts had me wondering whether it can truly be considered kid-friendly in the same vein as Spider-Man: Homecoming or other fun-focused titles. Also, this isn’t a bad thing, but the Seven Deadly Sins who give Sivana his power were downright spooky.

J.M.: Billy finally accepted his foster family at the end of the movie! Wow, I did not see that coming. I’m joking, obviously. There wasn’t anything shocking about the film, as I expected the acting to be good, superhero plots are generally predictable and it wasn’t such a break from the DCEU genre that it was revolutionary. Again, this makes it seem like I disliked the film, which is incorrect. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t *love* it. Which is also unsurprising.

Well, has DC figured it out?

N.S.: Maybe? Wonder Woman was great, Justice League was fine and both Aquaman and Shazam! were pretty good. For the record I’d rank this one between Wonder Woman and Aquaman, which is to say this is the DCEU’s second best film (which is a good sign!). I think I and many, many others often unfairly compare DC it to its cinematic big brother, Marvel. Other than Age of Ultron, Marvel hasn’t really released a clunker since the DCEU has existed, but we shouldn’t really compare DC to Marvel’s current position. I’ve already got my tickets for Avengers: Endgame, which is about to break every record ever, so right now Marvel has a sizable lead.  We really should be comparing Shazam! to Iron Man 3 (each franchise’s seventh film), though,  which makes the disparity much smaller. DC’s taken longer to get the ball rolling but with some promising projects on the horizon, I’m excited to see where they take this momentum.

O.B.: I think DC’s still growing. It took longer to find its identity than the MCU, straddling between the creative visions of darker directors like Zack Snyder and lighter directors like Joss Whedon (as Justice League showed), but I think it’s starting to hit its stride. I totally agree with Nick that Wonder Woman is still #1, but (about two-thirds of) Shazam!’s story was so well-crafted that I’d put a lot of space between it and the more convoluted Aquaman.

J.M.: I think comparing the DCEU to Marvel is a fool’s errand because, at this point, they are drastically different entities. Marvel creates worldwide phenomenons — Avengers: Endgame will probably be the single biggest film in history — and DC supplements the superhero genre with fun but slightly lesser films. All three of us agree that Wonder Woman, Shazam! and Aquaman are the top three films in the DCEU, in that order, but I’d say the gap between the first two is almost as large as the chasm between Shazam! and Aquaman, and I really didn’t think Aquaman was that good. I don’t know. I hate predictable things (which works great because I also hate suspense . . . maybe I hate everything?), so my favorite movies are those that leave audiences with questions and don’t wrap up neatly. Since superheroes always win in the end, a movie has to be really fantastic for me to claim the studio has “figured it out.”

Are you excited for the future of the DCEU?

N.S.: Saying I’m just excited for Joker (slated for October) does a disservice to my excitement. Two things: the Joker is the greatest villain ever written and Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the character is the greatest acting performance of all time. Sorry Brando; sorry De Niro; sorry Nicholson, sorry Day-Lewis; sorry Hopkins and sorry Hanks, Pacino and Streep. Ledger’s performance occurring inside a comic book movie does not detract from the fact that he stands alone atop the mountain of what one actor can achieve in a single film. In spite of my adoration for Ledger’s version of Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime, Jared Leto’s stab at it was one of the most fundamentally misunderstanding and uninspired adaptations of a character I have ever seen. For Leto to follow Ledger like he did would be like me following Mike Trout in the Angels’ batting order (that’s a baseball thing . . .  he’s really good). So, then, you’d also be correct in guessing I’m a little nervous for Joaquin Phoenix’s take, but nothing that’s come out of the film’s camp so far has led me to believe Phoenix is incapable of standing behind Ledger with the utmost respect for a storied character while still spinning the Ace of Knaves is his own unique way. Exhale. Joker’s gonna be make-or-break for me — I’m lukewarm on the DCEU right now. Like it is for many others, DC’s my comic book movie side-chick. If they botch this one come October, I think their ship will have finally sailed for me.

O.B.: I don’t really care about the Joker normally (sorry Nick), but I am actually really curious to see Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the character, even if I wait for it to come to Redbox. On the other hand, I’m super excited to see the new versions of Huntress and Black Canary in Birds of Prey (set for release in February 2020), and “The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is just a really good subtitle. I have been waiting for an all-female team-up superhero movie for SO long. (Marvel, if you’re reading this, please start making an A-Force adaptation). In contrast with Nick, though, I think I’ll be buying tickets even if DC releases five more flops: my compulsive need to see every new superhero movie will win in the end.

J.M.: “I get heated about very few movie things this may or may not be one of them.” Nick put that in as a filler, but I’ll keep it since it’s true. He knows me so well! The first time I watched Batman vs. Superman was on a plane a year after it was released and I never saw Justice League. Also, I’m definitely stupid since I didn’t realize Joker was connected to the DCEU. Oops. Can’t say I’m counting the days until these films are released.

Jeremy Markus is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He currently serves as an assistant arts and entertainment editor on The Sun’s editorial board. He can be reached at arts@cornellsun.com. Nick Smith is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nsmith@cornellsun.com. Olivia Bono is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ojb26@cornell.edu.