Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Shazam!

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An ancient wizard, the last of his kind, seeks a mortal with a pure heart who can continue his legacy of guarding the seven deadly sins and preventing them from corrupting mankind. A child is considered and deemed unworthy, resulting in a lifelong grudge that culminates in modern-day Philadelphia. 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been fleeing foster families for years. Abandoned at a theme park as a child, his only goal is to find his biological mother. Taken in by a caring couple, he is introduced to a new set of foster siblings, one of which is Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled teenager who has an obsession with superheroes. Now an adult, Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) finds his way back to the wizard’s dungeon and frees the seven deadly sins, turning himself into their host. Desperate for a champion, the wizard (Djimon Hounsou) takes his chances with Billy who is given the power to transform into an adult superhero by shouting the name Shazam (Zachary Levi).

Well, well, well. It looks like DC finally hit the jackpot. Shazam! is exhilarating, funny, and heartwarming. It’s also juvenile and immature, which should have turned out to be a detriment but ironically became the movie’s charm. In a shared universe with plenty of dark and brooding heroes and anti-heroes, DC found a colorful character that is easily more relatable and a legit crowd pleaser. That is quite an achievement on its own considering how obscure the character has always been through the years.

But perhaps Shazam’s charm can be attributed to his alter ago. Not everyone can be an alien who can shoot lasers from his eyes, an underwater king who can talk to fish, or a demigod with superhuman strength and who can pass for an Israeli supermodel. We’ve all been children once. Helpless. Anxious. Bullied. Once in your childhood you probably wished you could shout a magic word and transform into a hero. That’s what this narrative is all about, and it maximizes the material by appealing to your inner kid.

More than that, the film serves as a deconstruction of the superhero fantasy from the perspective of an adolescent. Okay so you have been granted superpowers, now what? You can only be a hero in the presence of a villain, but that’s another story. Digging deep into the message they are trying to convey, those powers can be interpreted as metaphors for the idealistic and naive aspirations that we once had in a stage of our lives when we didn’t know any better. As they say, power can corrupt.

Levi has been around for a while and it is nice to see him finally get a well-deserved breakthrough role. As the literal embodiment of a prepubescent superhero, he is able to blur the lines between innocence and naivety. Angel is just as good playing Billy Batson, although his androgynous resemblance to Arya Stark can be bothersome at times. In any case, the transition is fluid and it is believable that the two are just different versions of the same person. For that, they deserve some kudos.

Liberal references to the bigger shared DCEU abound, but they don’t hijack the storyline. We know that somewhere in the film’s universe Batman, Aquaman, and Superman are busy with their own struggles but the narrative maintains considerable distance, which is perhaps the best way to deal with it given the sketchy rep of its predecessors. In the long run, maybe this would be the best template for DC until they find solid footing for their shared universe. This way, we get more surprises than disappointments, and Shazam! is definitely a pleasant surprise.


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