The Joy in Discovering the Hero in All of Us
By Thomas L. Kelly (@WriterTLK)
Following its initial trailer, many pegged Shazam! as DC’s version of Big. It’s an apt comparison, but it would also sell the film short. In Big, Tom Hanks’ character comes to the realization that he’s not quite ready to grow up. Billy Batson doesn’t have that luxury. It’s necessary for him to become the hero because that is what the situation requires. The journey there is everything you’d expect from a film about a teen being imbued with abilities beyond imagination.
The plot is a simple one (even if the overall history behind the character may not be): A teenager is chosen by an ancient wizard to become the new champion. The choice is an imperfect one. After years of searching for a rightful heir, the geriatric Shazam—played by the comic book movie sphere’s version of Lon Chaney, Djimon Hounsou—is left with no option, but to find someone to replace him. The why of which, I will not divulge; as these things generally go, bad things are afoot.
His selection, the aforementioned Billy Batson—a foster kid who’s been in and out of homes, all in a vain attempt to reconnect with the family that he’d lost— is not an ideal replacement. He’s a teenager. That alone creates a unique set of difficulties—heroic growing pains, as it were.
He’s selfish, unprepared for what’s to come, and fails to grasp the gravity of the gifts he’s been given. No amount of coaching from his friend and superhero aficionado, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), is going to alter any of that. He has to embrace why he must rise to the moment—to accept his new destiny and the potential the wizard saw in him—on his own.
It should be noted, though, that some of the most exuberant sections of the film are when Freeman and Batson are experimenting with his new found powers. There is such a childish wonder to them. And it is hard not to find yourself smiling from ear-to-ear as they’re unfolding. It is everything you’d expect from two kids suddenly finding out one of them is seemingly invincible; and, no, the trailers did not spoil all of the fun bits contained in them.
You can imagine yourself in Freeman’s shoes, geeking out over your friend’s immunity to bullets, or insane ability to shoot lightning from the tips of his fingers. Grazer as Freeman is a high point. His performance is spot on, a perfect depiction of a friend many comic book die hards will immediately relate to.
Their friendship, as well as Batson’s quest for acceptance—that underlying theme of family—is what drives this film. Both Batson and Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) are products of broken homes. The difference lies in the influences around them.
Batson without the fortunate happenstance of stumbling into his latest foster family could’ve perhaps grown just as lost as Sivana. It’s an interesting dichotomy to explore and a heavy one. Fortunately, the film never becomes too bogged down or hindered by its sullen moments. It feeds off them, propping them up with more of the unfettered joy that is sprinkled throughout the DNA of the film.
That’s not to say that Shazam! isn’t without struggles. The tone—mostly one of frivolity—has moments that are incredibly nightmarish. They’re not problematic taken on their own, but they are quite a stark contrast to everything that comes before, after, and in-between them. It’s also a movie that drags toward the end. Like Aquaman, I found myself wondering if they should’ve held some things for later installments.
In addition, Sivana may be menacing, but he’s flat, as well. Strong was more than up to the task, but the villain felt one-note. That may be a problem that persists for DC as their focus is fixated on nailing their heroes.
My gripes with the shifts in tone and the villain aside, Batson untapping his true potential had to come with the stakes at their highest. Otherwise, the transformation would’ve felt cheap.
The strongest scene in the movie is when he’s terrified, literally running from the fight. If he’s not presented with a significant enough threat, that effect cannot be conveyed. As paint-by-numbers as Sivana can be, he has an ominous presence, especially when Batson isn’t poised enough to assume the responsibility that accompanies his title.
Overall, DC fans should rejoice. Shazam! is yet another step in the right direction. And it’s everything the character deserved, overflowing with the heart, humor, and heroics that seem to be the key ingredients to adapting these beloved characters to the big screen.
Grade: B (on the cusp of a B+)
FYI: Don’t leave too early. There are two post-credits scenes to enjoy. And keep your eyes peeled for fun Easter eggs throughout—to the larger DC landscape, to the history of Shazam, as well as to films that may have served as sources of inspiration.