In retrospect, the DC Extended Universe having the rights to two of the most popular superheroes of all time could have been both a blessing and a curse.
Both Superman and Batman have been done on screen masterfully -- though it got rather embarrassing for Supes in later films -- and making new films about them would’ve been like batting after Babe Ruth: You have to fill supersized shoes.
After the surprise hit of “Aquaman,” David F. Sandberg’s “Shazam!” appears poised to become another bench player from the DC town to knock it out of the ballpark, as the film packs so much heart and fun with a superhero that truly feels like no other.
“Shazam!” (Warner Bros. Korea)
The film starts off in 1974 with Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), an outcast in a wealthy family, who is summoned by ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) and presented with the offer of becoming his champion wielding immense magical power. But the wizard decides not to choose the boy because the latter is swayed by the temptation of evil beings, leaving him to a lifelong search for a way back to the powers he has so craved.
In present-day Philadelphia, a troubled orphan, Billy Batson (Asher Angel/Zachary Levi), has trouble adjusting to his new foster home run by loving guardians Rosa and Vasquez, as he still obsesses over his biological mother whom he lost as a little child.
Billy’s life turns upside down when he is summoned by Shazam and is given all his powers to be turned into a superhero. But this makes him a target for Thaddeus, who is now a champion of evil beings.
I wasn’t exactly sold on the film immediately; sure, the opening sequence wasn’t bad, but the introduction of its main characters that followed felt a lot like a roll call. Rather than working it in naturally, the film was busy throwing character traits nonstop.
Director Sandberg then proceeded to develop the rather hurriedly-introduced characters into likeable heroes.
I have to start with the main man, Zachary Levi, who played the adult version of “basically” 15-year-old Billy, who emerges after the boy shouts “Shazam!”
One thing I have to hand to DCEU -- even back when it was striking out -- is the ability to cast the perfect actor for the role. Even in atrocities like “Suicide Squad,” Joker and Harlie Quinn looked as if they had jumped right out of the pages of a comic book.
I may be one of the few who remember Levi’s brief stint in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I recall how naturally “breezy” the actor looked in maybe five seconds of screen time that he got. Despite his appearance in that franchise practically being wasted -- it’s not often an actor “thanks” a director for unceremoniously killing off his character -- his talent was maximized in the role of a man-child that was made for him in the new franchiese.
The film also had great chemistry, with the best one being between Billy and his foster brother, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). I honestly loved this kid, and the pair of them managed to pull off the film’s best moments.
What was impressive was that none of Billy’s foster siblings -- with the exception of Freddy -- made much of an impression initially, but the chemistry magically appeared when needed. Some of them looked like stereotypes, and while I cared for none of them initially, I later ended up caring for each one.
That has been one of the biggest improvements of DCEU in its recent works. It had little to no likeable characters in its early films, like “Man of Steel” -- Kents were dull and Lois Lane was infuriating.
But the chemistry between Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor was great, and Mera in “Aquaman” managed to leave quite an impression on moviegoers.
“Shazam!” is also easily the funniest film DC has ever made, including unintentionally funny moments in the Adam West Batman movies. It doesn’t just crack jokes all day long, it manages to get you invested in what’s happening thanks to its strong characters.
It also has one of the best and most enjoyable superhero “arrival” sequences out of all superhero films. The way two teenagers go out of their minds with cool superpowers at their disposal was unbelievably fun to watch.
If I were to nitpick, the film at times felt too funny -- if there is such a thing. Being constantly interrupted by clever jabs stopped the final showdown from feeling epic.
The action was not very impressive. Even accounting for the fact that our hero is still a kid inside, none of the action sequences felt especially big or memorable, which is weird considering Shazam is probably one of the strongest characters in the franchise.
Sandberg is known for his horror films, and I can clearly see how his talent was used in some of the scenes involving demon-like creatures.
But here’s the thing: Throughout the film, it feels like “Shazam!” is targeting a younger audience. However, when the aforementioned creatures show their faces, the scenes are too scary and gory. Sure, the film is rated PG-13, but the sudden tonal shift can feel a bit jarring at times.
While the movie has great characters, none of the adults leave much of an impression. Billy’s foster parents are just generic good people, and Billy’s biological mother’s story arc was a bit too after-school special.
I felt like the villain was weak, too, as he basically has one or two character traits. This was very disappointing, considering that they cast Mark Strong, a guy who can look evil just by showing up.
The structure of the film is also plain and predictable, and the message was pretty obvious.
Despite all this, the film had very strong moments. The value of family, while not really new, still hits you. Good movies don’t necessarily need a message or an epic twist, they can just be good by pulling you into the story with good characters.
It is a little weak on drama, but it is a superhero film, not a drama. The film knows what it is good at, and works with what it has to bring joy to the audience.
Is it a perfect film? Not really, but if you can look past the cheesy costume, I’d say you are in for one heck of a ride that offers plenty of spectacle, wit and heart.
“Shazam!” opens in local theaters Wednesday.
By Yoon Min-sik