Friday, April 19, 2019

Shazam! (2019): Lightning in a Bottle?

If you read the Top 20 Movies to look out for in April, then you know I made some big claims about Shazam! (2019). If you need a reminder: I stated that I thought Shazam!, if done right, could be a game-changer for the DCEU.

The big caveat: ‘if done right’.

Well, I saw Shazam! this past weekend. I can say, with absolute certainty, it was done right.

Let me start with a basic review.

The actors, even the child actors, had their game faces on. I believed every one of them, from the youngest – Faith Herman (This is Us, Doe, Bodied) – to the main character – Zachary Levi (Office Uprising, Chuck, Tangled) and Asher Angel (Andi Mack, Driven to Dance, Jolene) – every actor played to their strengths and made me believe them.

As important as acting can be in most films, it’s even more important in Shazam!. A lot of the movie is based on whether or not you believe the transformation between Billy Batson and the title character. A single slip on either Levi or Angel’s part could have destroyed the feel of the entire thing. Yet every transformation was portrayed without issue. There was never a time during the movie where my suspended disbelief was challenged by it.

A lot of that might have had something to do with other members of the team, though.

David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation, Lights Out, Not so Fast), the director, is more well known for his shorts and YouTube content than his full-length features. That’s right, DC took a giant leap of faith and gave Shazam! to a less Hollywood-versed, but experienced, director.

Most of his shorts were developed with no budget at all, and that undoubtedly helped with this film. Shazam! has the lowest budget of all the DCEU movies. That means all the graphics, editing, and everything else, had much less money thrown at it than films like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and still managed to just be a better movie.

The editor, Michel Aller (The Forger, The Nun, Lights Out), needs to be commended as well. Just as much as one slip from either main actor could have screwed the whole thing – one misstep from Aller could have done the same.

I think the story was the right way to go, too.

It was an origin story through-and-through, but it’s different when the origin follows a tier 2 character instead of one of the most popular ones. We know Batman’s parents are dead. We know Superman is an alien that gets his powers from our yellow sun. If an origin doesn’t show us something we don’t know, then what the fuck is the point?

Most people more interested in films than comics don’t even know who Shazam is, let alone his origin, so this still felt fresh.

People went into Shazam! with very low expectations. I think, at this point, we all still kind of expect DC to disappoint us.

It’s a shame, too. There’s no reason Marvel and DC shouldn’t be on the same cinematic level. Marvel’s characters aren’t better as a whole, the stories aren’t exponentially more in depth. Comics-wise, they ARE on the same level. Some characters and stories are better than others, but it all equals out in the end. There’s nothing wrong with DC’s source material.

Unfortunately, they’ve fucked up their movie universe so much that even loyal DC fanboys walk into the theater with a sense of dread.

My best friend is one of those DC fanboys. He came with me and my husband to see Shazam! and, let me tell you, he expected the worst. Going into the theater, he was in the worst mood; grumping and grunting his responses to things. I kept telling him to keep an open mind, but that was not going to happen. As much as he adores the comics (his apartment is like a comic store, filled to the brim with DC merch), the films have done nothing but let him down. It PAINS him to admit the MCU is better.

When Shazam! was over, though… he was near tears, he was so happy. He said it himself, it was the perfect DC movie. It was something their fans could be completely proud of for the first time since The Dark Knight (2008).

Let’s talk about how the movie meshes with the comics. I’m going to avoid spoilers to the best of my ability.

I know the name ‘Shazam’ sounds a bit corny, but you have to remember that this character wasn’t originally called that. He was originally Captain Marvel and the name had to be changed after Marvel sued the original creator.

As Captain Marvel, the character has existed in print since the 40s. The name ‘SHAZAM’ is an acronym. It’s supposed to be a road map of his abilities.

In the 1973 comic, the original Shazam explained that he would have the powers of Solomon (wisdom), Hercules (strength), Atlas (stamina), Zeus (power), Achilles (courage), and Mercury (speed).

Of course, the film doesn’t follow the story of the Billy Batson from the 70s. DC started publishing a comic, starting in 2019, that the film follows the feel of much closer.

That’s the biggest thing, following the ‘feel’ of the comics is something I’ve mentioned in the past as being a necessity. It doesn’t need to follow the stories completely, but it needs to stay true to the feel. Which, Shazam! did.

What could this mean for the DCEU?

Honestly, if they capitalize on the success of Shazam!, it could mean everything for them.

Shazam! was good enough as a stand-alone film that it doesn’t really need to be part of the DCEU to be worth it – but they still including just enough connection to make the audience hopeful. That will give them a lot of wiggle room.

They fixed their balance issues as well. Although there was a lot of light-hearted and amusing content to Shazam! they did NOT shy away from the violence. The film is rated PG-13, so there wasn’t a ton of blood… but there didn’t have to be. They maximized the effect of the violence without turning into gore.

The opening weekend might not have made as much as their other films, but considering how little they spent on it, even the big-wigs will likely see it as nothing to sneeze at. Their profit was pretty well maximized for this particular story.

As I mentioned earlier, fans have been disillusioned with DC. This film could start getting fans to believe in them again. If they put out more movies like Shazam!, they will begin to out-do even their most popular films. If they stick to showing us little known characters (in the big screen) and then bring them together later on, we’re going to see films that subvert our expectations of DC for a long time.

Here’s hoping this is the dawn of a new age for the DCEU.

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