Shazam!

shazam!Director: David S. Sandberg

Screenwriters: Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke

Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou, and John Glover

A weird thing is happening with mainstream cinema right now. We are now fully saturated with superhero films. It is undeniable. Usually, when this level of inundation occurs in a pop culture medium, fatigue sets in, and another trend emerges. Oddly enough, seven superhero-related films had major releases in 2018, and at least ten more are slated to come out in the 2019 calendar year, demonstrating that fatigue is not setting in, and in fact with Avengers: Endgame predicted to break all box office records, we have not even reached the pinnacle of this superhero-film era.

Why might that be? Well, for starters, unlike many movie fads, the superhero genre has proven to be quite versatile. These films have broad reach and audience appeal from absurd to intense, to adult-themed, to even awards-caliber social commentary. But even more than that, the most successful of them have wit, charm, and charisma that carries them and allows them to massively engage in the original purpose of cinema: Escapist entertainment. Shazam!, the latest offering from the DC Extended Universe, is the latest of superhero fare and represents everything that works for the genre as well as the finest achievement so far in the DCEU.

Shazam! is like Big meets Home Alone, so allow that to sink in before you proceed. It also knows it is like Big meets Home Alone and lets you know it knows. That being said, it is not stale nor does it lean on preconception. The gist is that in an alternative dimension, a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) is tasked with restraining the seven deadly sins’ influence on Earth. With his powers growing weak, he must find a new champion who is pure of heart to replace him before his powers fade, and the sins are released from their captivity. His search spans many years, once nearly selecting a young boy named Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto), but finding his heart to not be worthy. This dismissal by the wizard sparks a maniacal 45-year pursuit. As an adult, Sivana (now played by Mark Strong) seeks to discover the wizard’s hidden realm and take the power for himself. The good news is that the wizard finds his new champion in a foster kid named Billy Batson (Asher Angel), charging him with the power to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) simply by calling the name Shazam and with the ultimate goal of protecting Earth from the seven sins. Unfortunately, the wizard is not able to fend off Sivana, and he is able to transform into the sins’ vessel and harness their power, which he plans to yield maliciously, of course.

Now the table is set for a battle of good and evil between Shazam! and Sivana, who wants Shazam’s power for himself. Nothing really to write home about. However, the conflict is not the magic of Shazam!. Few, if any, superhero films so far have succeeded in capturing the cultural identity that comic books represent to the generations who grew up with them. Shazam, however is an exception. The true accomplishment of Shazam is how effortlessly and flawlessly it showcases the majesty, hopefulness, and glee that this style of fantasy has on our imagination. Much of this is accomplished through the chemistry between Billy/Shazam and his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Their scenes together make the movie, and fortunately, about 80% of the movie is focused on their exploits together, navigating the tricky world of becoming a superhero. Levi has been on my radar for years, having been a big fan of the NBC series Chuck, and even though he has been consistently working since that show went off the air, he still had not found that break-out role that showcased his talents. That is no longer the case. Zachary Levi has a tremendous amount of fun in this role, and his performance elevates the movie to being truly enjoyable whenever he’s on the screen.

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I mentioned that about 80% of the movie is focused on our heroes, but unfortunately, that means that the other 20% is focused on our villain. For some reason, the DCEU is still struggling with the whole villain thing. Mark Strong does his best with what he’s given to play Dr. Sivana. While menacing, evil and fixated on chaos, the old tropes of daddy-issues fueling an absurd quest for power for the sake of aimless revenge is tired and uninspired. Sivana sits somewhere between General Zod and Steppenwolf in the DCEU villain hierarchy.

Shazam! does manage to avoid one common pitfall of new superhero movies, and that’s delivering an origin story that is not dull, mediocre, and contrived. Writers Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke were able to access the source material in such a way that everything feels fresh about the journey to becoming Shazam. Shazam! shows us (as well as DC) that we all do in fact have a fun and inspired superhero inside of us. B+

Shazam! is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 12 minutes. There are two post-film sequences; one mid-credits, and the other post-credits. The first is plot-based, but the second is just played for laughs.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

ImageDreamworks Studio is celebrating its 20th year producing films, and it seems appropriate that the film that marks this occasion is about a 20 year old underdog who has managed to succeed by charming and befriending the supposed enemy rather than brutalizing it. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but wait until I get to the part where I discuss How to Train Your Dragon 2 as a metaphor for American foreign policy!

How to Train Your Dragon 2, finds our hero, Hiccup (voiced once again by Jay Baruchel), enjoying the good life on his home Isle of Berk. Viking and dragon now live harmoniously thanks to Hiccup’s efforts to expose the compassionate nature of the once feared beasts. Now, dragons are domesticated pets on Berk, and the once relentlessly busy weaponry armory has been transformed into a saddle and bridle shop. Recreation is booming with the advent of a game that crosses polo with quidditch, and exploration is thriving with the swiftness of dragon transportation as opposed to Viking ships.

So the question remains, what conflict could possibly arise? The conflict comes in the form of an infamous villain by the name of Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) who captures dragons in order to enslave them and march on neighboring lands on a quest for power and land with the help of dragon catchers like Eret (Kit Harington). Upon the mention of Drago’s name, Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler) promptly initiates a preemptive strike on Drago before he and his army can move on Berk. This, of course, angers Hiccup who prefers a more diplomatic approach, famously successful in the previous film.  

Now I’m not saying that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a thinly veiled allegory about American foreign policy and diplomacy in the 21st century. What I am saying is that a thriving civilization’s leader repeatedly ignores diplomatic methodologies in favor of military actions when dealing with foreign totalitarian enemies who may or may not be armed with stolen or illegally procured weaponry of domestic origin. Take that Disney!

Analysis aside, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an enjoyable follow up to the 2010 original. A talented voice cast features America Ferrera, Kristin Wiig, T.J. Miller, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Craig Ferguson, and Cate Blanchett among others.  When it comes to recommending animated features, I ask myself three questions: Is it enjoyable and appropriate for kids? Is it meaningful? Will it at least amuse adults? This film is most certainly amusing for adults. There are well-rounded characters and a beautiful animation style the keeps you engaged. The difficulty comes with the first two questions. Kids love the dragons, and Dreamworks’s first priority was clearly to up the quantity of dragons: Mission accomplished. However, a complexity arises in the film’s quest for meaning at the sacrifice of appropriateness. Parental figures are often on death-watch in the majority of children’s animated fare for some twisted, sick reason, and that statement applies here as well. I won’t go too into the details surrounding this element as it is one of the film’s major reveals, but I will say that if one takes a moment to empathize with the film’s most tragic moment, one might find oneself getting a prescription for an anti-depressant. Nonetheless, the family angle and its relevance to the film’s climax vigorously enhances the film’s overall meaning and sets the stage for a parallel battle of “alphas” that is both visually stunning and intensely engaging. Since the film has already dabbled in the darkness by giving us a violently disfigured protagonist (Hiccup lost his foot in the previous film), we may as well accept the lesson that if you’re going to play with dragons, you might get burned. B+

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes.      

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