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.

It (2017)

ItDirector: Andy Muschietti

Screenwriters: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, and Bill Skarsgård

Man, this is a strange movie. The movie is strange from the narrative perspective. The movie is strange from the psychological perspective. The movie is strange from the commentary perspective. The movie is strange from a meta perspective (starring one of the boys from Stranger Things, an obvious derivative of Stephen King’s novel It, of which this film is based). This movie is strange from the tone, to the look, to the mood, right down to the challenge of writing a review about It, that doesn’t confuse the title with the non-gender, singular English pronoun, “it,” when referencing It… at least not by accident.

Fans of It have already seen their beloved coming of age horror hit the screen once before, albeit the small screen. The 1990 mini-series based on King’s novel was very well received and has more or less stood the test of time, partially thanks to the ensemble cast that included John Ritter, Tim Curry, Harry Anderson, and Jonathan Brandis. That version’s pervasiveness in pop culture is likely the reason it took so long to get it on the big screen…that and the book’s 1,138 page length (King’s second longest novel next to The Stand).

It opens in the quiet little town of Derry, Maine with that same thrilling, iconic, and horrifying scene that opens the novel as well as the 1990 mini-series, only this time Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) live in the 1980s. The decision to shift the time period from the 1950s to the 1980s is a good one, as King meant for the childhood of these characters to be based on their adult lives being contemporary. I won’t spoil the events of the opening scene, but suffice it to say, the tension is ultra high and Bill Skarsgård’s first appearance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown does not disappoint.

Strange things are happening in Derry, Maine following the tragic events that unfold in the film’s opening scene. Summer is here, school is out, and kids are disappearing. A group of kids find themselves united by some strange visions they’ve all experienced, all of which include the presence of an evil clown figure. “The Loser’s Club,” as they’ve come to be known includes the aforementioned Bill, chubby intellectual Ben, (Jerry Ray Taylor), chatterbox Richie (Finn Wolfhard), asthmatic Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), neurotic Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), outcast Beverly (Sophia Lillis), and eventually the ultimate fish out of water, Mike (Chosen Jacobs) whose backstory is only hinted at in this film, but will most likely play a much larger role in the upcoming second chapter.

The Losers all have one goal: to find, stop and kill the strange clown-like being that haunts their lives, preys on their fears, and attacks the children of Derry. Well, that and to avoid the dreaded bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who makes a strong case for being even more threatening than the shape-shifting, demonic, clown monster!

It is mostly a pretty impressive effort. The film oozes with the horror tropes expected with the genre, but also manages to successfully execute the careful tonal shifts that made the book so beloved and treasured for all of these years. The length was certainly a challenge to overcome, and thankfully, director Andy Muschietti and the film’s three screenwriters made the evolved decision to focus only the young protagonists’ story in this film (the novel bounces back and forth between two timelines separated by 27 years). This decision allows the narrative to breathe and not feel too jumbled and busy by trying to capture so many characters in so many different situations. This also all but guarantees a follow-up film that will tackle the story of the adult Losers Club (the $123 million opening weekend probably didn’t hurt the chances of a sequel either). As a matter of fact, the young stars of the film have already selected who they think should play them as adults, and if I may say so – these are some great choices! Still, the film is solid as a stand-alone story on its own.

Speaking of the kids, films like this can easily survive and thrive with one-dimensional performances from the child actors. However, this film decided to ignore that laziness and cast the most perfect and outstanding group of young actors I’ve seen on film in some time. Mostly unknowns, each of these kids found a way to be memorable, convincing, and most of all authentic to his or her character from the book, allowing the film maker to spend more time with these characters and develop them well. So instead of a 100 minute thrill-ride, we got a 135 minute opus that feels eventful, crafted, and most of all, fun!

Here I am rambling on, and I have not even gotten to Bill Skarsgård yet. “It” can’t be easy

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Some killer clowns (from clockwise): Skarsgård, Curry, Nicholson, and Ledger)

to step into the great Tim Curry’s oversized shoes (a pun I expect will be commonly found in reviews of this film) as Pennywise.  However, Skarsgård’s performance, while clearly inspired by Curry is very much his own. He succeeds in the same way that Heath Ledger succeeded in taking on the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight after Jack Nicholson played him in 1989’s Batman (we’ll leave the Jared Leto version out for now). It’s a grimier, dirtier, more macabre Pennywise. In fact, the 1989 Batman film is listed on the marquis of the Derry town cinema; perhaps a reference to this dual “clown” generational performance, or perhaps just a hint at Warner Brothers’ Justice League coming out this fall.

Are there flaws here? Sure. At the end of the day, this is another reboot; a term becoming all too common in the mainstream entertainment world. What’s that one thing that was popular just long ago enough to be slightly outdated, but also nostalgically relevant? Let’s remake it! I’m not saying It is not a film worth making, but when it comes to criticism and recommending whether you should go spend your money or not, originality matters. Still, this still manages to “float” above the standard fare for the horror genre, and wisely attempts to tap into not just the horror but the heart as well. B+

It is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

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