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.

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Captain Marvel (2019)

CaptainDirectors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, and Lashana Lynch

Ever since that cryptic page sent by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in the post-credit scene from Avengers: Infinity War, people have been saying…”Who’s Captain Marvel?” That is an epic question in itself. Those familiar with the Marvel Comics origin of Captain Marvel know it is a strange one. The first Captain Marvel dates back to 1939 as a fictional comic book superhero from the now defunct Whiz Comics. Whiz and Captain Marvel were put on the back burner after DC Comics sued the publisher over Captain Marvel’s similarity to Superman in the 1950s. Marvel Comics eventually developed a trademark on their own character named Captain Marvel in the 1960s with the caveat that in order to retain the trademark, they’d need to publish a Captain Marvel title at least once every two years, leading to DC eventually rename their iteration Shazam, a character that is also getting the cinematic treatment this year. But that’s not all! Marvel’s Captain Marvel went through 6 different versions before finally arriving as the Carol Danvers version that we have now!

Ok, so now that we have that out of the way, who’s Captain Marvel and what is this movie all about? Captain Marvel is centered around Carol Danvers (played by Brie Larson), a U.S. Air Force pilot who through a series of events is recruited to an elite team of alien warriors called the Kree on the planet of Hala. Danvers develops superpowers under the tutelage of her mentor and commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). With the Kree, Danvers (known as Vers to her Kree comrades), helps fight in an ongoing war against a group of alien shapeshifters known as the Skrulls. The tricky bit is somewhere along the line, Vers (Danvers) has forgotten any and all of her life on Earth save for some disturbing nightmares featuring a woman (Annete Bening) she recognizes but cannot place. During a botched rescue operation, the Skrull commander, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) capture Vers and tortures her for answers about the Kree as they make way to Earth with the plan to find a scientist who may be the key to helping them develop a quantum drive that would give them the edge in the battle against the Kree. Vers manages to escape only to crash land in Los Angeles. It is here that we discover that it is the 1990s, and Vers’s spectacle of an entrance draws the attention of (much younger) S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury (Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Now it’s a race against time as Vers teams up with S.H.I.E.L.D. to stop the Skrulls from obtaining the quantum drive. Another battle – one of identity – also ensues as Vers’s sudden appearance on Earth begins to uproot some repressed memories of her previous life on Earth, some of which may affect the future of the universe! So the stakes are high.

Captain Marvel is a very fun movie, and much credit for its success goes to Larson, who really carves out a character here that could fall flat with the wrong performer in the role. She is charismatic and all-in on this performance, which is no surprise given she’s an Oscar winner for her work in the intensely gripping film Room. Captain Marvel certainly is a pivot from Room, but Larson’s versatility shows here that she’s a bankable and playful actress who will elevate a film. Her chemistry with Jackson, Mendelsohn, and Danvers’s best friend Maria Rambeau (played by Lashana Lynch) is contagious, helping the audience feel much more connected to the film’s events.

In addition to the performances, the action and story are on point as well. I think there were some heightened expectations that this film would provide more clues and explanations associated with the fateful climax of Avengers: Infinity War, but Captain Marvel is an origin story film and it takes place well before Thanos started outfitting that gauntlet with infinity stones. That being said, Captain Marvel is not without some nuance in providing a few answers to some questions within the MCU. Several of which can be attributed to the scene-stealing break-out star of the film, Goose. I’ll say no more. If there’s one other scene-stealer of note worth mentioning, it’s the late, great Stan Lee. 2019 will mark the last year of Stan Lee Marvel film cameos. Captain Marvel, Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home all feature appearances by the comic legend, and this one from Captain Marvel is a real gem.

Finally, for some reason, there’s an unfair amount of pressure on this movie due to its milestone status of being the first MCU film with a woman in the lead. This kind of treatment is the ignorant equivalent of saying, “Wait, women can be superheroes too?” The subversive and powerful impact of Black Panther is not part of the mission with Captain Marvel, nor should it be. Of course art is reflective, and so releasing a giant film like this will be part of a cultural conversation, but it really should only be a positive one. If the movie was not good, it should not be used as some kind of barometer test for a larger gender-based agenda. Fortunately the movie is good, and Captain Marvel is cool, so girls and women will be proud and inspired by that. No need to harp on it or heap tons of pressure on it. Ok, end of moderate politically correct rant.

If there is a flaw in the film, it’s the challenge of balancing the Earth story with the Kree story. Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg is somewhat squandered and lost in the sauce once Vers leaves Hala. There’s an obvious desire to tap into some of that Guardians of the Galaxy space opera cache, but it doesn’t quite work. The movie really soars with its Earth storyline, and when it soars it is a blast! A-

Captain Marvel is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 4 minutes.