DirectorDavid F. Sandberg
Release Date(s)2019 (July 16, 2019)
Studio(s)DC Films/New Line Cinema/Peter Safran Productions (Warner Bros. Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Shazam! stands out from the spate of superhero films that have taken over movie theaters because it embraces humor and humanity in a way that seems to elude many big-budget superhero extravaganzas. Performances are above average and the film balances character development, visual effects, a serious threat to humankind, comedy, and the main character’s realization that extraordinary powers should be used for more than his own selfish ends.
When we first meet him, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a 14-year-old boy on a path to delinquency. Growing up with an absentee father and separated from his mother at a young age, he’s been jostled from one foster home to another. Now he’s in yet another foster home, this one with hippie-ish parents that seem teleported from the 1960s and mixed-race, misfit children of assorted ages.
Billy’s foster siblings include “den mother” Michelle (Grace Fulton); little Darla (Faithe Herman), a hugger who immediately bonds with Billy; video game enthusiast Eugene (Ian Chen); shy Pedro (Jovan Armand); and Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a kid with a lame leg and an encyclopedic knowledge of Superman and Batman lore who is the target of school bullies.
The fantasy element kicks in when Billy finds himself in a mysterious cave with creepy statues and an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who tells him that he has been chosen to assume the wizard’s powers because his heart is pure. Saying “Shazam” out loud, an acronym of six immortals – Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury – will transform Billy into an adult, caped, Spandex-clad hero (Zachary Levi).
When Freddy learns that his foster sibling has this power, he and Billy set out to discover which super powers Billy’s unnamed alter-ego in tights may have. With checklist in hand, Freddy sets up experiments based on his knowledge of comic book tropes. Some very funny sequences follow as Billy’s alter-ego awkwardly negotiates flying, super strength, super speed, and invulnerability, proving that CGI can inspire laughs as well as awe.
But Billy doesn’t seem to realize the scope of his powers, preferring to pose for selfies (for tips), buy beer, go to strip clubs, and make a spectacle of himself while personally profiting. Freddy, however, recognizes Billy’s shortsightedness and believes he is destined for bigger and better things.
Every superhero film needs a villain, even one in which humor is so prominent. Dr. John Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), belittled by his father and rejected by the Wizard as a child, has spent his life determined to find his way back to the Wizard’s mystical realm.
Mr. Angel has the right balance of innocence and street smarts as Billy. In the film’s early scenes, he has the demeanor of a kid who’s been through the bureaucracy of social services, and sets a personal goal to locate his mother. He’s not an easy fit into his latest foster home despite the family’s comfortable blending and regards himself as the outsider.
Jack Dylan Grazer is sensational as the sidekick, a voice of exposition because of his extensive knowledge of comic book characters. More than a plot device, he’s a real kid, whose disability has toughened rather than diminished him. His anger at Billy is predicated on all the good he could be doing. In that way, he displays a maturity unusual for kids his age. Mr. Grazer is a terrific actor, and he sells every scene.
Levi plays the Shazam character with childlike goofiness and enthusiasm. It’s tough to avoid making such a character pure camp, but Levi’s earnestness and look of wonderment reminds us that though the body is adult, Billy is still a boy.
Director David F. Sandberg has helmed 3/4 of a great film. He falls into the tired mold of other superhero movies in the final fifteen minutes, which are devoted to an endless battle between Billy and Dr. Sivana and his allies, monstrous manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins. When Levi and Strong dominate the screen, the movie loses a lot of its spark. The film is strongest when it focuses on the interaction between Billy and Freddy.
Rated PG-13, Shazam! sets itself apart from the numerous Marvel and DC Universe films with its clever script by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke.
The Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.4:1. The cinematography by Maxime Alexandre features a great deal of night filming, which makes Shazam’s costume stand out with that illuminated lightning bolt on his chest glow impressively. CGI sequences are integrated into the live action seamlessly, including Shazam running through a mall, his defiance of gravity, and his super speed. Effects look realistic and often contain humorous touches, such as when Shazam, struggling with his new powers, plummets toward the ground and stops mere inches from the hard concrete. A carnival sequence contains the lion’s share of the effects, including a Ferris wheel that teeters on the brink of collapsing with people trapped in its cars. Sivana simulates not only straight flying, but barrel rolls as well. With digitally added backgrounds, the effect is striking. When Freddy and pal Billy (aka Shazam) are experimenting to discover Shazam’s powers, the camera work is intentionally shaky, suggesting the video was shot by a kid, not an experienced cinematographer. Detail is sharp, particularly in close-ups of Shazam’s patterned suit. The set design of Billy’s new foster home is rich with detail suggesting that many people of diverse interests live and are welcome there. The renderings of the Deadly Sin monsters are quite amazing, as each one is distinctive rather than seven carbon copies of the same monster. These scary, elusive creatures can vanish in a swirl of grey smoke.
Audio is Dolby Atmos True HD and really comes to life in the superhero moments when volume is higher, sound separation is more pronounced, and sound effects enhance the visuals. When a bus dangles precariously from a bridge, the sounds of terrified trapped passengers, the bus scraping against the bridge surface, and Shazam huffing and puffing to push the bus back onto the highway are mixed beautifully. Dialogue throughout is clear and distinct, so we never miss a funny line or a seemingly spontaneous aside. There is also an optional Dolby Digital 5.1 track with Spanish and French language choices. English, French, and Spanish subtitle options are included.
Bonus materials on the 2-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include deleted and alternate scenes, the motion comic Superhero Hooky, 4 behind-the-scenes featurettes, a gag reel, and a Digital Code on a paper insert.
Superhero Hooky – This brief story unfolds in comic book-like panels with offscreen voices and sound effects enhancing the narrative. Pans, zooms, and limited motion within the panels give the comic tale a sense of movement. The artistic rendering of Shazam resembles actor Zachary Levi in the live action movie.
The Magical World of Shazam – David F. Sandberg, who directed two horror films before Shazam!, points out that comedy and horror are similar in that both are manipulative and intended to get a specific reaction from the audience. Zachary Levi auditioned for a smaller role but was so good that director Sandberg and the producers decided he was the right actor to play Shazam. To get in shape, the 6’4” actor worked out in the gym and ate power bars. Even though the film was shot in Toronto during the winter, fake snow was needed. Mall scenes were shot in an actual mall, with customers shopping in the background. The scene on the Rocky steps in Philadelphia was shot on a foggy day, so the Philadelphia skyline had to be rotoscoped in. The lighting bolt on Shazam’s costume lit up through a series of batteries and wires built into the suit, but it sometimes malfunctioned and had to be repaired on set. Levi refers to playing the part as “an incredibly humbling experience.”
Super Fun Zac – Zachary Levi is seen joking around between takes, seeming to have an inexhaustible storehouse of energy. Fellow cast members comment on his enthusiasm and youthful manner. Levi is seen mugging, dancing, and cavorting on the set.
Deleted and Alternate Scenes – These clips can be watched with or without director’s introductions.
1. Wizard prologue
2. Alternate beginning
3. Billy in the subway
4. Alternate intro to group house
5. Alternate Dr. Crosby and Dr. Sivana interviews
6. Billy sneaks out
7. New school with Darla
8. Sivana Christmas party
9. Shazam and Darla tea party
10. Alternate lightning with my hands
11. Additional montage beats
12. Freddy hung from locker
13. Alternate carnival fight
14. Freddy flies by airplane
15. Family on thrones
16. Alternate ending family beats
Gag Reel – This brief compilation, with musical accompaniment, shows actors blowing their lines and Levi and cast members mugging on the set.
Carnival Scene Study – This is a detailed look at the climactic scene set in an amusement park. The actual battle between Shazam and Sivana was filmed in the studio. Many set pieces in the sequence are shown, including the collapse of a Ferris wheel. Amusement park rides were rented, but the Ferris wheel was purchased and retrofitted so that it would tilt 30 degrees for a key scene. The Ferris wheel and the various carnival huts that were built for the movie were destroyed in the course of making it. Director David F. Sandberg comments that such a sequence “pays off in the end but is a challenge getting there.”
Shazamily Values – The young cast members and their adult counterparts comment on their characters. Young and adult actors are shown together, with their heights noted.
– Dennis Seuling