Friday, April 5, 2019

movie review: SHAZAM!

It's been a long and arduous road of road of 17 years since the Shazam! movie was first announced in 2002.  The time has come.  The movie is here.  But before I get into the review, let me set the stage.

When Michael Uslan first announced he obtained the film rights to Captain Marvel, excitement raced through this life long Captain Marvel fan.  I quickly started envisioning what I hoped the movie would be like: a visually unique art deco world where a kid who says a magic word and turns into the World's Mightiest Mortal co-exists with a humanoid talking tiger who dresses in plaid sports coats, and an evil alien worm.  An Alex Ross painting come to life. I started envisioning Micky Dolenz as Uncle Dudley, who would be a scene stealing highlight. I envisioned the movie having a soundtrack of all Elvis Presley songs. My anticipation grew with every passing month.

There were several false starts along the way. The original script by William Goldman was rejected. And so was a draft by Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow.  Things seemed to pick up when Peter Segal was announced as director, and John August was tapped to write the latest script, and there was heightened buzz when Dwayne Johnson signaled he was interested in playing Black Adam. Yet things still managed to fall apart. I got ahold of the rejected Goldman and August drafts of the scripts, and was somewhat relieved they were both rejected, as the scripts seemed far too grounded and ordinary to be worthy of Captain Marvel's unique world. But also the first red flag went up when I noticed both scripts shared two disturbing aspects: Billy "learns" how to be a superhero by reading comic books, and the over-emphasis on this being a remake of Big with superpowers.

Then David Sandberg was signed to be the new director, and suddenly things started moving fast.  Cautious anticipation started to build again, as viewfinders for the title role landed on Derek Theler or Lou Ferrigno Jr.   But then the role went to Arthur "Dagwood" Lake look-alike Zachary Levi.  And then it became evident the film would be based on the much hated Curse of Shazam new52 reboot instead of the classic Golden Age Fawcett comics.  The anticipation and excitement for this movie died.  It came to the point I questioned whether I even wanted to go see this movie in the theater.  With expectations at a low... Joel Schumacher Batman & Robin low... I watched Shazam!

What I saw was schizophrenic, disjointed, bloated and campy. It switches between comedy, scare, and after-school special genres faster than you can say Shazam.  The humor mostly fell flat. The only bit that made me chuckle was when Eugene attempts to use nunchuks. Likewise the attempts at scaring seem like they were trying way too hard and missed the mark. In many ways, it feels like a parody not unlike Superhero Movie (2008).

The story opens on Sivana as a child, and he gets picked by Shazam to become Captain Marvel. Only he fails a purity of heart test and is rejected. Skip ahead to today and we meet Billy Batson, an orphan abandoned by his teenage mother in a life long search for her.  He gets sent to a foster home where he meets Freddy Freeman. Meanwhile Sivana has acquired powers from the seven deadly sins. The wizard picks Billy to stop Sivana.  We then have the over long "clumsily finding out the powers" sequence. His most used power is shooting lightning out his fingers, a power never seen in the Fawcett comics. By time Sivana finds Captain Marvel to steal his powers (why, since he already has powers, is never made clear), the movie turns into another typical CGI battle fest with very crude and badly done CGI.  It gets worse when the movie goes into full "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" mode for the finale. Contrast this to the recent Joker trailer that has little to no CGI, yet looks very rich and lush.  Joker looks like an epic motion picture.  Shazam! looks like a TV show. 

For years, the talk from those involved said this movie would be its own thing.  It would not be tied to the DC Film Universe. The end result is the opposite.  This movie is so chained to the other DCEU movies that certain scenes feel like an infomercial for the DCEU.  There was enough "Superman worship" to turn my stomach. If there needed to be references to other superheroes, it should have been the classic Fawcett heroes, like Spy Smasher, Ibis, and Bulletman. Sandberg and writer Henry Gayden have no idea what these characters are about, have no context for the source material---the real Fawcett source material.  It appears they are solely going by what Geoff the Snake Johns dictates.  This film could have used a more experienced director with knowledge and love for the Fawcett comics who had the cojones to tell the Snake to buzz off.

Asher Angel as Billy Batson and Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman are the two best things about this movie. Although Sandberg and Gayden get Billy's character all wrong (he's not pure hearted as all the dialogue states, he lies, cheats and steals), Asher gives his all to the material and gives a great performance. But playing his other half, Zachary Levi is far too over the top to be believable as Captain Marvel, and in fact comes off far more immature and spastic than Asher. It's hard to see them as the same character.  I don't care what anyone says, Captain Marvel is not meant to be a Tom Hanks cover-band, and that is all Levi brings to the table. Furthermore while Asher handles the dramatic scenes easily, Levi struggles with them, again over acting and mugging.

Grazer also handles the role of Freddy very well, despite this not being the Fawcett version.  Freddy is essentially robbed of his story arc, as he should not be crippled at this point.  But Grazer also gives his all to the material and is a standout.

Mark Strong would make a great Lex Luthor or a fine Hugo Strange, but is horribly miscast as Sivana. Sandberg said the main reason for cutting Black Adam out of the movie is that he couldn't handle two origins in one movie.  Yet, he and Gayden give a back story to Sivana that is essentially a riff on the Black Adam origin. I'm sure Dwayne Johnson is thrilled to have his character's story diluted. And did they really have to cast Smallville's Lionel Luthor as Sivana's father?  Strong gives a bland phoned-in performance that bears no resemblance to the classic Sivana of the Fawcett comics, the quintessential Napoleon-sized, cackling mad scientist who sees himself as rightful ruler of the universe.  Instead, Strong's weak personality Sivana is just a generic magic-infused bad guy.

The wizard Shazam, played by Djimon Hounsou, is flat. Hounsou's delivery is similar to one reading a teleprompter.  I'm kind of shocked Tom Hanks wasn't cast as the wizard.

Of the other foster kids, Darla played by Faithe Herman, is given the most screen time with her distinct and somewhat annoying Crank Yankers' Special Ed personality.  Mary, played by Grace Fulton, is wasted, with very little to do, and the other two just stand around to react to everyone else, although as I said, Eugene does get the movie's only real laugh.

The bizarre Superman cameo at the end, where his face is cropped out of frame, if it needed to be there (which it didn't), they should have had Dean Cain do it. Or, have Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman instead. The best part of the movie is the mid credits scene with Mr. Mind.  That was the only part of the film that felt like a true Captain Marvel movie.  But as it is, Sandberg did not make this movie for life long Captain Marvel fans.  He made this movie for Geoff The Snake Johns. As a parody of Big and of superheroes in general, using the Captain Marvel characters aimed at the Nickelodeon demographic, Shazam! is average at best. But as a Captain Marvel movie, it is a disappointing failure.

UPDATE: Even though I was disappointed in the movie, I am still filled with a sense of awe and wonder, and a little proud, to see Captain Marvel - or a facsimile thereof - have the number 1 movie in the world.


Captain Marvel Talk! said...

I give you credit for doing what I could not, and that's going to see the movie.

Thanks for the review anyway!

There's a lot I could say, but I'll save it for another time.

ant.beez said...

I feel like you're looking at this as a loss, when it's not.

No. This movie wasn't made for "life long Captain Marvel fans". There aren't enough of those to fill the seats needed to pay to make the thing.

Just look at the month of April 2018 on comichron. Only one year ago, right around the time when principle photography wrapped - zero sales of Shazam to comic shops. Also no Shazam appears in the top 500 comics sold for March, April, or May last year.

Look at sales now.. No data for March 2019 yet, but Feb. has 5 Shazam books listed, the top of those five sold 37,905 copies to stores.

A character you love is being introduced to a massive audience, and even though you didn't like it, enough people did that it will generate more material because more people are interested. Hopefully when the slew of new Shazam stuff hits shelves over the next year, you'll get content that is made for life long fans.

What's even better is you'll get some new fans that will go through back issues and find appreciation for the same original version of Captain Marvel you do.

Sorry to go on for so long, but I stumbled onto this page and saw something I could have written a few years ago.

Now, next let's talk about Marvel's Captain Marvel.. j/k. I can't even lol.

Aaron said...

I have to kind of agree with you. It was a fun movie - I thought the two lead kids were great - but it was absolutely bloated, and I didn't care for their take on Capt Marvel himself. What they did to Sivana was absolutely mind-numbingly stupid. Like, "Dennis Hopper as Bower in Super Mario Bros" level stupid. Terribly written. The casting was fine I guess since there was no personality in the character at all (I don't think "generic mean guy" counts as personality).

I think they could have handled two origins in this movie simply by cutting out all the unnecessary junk with Sivana at the beginning and shortening the dragged-out Shazam vs Sivana fistfight. Not sure why so many of these superhero movies can't come up with anything cleverer than "evil guy who is as strong as the superhero." Mr Mind was the only thing that got me genuinely excited.

Anonymous said...

I have to ask, did any of the oringinal actors from the Shazam! tv series appear in the movie?

Shazamaholic said...

No, I don't think so.

Daniel said...

My biases: I love the Zack Snyder DC movies (MoS, BvS, Watchment) and WW. I hated Aquauman and Suicide Squad. I find the MCU movies to be fine but formulaic and too generic and glib for my tastes.

I agree with most of what you wrote. I am not a Geoff Johns fan (to put it more bluntly: I think he is the worst thing that has ever happened to DC at both the comics and film level, and quietly predicted to myself when he was first promoted under Diane Nelson that he would run the company into the ground (as he did)). That said, even though I didn't like his run on Shazam!, I was not reflexively opposed to the filmmakers using that work as a jumping off point.

Also, just because I really like Zack Snyder's dark, melancholy approach to the DCEU, that doesn't mean that I'm not open to other interpretations of these characters, too (I love Tim Burton's Batman films almost as much as I love Snyder's films).

So, with all that said, I went into this film with an open mind. I didn't really care what approach they took to the character just as long as it was good, as long as it was interesting.

Instead, what we got was the very definition of mediocrity. It wasn't outright terrible like Aquaman and Suicide Squad, but it was far from good. It was a third-rate Marvel ripoff. Which is, I think, why the film is not doing all that well at the box office. Why go to the third-rate Marvel ripoff when (if they're into Marvel movies) they can just wait a few weeks to see an actual Marvel movie?

I agree with your assessment that this film was not cinematic at all. To me it felt like a Disney Channel TV movie. Blandly shot, blandly written, blandly acted, with generic character motivations and generic VFX.

As I said up front, Geoff Johns has fun DC into the ground. I jumped for joy when he was fired from DC Films and as DC Chief "Creative" Officer ("Creative" being a word that should never be associated with Johns), but wish they would sever all ties with him ("Titans" on DC Universe was awful). I am, like you, hopeful for "Joker." To me it looks like a return to the Snyder-verse aesthetic and themes which, like it or not, gave the DCEU a distinct identity and point of view that differentiated it from Marvel (see my earlier comment about "Shazam!" being a third-rate Marvel movie--it tries so hard to be a Marvel movie that it's embarrassing).

I know that WB announced a sequel for this film, but with its sub-mediocre box office performance, I'd be genuinely surprised if that ever goes anywhere.