Shazam! Review Technical rating 3/5 Personal rating 2/5
NOTE: This review contains Spoilers in the personal rating section!
There will be a warning before the spoilers start.
Special effects +1 Total = 31/50 Final rating = 3.1/5
The primary thing that I took away from this film is that it was astonishingly uneven. What they did well they did exceptionally well. But I am afraid that just made the places where things didn’t work stand out all the more. As a result, I am going to do this review a bit out of order. I am going to praise what it did well, and then talk about where it dropped the ball.
Excellent: Acting, Dialogue Writing, and Character Presentation
The first two aspects of this film were marvelous and they both worked together strongly in favor of good character presentation.
Acting: I cannot say strongly enough how wonderfully cast Zachary Levi was as Shazam. His lighthearted goofiness, and his chemistry with Jack Dylan Grazer was brilliant and was exactly what I went to this film to see. What surprised me even more was that the rest of the cast of children was also fantastic. This group of child actors puts several recent films to shame. *CoughDumboCough* Jack Dylan Grazer and Asher Angel are brilliant together and watching them through the first half of the film was a treat! And on top of that, the entire cast of adopted siblings are not only competent in playing their characters, but many of their interactions are just delightful! I also want to praise both Cooper Andrews for his role as the foster father, who brought more heart to his small role than anyone else in the film (I would love to see much more of the future story centered around that!) and also, Mark Strong as the villain. Mark has gotten some flack for being a “bland villain,” but I will say more on that when we get to theming.
Dialogue: The dialogue writing helped the acting along mightily in many places, and many of the more intimate conversations helped these characters shine. There were several complex topics that were brought up. While I think the themes they delved into were ultimately handled badly, the moment to moment dialogue really gave the actors something to work with, and each of them ate it up, presenting their characters exceptionally well through their lines.
Character Presentation: This film is a great example of why I divide out character presentation from progression. The characters in this film are amazingly well presented. You have a very good idea of who the main characters are, what motivates them, what they value, and why they do what they do. And it is not just the main characters.
A great example of character presentation is how the story introduced us to Billy’s foster parents, and boy did the film use the full tool box to do this task. From just the look and feel of the van they drive him home in we know so much about who they are, and the house they walk him into tells us even more. Their mannerisms, clothing, hairstyles, and gait reinforce the characters we are seeing. The way the cinematography pairs them in frame communicates subtle details about their relationship with one another, and the blocking of their movements around Billy speaks volumes about how they see him and want to care for him. But sadly, this doesn’t keep up for the entire film, and most characters aren’t given this level of care. Each of the foster children are given a very quick intro interaction as Billy is whisked through the house. They aren’t bad, but that level of detail isn’t given to everything, and it really wanes as the film lengthens.
The key is, once the audience is familiar with your characters then you can do something with them! And the more intimately you present the character, the more powerful it is when you begin to move them. And that is where this film begins to falter.
Middling: Cinematography, Editing, Plotting, and Costuming
Cinematography and Editing: Both the cinematography and the Editing in this were fine but ultimately nothing special. They did elevate several scenes, reinforcing both comedy and character and making the special effects look better, but the cinematography really fell off toward the end. The final fight scene was especially poor.
Plotting: The plot was nothing special. The villain story was predictable, and the central character conflict was ultimately bland and a bit of a retread. There was one turn at the very end that was a surprise to me and I was a bit excited for a moment. But they didn’t really do much interesting with it. What they did do, they did boringly in a final fight scene. And it was done so poorly that payoff was diminished even though I liked the idea. The thing is, it was a perfectly serviceable plot, and none the worse for wear for having been used before. Plot is a meta structure to hang interesting things on. And boy did they have some interesting themes to play with! If they had kept the plot beats exactly the same, but payed out the thematic elements they had seeded into the beginning, this film could have been great.
Costuming: I loved the Shazam costume. The other character costumes were solid but there was a later costume issue I ended up not being terrifically fond of.
Problematic: Character Progress, Theming, Tone
Character Progress and Theming:
I tie these two together because the themes they brought up are tied to their characters. The film has two key themes it brings to play. The first is the question, “Who is worthy to be a superhero?” and the second is the theme of family. The latter is the heart of the film, and is handled middlingly. The first is brought up in a fascinating and breathtakingly unique way, and then completely dropped. Both could have been used to highlight the villain and make him much more potent and interesting, and both would have done the same for the main characters. And it wouldn’t have had to change the film almost at all! The comedy, the tone, the plot, the characters, all of it could have been the same. You just have to adjust a few character moments, highlight a few things, make it clear what caused what, or why something happened, make a motivation evident or have someone ask a single question. But no. It is maddeningly close to being astonishingly meaningful. But it just isn’t.
Instead, it’s just lackluster. As a result, its characters don’t really go anywhere. You get to know them, but they don’t move very far. They change very little because there is nothing to move them from who they were. The central conflict between Billy and Freddy is somewhat trite and forced. The villain, instead of being a powerhouse, just feels campy but without the love of camp that makes it entertaining. The family stuff has this sense of heart, and in a few scenes it really does get there. But I just wish they had really used that heart a bit more if that is what they were going to focus on. And there was one scenario to which I really object (an issue about college and family that I will address in my personal analysis). And the surprise element in the end fight scene was a really nice tie-in to that family theme in theory more than in execution.
Tone: The tone was a bit off in a few places. The Seven Deadly Sins were a very odd mix of really horrific and slapstick camp. The same went for several of the villain scenes. I would be careful about particularly young ones with this film. Everything else about it feels very PG rated.
SPOILER WARNING – Spoilers start now
Personal Review: -1 ranking.
This has a lot to do with expectations of things set up in the opening of the film and I am afraid I can’t discuss them without delving into what happens in the story.
So again, SPOILERS.
The opening of the film establishes the desire to find a hero, and the difficulty of doing so. A wizard who is looking for someone objectively good casts a spell to bring him someone worthy to be given power. The 7 deadly sins he keeps captive are growing stronger, and he grows weaker, so he must pass on his mantle. The film establishes the foolishness of looking for a truly good person and the impossibility of finding one. He searches for years as person after person fails to be purely good. His search actually creates the villain of the story. A child he once rejected finds his way back as an embittered and dangerous adult. He frees the 7 demon sins, taking their power out into the world. With no time left the wizard selects Billy, who the audience knows is neither pure nor good, and grants him the power.
The themes set up by this introduction are fantastic. Questions like “Who deserves to be a superhero?” “Who should be given power?” and, “How does someone become more evil or more good?” are amazing themes. Even the issue of how we handle the question “Why not me?” which is brought up later is amazing.
And they didn’t even try to answer any of those questions.
The primary question I had was, “Why Billy? Why did the spell choose him?” It grabbed him right after he did the first selfless thing we had seen him do in the entire film. Family is also a core theme in this film and the spell brings him to the wizard right after he makes the decision to stop two bullies from beating up his new foster brother. So far, he had worked hard to distance himself from his new foster family. He had refused to engage, been rude, been unkind, and (although you don’t know it yet,) stolen his disabled foster brother’s prize possession. But now he chooses to help him. It is a big character turn followed by the sudden granting of power, so I was inclined to think it was related. Is being a hero about choice? I love that theme! You could couch the entire film in that. Draw lines of distinction between Billy and the Villain. The test the Seven Deadlies did to each visitor was a Temptation and Choice test. But they were gone when Billy arrived so he is untested. That could set up tension for the entire film. Make it about that. Is he or isn’t he worthy?
But that doesn’t work with the rest of the setup. The spell chose lots of people and they all failed a test of choice, and the point was that no one is that good. Besides, the one other person we see get chosen didn’t do anything brave or selfless beforehand. Was Billy just the next in line? Ok, so that is meaningful and could be explored. Maybe being a hero is about something else. Maybe it is about family, or bravery. Or maybe it is nothing, and any one of those people would have been fine. But it wasn’t. The film never asks again. It never says. The villain expresses a momentary curiosity and then moves on.
Billy as a character never encounters any of this. The idea that “These powers can only be entrusted to a purely good soul because last time an entire civilizations died” is fairly heavy stuff. But despite it being explained to him, his super hero arc is a very simple story of progressing from, “Wow I have powers let’s use it to make money and YouTube Videos” to, “I should probably stop the bad guy from murdering my new foster family.”
They just don’t capitalize on the big question they ask right up front. And they spend so much time on that issue! They build their entire villain on that premise. This is why the villain ended up so bland. They build a fascinating motivation into him and gave him a drive that puts him in direct opposition to Billy, both in how each of them got their power and also in their family background. But they didn’t allow either issue to drive him after his creation.
The family theming had a lot of potential. This theme was explored a little more but still not as fully as it could have been. Billy’s character arc when it comes to family is more complete. There is some deep stuff there and he is much more flushed out. The mom story line is surprisingly well written and it went somewhere I didn’t expect. It would have been great to see them use that to contrast Billy with the villain whose terrible family was also brought up as a major issue! They have parallel stories and highlighting that could have thrown light on those core questions, but they don’t bother.
The Rewrite: I promise you don’t have to change this movie to get the themes in here! I love the comedy in this film. I love its light-hearted characters and its silly tone and its fun, and none of that needs to go away. But it is so close to also being something amazing! Let me show you how light a touch that can be.
Here is how I would have written it. I would have personified the magic a bit. Show it choosing people when they make a choice, a selfless one. For the villain, make it subtle. Show him choosing, in a very small way, choosing not to cause his brother trouble even though he is in the right, despite his abusive father, and despite his abusive brother. Show that the magic sees and chooses him. Then you let the scene with the wizard play out. He fails the demon temptation, and just the same as in the film it is clear it is anger at his abusive family that causes the failure. You keep the rest of the film the same, but have the magic searching invisibly, pass by Billy once or twice when he does the things to his foster family that make you see how bad he can be, like when he lies to Freddy or when he tells his sister not to hug him. But when he defends Freddy the magic notices. It follows him to the subway and chooses him. Then everything is the same until you adjust just a few lines between Shazam and the Villain. In an early fight have him demand to know why Billy is worthy. Leave it unanswered. When the foster family is captive have the villain say he has it figured out. He says it is because Billy had a loving family. That is why he is a good person. Billy, having just come from learning his mom gave him up, doesn’t agree. He just met these people. And Billy struggles with his recent actions and his foster brother’s recent accusations, wondering if he is actually more like his enemy.
Play the rest of the film exactly like it is written but when Shazam finally has the demon artifact and is finally being subject to the temptation that every single person before him failed, have his family be the ones to pull him back. You see, every other person who took that test was alone. And the villain was right. The difference may well be a loving family!
Ok sorry, one last thing.
As a teacher, I am going to go ahead and say that I have a personal problem with the statement “you should not go to a prestigious college. You should continue living at your foster home instead” I know there was context in the film and all, but I am not sure that even that justifies it! They wanted to make a statement about the value of family, but I really don’t think personal growth and a college education is in opposition to that!
If you want to go to a college that is a lot closer I like that idea. I mean I used to live in Philadelphia. Drexel is right there and extremely well regarded! That is a different conversation though. If you phrase it as college-or-family and then side with family I am going to strongly disagree! And on a more personal educator’s note, I lived in Philly and I am familiar with a very ghetto mentality that sounds an awful lot like that. It says, “How dare you leave. Do you think you are better than us? Don’t you love us? Then don’t leave us.” This small conversation, as underplayed and subtle as it is, may actually be an extremely dangerous message for many inner-city foster kids and I don’t really think the film makers had any idea.