Friday, April 5, 2019

He's Got the Power: SHAZAM!

Shazam! is just plain fun: a sweet and sentimental superhero movie that wears its metaphor lightly, but meaningfully. It’s built not out of sour self-importance or snarky quips, like so many clogging up our multiplexes and monopolizing our culture. Instead, director David F. Sandberg and screenwriters Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke root this DC fantasy in the kick kids get out of such stories, the way they’re both power trips and places in which misfits find belonging and makeshift families. It’s literalized here by making its hero an awkward, oft-runaway foster teen (Asher Angel), abandoned by his mother when he was very young and ever since desperate to find her. Instead, not long after the film begins, he finds himself drawn into an inter-dimensional portal where the ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) — dying, and therefore in need of a champion to channel his magic and continue his legacy of protecting the planet from spooky supernatural monsters — gifts him his powers. Say his name and — SHAZAM! — the boy becomes a man (Zachary Levi), muscled in a stereotypical red supersuit, cape and all, and with a gleaming dimpled grin and square jaw, practically a living superhero. His nerdy new foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer) geeks out, vicariously living through his new superfriend. “What are your powers?!” he squeals. They proceed to test it out in a charming experimenting-with-newfound-abilities sequence that’s the best of its kind since Raimi’s first Spider-Man. The movie proceeds with a bounce in its step, since superpowers can, after all, be fun. The movie capably maneuvers between modes — a special effects charmer with ominous undercurrents in one moment, then flitting easily between family comedy and heartfelt family drama. It manages to feel both fantastical and grounded in the reality of a boy’s desires. They have a blast exploring his potential — jumping, punching columns, zooming around, shooting electricity from his hands. They’re simply two kids messing around, trying to determine how to fit this new normal into their daily lives and solve quotidian problems, even as we know a super-threat lurks on the horizon.

This all dovetails with their emotional needs, not just as adolescents craving acceptance and attention while trying to figure out how to maneuver in society, but as, in the case of our lead, a boy trying to find family after formative abandonment. The filmmakers have great fun playing with this idea visually, playing up the boy’s discomfort in his own skin as something exaggerated in the adult form, while the enthusiasm for the newfangled abilities bubbles out in immature goofiness. He likes that, for once, people seem to like him. Even if he’s outwardly confident, he still knows deep down he’s pretending to be something he’s not. As the movie develops toward the inevitable climactic confrontations with the glowering villain (Mark Strong) — a grown-up version of the teen’s problems with family and connection, an evil reflection of a possible future — it never loses its charm, perched between the soft-spoken recessive teen and the outdoor-voice chest-puffing bravado of his other self. Of course he must rise to the occasion, and the movie is the rare superhero movie to grow better as it goes along, gathering up rooting interest and character detail that doesn’t evaporate into CG clouds, but extends through the whiz-bang, zip-zoom action. In fact, it grows and complicates, rooting its conflict in character, while knowing that the origin story tropes and superhero formula, done well, provide their own comforting familiarity. The movie is modestly scaled, but exciting, and lovingly emotional, even when fighting globs of computerized monster effects. It’s because its focus on family, and on close personal relationships between recognizably human individuals who have hopes and dreams and warm conversations in cozy homes, that the stakes feel so real. I even got a little misty eyed at a key moment of surprising family unity near the end. This hero doesn’t have to learn how to save the world. He just has to save his world.

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