Shazam! (2019)


Before I get started, I just want to take a minute and acknowledge how surreal it is that you can go to the movie theater this weekend and watch both Captain Marvel and Shazam. Billy Batson and Carol Danvers are two characters I never thought we'd see on the big screen - Batson because he's silly and Danvers because I'd have sworn the one line Marvel would never cross would be putting out a movie with their company name embedded in the title - but here we are.

And both of them are good. Really good, in really different ways. But not for different reasons: both Shazam! and Captain Marvel were made with respect and love for the characters being adapted, and it comes through in the finished products.

I'll set Captain Marvel aside. Aside from sharing a convoluted history with Shazam! (if you have no idea what I'm referring to, pour yourself a Scotch when you've got an hour to kill and go read the Wikipedia histories on the characters calling themselves "Captain Marvel"), the two films feel very different. And for once, the DC movie's the one that's brighter and sillier.

Also, Christmas. Shazam! is clearly a holiday movie - I'd be shocked if the filmmakers hadn't intended this to receive a December release. And that probably would have been better for its box office potential: this is exactly the kind of fun, fantasy-driven adventure kids would want to see two or three times over Christmas break. I'd fault WB's marketing team for dropping this in spring if their gambit on Aquaman hadn't paid off so well.

Shazam! even sets its cold opening in a Christmas past, establishing the origin of... well... I probably should avoid plot points, even trivial ones. I certainly found this choice an interesting one, as there's no story reason this had to occur at Christmas, so it demonstrates that the filmmakers were serious about building an association between their movie and the season.

This is, of course, is the third big-budget superhero movie set during the holiday season, joining Iron Man 3 and Batman Returns. That said, its reasons for incorporating Christmas trappings is different. Batman Returns was juxtaposing bright, holiday trappings against frightening violence. Iron Man 3 was sort of doing that, but was more referencing other Shane Black movies that played up contrast. Shazam!, on the other hand, is asking the holidays to perform a couple tasks. First, in a fairly straightforward way, it's enhancing themes of family and camaraderie. The core of this movie is a fairly conventional story about finding family.

The movie does that extremely well, delivering a story that's heartfelt and hilarious. But as a Christmas junkie, I was more intrigued with the OTHER use of the holidays. Shazam! uses decorative elements in a way I don't recall seeing before. Here, the multicolored lights are evocative of the color palette used in early comic books, which helps bridge the gap between the somewhat cartoonish source material and reality. That's clever.

A lot of this movie is clever, in fact. The script is well constructed, using humor to build goodwill with the audience, which makes the dramatic moments all the more impactful. I wish DC had realized this at the start of their shared Universe experiment, but better late than never.

And speaking of that shared Universe, they finally got it right. Shazam! incorporates elements of other movies organically, so nothing feels forced. Yes, Superman exists, and yes, that's relevant. People know what a superhero is, so they're not confused when a guy shows up who can shoot lightning and lift cars. And, even more relevant to this particular story, kids have their own ideas for what superheroes are.

The kids in this movie, by the way, are great. I loved the entire cast, but Jack Dylan Grazer (playing Freddy) really stands out. A lot of the movie rests on his shoulders, and he pulls it off. I sincerely hope they green-light a sequel as soon as humanly possible, so the young cast doesn't age out of their roles.

I've mentioned a few times that this movie is funny, but I don't want to undersell this aspect of the film. The trailers do a decent job establishing the kind of humor they're going for, but the jokes are far better in context.

In short, this is a great superhero/fantasy/comedy family film that makes good use of its holiday setting. It's genuinely funny, sweet, and at times a little dark (but in a good way for a change), and it's absolutely worth checking out.

That said, don't despair if you miss it in theaters. While I think it's worth seeing on a big screen, it should play almost as well on a television. This one's going to have a lot of rewatch potential for years to come, particularly around the holidays.

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