Shazam! Adventures in Superhero-ing
Christmas lights are everywhere in Shazam! Set during the festive season, suburban homes are covered with elaborate multi-coloured lights, Christmas trees dwarf living rooms and the hero’s chest, a lightning bolt, beams like an expensive decoration. The film itself, shot by cinematographer, Maxime Alexandre (The Nun), looks like it was lit by festive displays, there’s a feeling of hometown comfort in every frame. There’s a reason for celebration and gift giving, of course, because following the wet n’ wild adventure of Aquaman it’s clear the DC Comics stable of superheroes have finally found a groove.
A teenage foster kid, Billy Baston (Asher Angel), is selected by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou, who is legally required to appear in superhero films) to become a mystical champion, Shazam (Zachary Levi), a superpowered being who defends the universe from evil creatures that look like they were yanked out of Hellraiser – so many kids are not going to sleep but it’s fair for a new generation to be as traumatised as I was by the ‘kids movies’ of the past.
Billy can yell ‘Shazam’ and he’s transformed into an adult, so it’s kind of like Penny Marshall’s Big with superpowers but it has close ties to the films of Joe Dante and Chris Columbus: Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone and Gremlins. In Shazam! adults are mostly absent, teenage logic dictates everything and our young heroes find their moral compass.
The rules of Shazam! dictate that only a person ‘pure of heart’ can become the defender of our universe. But due to our complicated times, the wizard can’t find anyone worthy because Earth is a mess and demonic forces know it. Billy Baston then becomes a compromise because teens are going to save the world, apparently, unless they are on public transport, in that case: packs of teens stay away.
Screenwriter, Henry Gayden, places ethics at the centre of Shazam! resemblant of how the television series The Good Place addresses what makes a truly ‘good’ person. Billy/Shazam spends most of the film, with his adoptive brother, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), exploiting his powers to charge phones, sneak out of school and buy beer.
Director, David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) contrasts the wish fulfilment of becoming Shazam with the reality of being a superhero/adult. Freeman and Shazam walk out of a service station with beers and immediately regurgitate their first sip. Shazam shoots lightening from his hands to entertain people for tips and inadvertently causes a bus accident. If you’re going to put on a costume, you’ve got to stand for something or you’ll end up becoming a bad guy, who appears as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong, also legally required to appear in superhero films), a guy who leans hard into accepting the world is well cooked. There’s also a running joke about a cowardly Santa Claus, a man in a costume, who is constantly failing to measure up to the expectation of the suit he wears.
With so much responsibility being thrown around it’s no surprise that Shazam! has a lot in common with Spider-Man: Homecoming; both feature a song from The Ramones, the patron saints of teen superheros, fraternal figures are everywhere, and parents are a letdown. The Christmas theme comes back into view when Shazam! brings its charming group of foster kids (Grazer, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen and Jovan Armand) together as Billy learns to put himself before others with a little help from his newfound family.
The mythology of Shazam! is a delight with mysticism good enough to build entire universes around; it’s baffling this was never considered as a starting point to open up DC Comic’s shared films to different realms. The smash and crash of the film’s climatic battle is a little too long and loud, which could just be a sign that I am getting too old for these things but Shazam! is still enough to tap those who are young at heart.