Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By Derek May:
So if you’re anything like me, you were a little worried about this one. First, there’s DC spotty track record under the “Snyder-era” (fortunately Aquaman certainly proved a welcomed departure). There’s the bubblegum tone from the trailers that seemed a knee-jerk 180 from the darkness of the previous films (ironic given that director David F. Sandberg has only done two previous features, and they were both horror). Then there’s the fact that we’re dealing with a former "Captain Marvel" out a month after that other Captain Marvel, and is often heralded as a simple, and sillier, Superman ripoff (and was sued decades ago for it). So it wouldn’t be unfair to say this movie was starting behind the eight-ball.
But I’m ecstatic to report that not only did all the warped pieces ended up fitting together beautifully, but DC has managed to craft one of the best superhero origin movies in its stable and reasserted its position as a major player in the game.
In case you’re still confused about who’s who, in a nutshell, Shazam! traces the rise of 14-year-old Billy Batson, a perpetual runaway foster kid who becomes imbued with the magic of an ancient wizard that upon command brings about a transformation into the best possible version of himself—a super-strong, superfast, lightning-fingered flying adult known as . . . well, that’s a bit complicated (and I think you can guess why). The story is light-hearted and full of the expected joy that a teenager with powers would no doubt relish in. While references are certainly made to other pantheon heroes, the relation to the previous films is tangential at best (which is a major plus). This is a truly standalone story that keeps the door open for future collaborations, but is far more concerned with how its characters deal with the fantastic circumstances before them while delivering a rollicking adventure with heart.
With a movie like this, tone is key. The story, characters, and everything else have to be there, certainly, but melding a modern, gritty world with that of magic, as well as a boy becoming a super-powered adult, is no easy task. It would be the easiest thing in the world to fly off the rails, to go too far into camp and lose any sense of relatability or soul. Fortunately, the creators found a perfect balance, basing the film in our reality while never losing sight of the fact that this movie needed to be fun. That towed line was my greatest fear going in. From the previews, I gathered young Billy (Asher Angel) as a clever, capable modern teen able to put his streetsmarts to use and handle just about anything. By contrast, Zachary Levi’s hero seemed a naïve goofball with nary a care in the world. If these two didn’t ultimately seem like the same person on the inside, the movie was never going to work. What I’ll say that there’s still a bit of disparity, but overall, most of my fears were allayed.
Levi proved to be inspired casting. Given his man-child experience from Chuck and his dashing hero experience as Fandral in the Thor movies (yup, he crossed over!), he’s got the perfect resume for the role. Hitting the gym enough to compliment the massively padded suit, Levi looks every bit the dashing hero while still exuding a wide-eyed immaturity that stretches credulity here and there, but in the end stands believable as a boy trapped in a man’s body. It all works because like Billy, Levi is having a blast. Everything we dreamed of doing as children if we were ever fortunate enough to land superpowers is vicariously expressed in exuberance and with a modern, almost wry sensibility. But when push comes to shove, our hero indeed rises to the occasion, and as is true with most heroes, it’s often more about what’s inside than what’s out.
It’d be easy to lay the entire movie at Levi’s feet and let him just chew scenery for 2 hours, but the filmmakers are smart enough to know that the movie’s lynchpin is the balance between boy and man, and thus we spend an equal amount of time with young Billy. In my opinion, Asher Angel wins the battle of the two halves, upstaging Levi with a beautifully nuanced performance. Billy has his own very real demons to battle, whether it be issues with his mother or learning to open up to the love of friends and family. While that might seem to skew overly dour, Angel still manages to find the joy and excitement in the moment, and pulls off what will surely be a major step into a wider career.
Equally impressive is young Jack Dylan Grazer, who’s fresh off his own stellar turn in the rebooted It films. As Freddy, resident expert on superheroes, he serves not only as assort of mentor and audience intro but also as the purest representation of friendship, family, and taking life as it comes. I was relieved to see that his handicap wasn’t treated as his defining characteristic, but as merely one aspect of his character. Far more important was his unique viewpoint and occasional service as Billy’s conscience. He may truly have been my favorite character of the bunch, but with so many so well served, it’s a tough call.
In fact, I need to shout out special recognition to two of the youngest cast members, Faithe Herman and Ian Chen. As the impossibly cute moppet Darla, young Herman nearly drags Billy’s heart kicking and screaming into their motley brood with her sweet vulnerability. And as Eugene, Chen proves that his ever-growing skills on one of my favorite shows, Fresh Off the Boat, is no fluke. Though not a large role, Chen still manages to steal his scenes and add his own spark to the eclectic ensemble.
Each and every other player nails their respective role, and no character is left without some measure of healthy development or acknowledgement. Mark Strong creates one of the best supervillains we’ve seen in a fair while, a man with as much in common with Billy as he is his polar opposite. Richly seeded with a clear and relatable backstory, Strong’s Dr. Sivana is equal parts terrifying and sympathetic. Djimon Hounsou also jumps over from the Marvel side to play the ancient wizard (and the only actor to be in both “Captain Marvel” films!). There are a few additional cameos I won’t spoil, suffice it to say that they couldn’t be more perfect fits!
The concoction of real, fantastic, heartfelt, and fun is incredibly hard to make seem so easy. DC and Warners have a lot riding on this franchise, as it’s really the first entry outside the standard gallery of heroes. It’s a major risk to push forth a more family friendly superhero in an age of dark and dour comic book films. Not to mention the fact that few people have even heard of the character, and if they have, are often confused about who he is and what to call him. To soften the blow, the initial idea was to bring in Dwayne Johnson as the franchise villain Black Adam, a role he’s been attached to for years. But as a producer on this film, Johnson convinced the powers that be that Billy needed his own film before attempting to set up another—and he made the right call. Shazam! works for many reasons, not the least of which is the freedom to stand on its own (though according to Johnson, expect to see a Black Adam film shooting in about a year).
In a glut of comic films all vying for your attention, Shazam! steps out as something different. Well-crafted with love and attention, it’s a film that knows what it is and what it needs to be. The film that shouldn’t have taken off is able to soar to heights heretofore unreached by even the Man of Steel in recent years, and that’s truly nothing short of magic.
YANG: The Highwaymen
The line between fame and infamy is sometimes paper thin, but both can lead to a kind of immortality. And that’s why nearly a century on, we’re still telling stories around the infamous pair of Bonnie and Clyde. There have been at least a dozen films made about the duo over the years of varied quality and notoriety, so if you’re going to do another in this day and age, you’d better bring something new to the table. And that’s exactly what director John Lee Hancock and writer John Fusco do by changing the focus from the dastardly villains to their counterparts on the side of the law in hot pursuit.
Texan Hancock is no stranger to historical fiction, whether it be Westerns such as The Alamo or more intimate fare like The Blind Side. But he’s also no slave to the truth. And with such conflicting accounts of what actually happened to Bonnie and Clyde, liberties are sure to be taken. Thus, The Highwaymen isn’t a documentary, but a cowboy flick following two grizzled Texas Rangers dragging their old bones out of retirement and into one last hoorah. Fusco, having written a number of genre tales including Young Guns, Thunderheart, and Hidalgo, seems a perfect fit for injecting the humanity behind the pistoleros. And thus, Netflix has continued their track record of bringing unusual, high-quality films under their banner and securing all-stars casts to bring them to life.
Kevin Costner plays Frank Hamer, one of the most lauded Rangers in Texas history. Long past his prime, he’s pulled out of his sunset to do what no one else seems capable of: taking down the notorious lovers. But he can’t do it alone, and thus Woody Harrelson’s Maney Gault saddles up beside him, Hamer’s former partner and protégé who hasn’t taken as well to pasture as some. Both men are haunted in their own ways by their pasts, and the lines they crossed in the pursuit of their brand of justice. All of which leads to the interesting theme of what truly separates the good from the bad. If Hamer and Gault are willing to do anything to stop the killers they pursue, does that make them any better? And if not, are they simply the necessary evil required to combat true evil? Interesting questions all around, and a beautiful meditation on justice, especially when contrasted with the “modern” efforts of national agencies such as the FBI.
The movie plays out as part detective story, part road movie, but the focus is always kept on Hamer and Gault. In perhaps its most intriguing device, Bonnie and Clyde themselves are never really shown. Skillfully framed to avoid their faces, they are never given a proper look until they meet their final end. In this time of all too many disturbed individuals perpetrating massacres for the sake of fame and notoriety, plastering their faces across news outlets only fuels their fire. And like those mediums that have learned not to cater to those desires, Hancock et al choose not to glorify the murderers. The film does, however, take no quarter in showing the sheer callous brutality of the duo, most especially Bonnie’s cold-hearted thrill at finishing her victims off up close. In parallel, Hancock and Fusco dig into the public’s fascination, and outright love, for the outlaws, who view them as the heroes and the law as the enemy. While that certainly feeds into the aforementioned theme of that blurry line between right and wrong, all doubt is essentially dissuaded when we see the ravenous, brazen way Bonnie and Clyde’s ”fans” quite literally tear them apart at the end in a sick dash to touch and preserve their brush with infamy.
Being more of a character drama than an action or even detective story, you need actors who can hold the audience’s attention. Costner has become almost ubiquitous with these sorts of leather-necked cowboy roles, having made a career of playing some version or another for the past 20+ years. As Hamer, Costner doesn’t stray too far out of his comfort zone, which in this case works well. Hamer certainly has his regrets, but makes no excuses or apologies for them. He believes what he’s doing is “right,” but is very aware that it isn’t always “good.” Costner plays it straight and fairly close to the vest, choosing to keep the character’s complexity bathed in a bit of stoic detachment.
This allows a nice contrast with Harrelson’s Gault, who wears more of his emotions on his sleeve. It’s interesting casting, as we don’t automatically think of Woody as old enough to play this kind of role, but at 57 he fits in just right. And given Harrelson’s background, it’s obvious why he’s the main comic relief throughout much of the picture, but it’s impressive, and appropriate, how much he restrains it. Harrelson has the much more difficult role here, as the man struggling to come to terms with what he’s done, and what he’s signed on still to do. Constantly skating the line between a sort of gallows humor and moments of true pain and conflict is no easy task, but Harrelson proves he’s got the chops to do it. I’d argue it’s one of his most complex and noteworthy roles of his career, and had this come out later in the year closer to awards season, I have little doubt he’d be properly recognized for it.
The rest of the impressive cast serve to support the pair of stars, but have no trouble stealing the limelight when onscreen. Kathy Bates brings that Texas toughness as Governor Ma Ferguson. As equally hard-nosed and grizzled as the rangers themselves, she also adds the politician’s duality, barking doubt and threats behind closed doors while praising and reaping the glory in the spotlight. It’s a small but important role that only someone of Bates’ caliber can make truly shine.
Longtime character actors John Carroll Lynch (The Drew Carey Show) and Willian Sadler (Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey) slip in for important cameos that drive the plot or characters forward, respectively. Baby-faced Thomas Mann (Kong: Skull Island) delivers an impressive turn as a young deputy assisting the old vets, and learning what the job truly takes . . . and costs. And in an interesting twist, Hancock casts two stuntpeople/actors as Bonnie (Emily Brobst) and Clyde (Edward Bossert), a fascinating choice given their treatment.
In all, The Highwaymen is an old tale for a new era. While there’s a complete immersion in the gritty despondency of the Depression-era setting, there’s a distinctly modern sensibility in its lack of focus on the criminals and instead on the world-weary philosophical toll of the heroic anti-heroes. All this while still crafting an engaging narrative that’s constantly moving, with complex themes richly explored. It’s the sort of movie-making that is becoming rarer and rarer in theatres, but far more common on streaming services. What’s old is new again, and when stories are this good, we’ll continue watching them for many years to come.