YIN/YANG REVIEWS: Shazam! / The Highwaymen
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.