Zero to Hero | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Zero to Hero 

Shazam! reduces comic-book heroism to its adolescent- male power-fantasy essence.

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click to enlarge Jack Dylan Grazer and Zachary Levi in Shazam!
  • Jack Dylan Grazer and Zachary Levi in Shazam!
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Well, here we have it. With Shazam!, a comic-book movie has finally made it explicit that the superhero story, at its most reductive, is nothing more than anadolescent-male power fantasy. Fourteen-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is chosen by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to be a champion, complete with a grownupbody (Zachary Levi) clad in spandex and with all sorts of caped-crusader abilities, such as bullet immunity and super strength; all Billy needs to do is shout "Shazam!"to shift back and forth between his usual teen scrawniness and magical adult-sized badassery. And what does he do with this unexpected boon? He mostlyshows up school bullies, buys beer, goes to a strip club and goofs around with his foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer) exploring the extent of his superpowers, to the point where he sometimes putsinnocent people in danger.

Now, I'm sure that anyone who is now or who has ever been a teenaged boy will delight in how the curtain of pretense has been lifted, and they can finally revel in"being seen" by Hollywood. But adolescent-male power fantasies is pretty much all Shazam! has going for it. There's no larger resonance; Shazam! isn't actuallyabout anything. I'm sure some will insist that it's good that the comic-book movie is "fun again"—as if comic-book stories haven't been explicitly about punchingNazis and exploring other social-justice matters from their very beginnings. For someone who needs at least a little bit of meat in their fantasies, Shazam! is a disappointment.

It isn't even simple exhilarating fun. Because nothing really matters here, it gave an excuse for screenwriters Henry Gayden (theextremely derivative Earth to Echo) and Darren Lemke (the unclever meta of Goosebumps) to be lazy and director David F. Sandberg (the shockingly misjudgedAnnabelle: Creation) to indulge in cheesiness. (There are some really cheap-looking effects here.) Right from the get-go, the entire premise of Billy's elevation tosuperhero is confused at best and suspect at worst. The wizard who needs a champion has been trying for decades, at least, to find one, but no one has been worthyenough. Yet the movie doesn't bother to explain whether, once the wizard finally accepts Billy as his champion, the wizard is merely so desperate to Shazam-izeanyone that he overlooks Billy's unworthiness, or whether there's supposed to be something about Billy that elevates him above the many other humans the wizardhas tested.

From what we do see of Billy's character, both before and after his chosenness, he's certainly not a bad person, but there doesn't seem to be anythingspectacularly, uniquely good about him, either. We cannot even deduce from everything that follows which is the case with Billy. That's a problem. If you squinthard enough, you might discern a motif of "with great power comes great responsibility"—although of course no one can articulate that because Shazam is a DCcharacter and Spider-Man, who is famously taught that lesson, is from The Other Place—but that is even more watered down because we have no idea upon what basisBilly was granted his superpowers in the first place, and with what mindset he's using them.

It's a slow-moving slog for the movie to get Billy from playing superhero to an encounter with the ill-conceived putative villain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), whois, in fact, one of the wizard's long-ago spurned would-be champions. It's a rejection that Sivana never got over, and now he wants to steal the Shazam powers fromBilly. Except: Sivana has his own powers, absorbed from the monstrous physical manifestations of the seven deadly sins that the wizard had been containing; this movie is such amishmash of nonsense.

It's not at all clear, then, what powers Sivana lacks—he seems to have all the same ones that Billy has—or what he will do if he succeeds. The movietries to make a joke out of its own low stakes, with Sivana monologuing about his evil plans in a way that suggests we don't even need to hear them to know what hewants. But this comes way too late in the movie and seems more a justification for not developing Sivana as any kind of authentic, plausible character than anythingelse. We're meant to just take him as a generic villain—and I guess it's fair that he's as generic as the rest of the clichés here.

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