Skip to main content

Stupid adult hands!

Shazam!
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Shazam! is exactly the kind of movie I hoped it would be, funny, scary (for kids, at least), smart and delightfully dumb… until the final act. What takes place there isn’t a complete bummer, but right now, it does pretty much kill any interest I have in a sequel.

A superhero version of Big is such a no-brainer selling point, there’s even un homage to its giant keyboard in Shazam!, but tonally, the movie is much more closely affiliated to the darker Amblin/ Spielberg fare of the prior five or so years, the likes of Young Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Gremlins

Of the latter, if Joe Dante had made a superhero movie (besides passing on Batman and sadly falling out of The Phantom), I could quite imagine this being his baby, right down to casting John Glover as a particularly unsympathetic dad (quite something for Glover to dial down the charm to this extent, just see Donald Clamp for evidence of how difficult it was to retain the Trump parody in Gremlins 2: The New Batch once he was inimitably cast). That 1974 opening scene, establishing Mark Strong’s Thaddeus Sivana’s backstory, is all kinds of unrelentingly unrepentant nastiness, from rejecting the hapless kid as unworthy to having him then undergo tirades of abuse from his brother and father and thenexperience a car wreck his brother blames him for. It’s strong evidence for the merits of employing a “horror” director (David F Sandberg previously made Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation) who is sufficiently measured to dial it back – but not too much – for a family audience.

If anything, Shazam! is more extreme than I expected, given the goofy title and concept; I’d heard it had scary-for-kids moments, but some of the ensuing is tonally very dark, in particular adult Thaddeus (Strong is always reliable, and he is here, but it must be admitted there are diminishing returns in parading him as a villain yet again- he’s even done it for DC before in Green Lantern), showing up at dad’s board meeting and throwing his brother out of a window before leaving his dad to be dealt with by one of the Seven Deadly Sins (Greed, obviously; the others have made short work of the remaining directors).

As a villain, though, in terms of antagonist to the protagonist, Thaddeus is altogether less interesting – the false-eyed cartoon villain in the real world reminded me in passing of the much better Charles Dance in Last Action Hero – and Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke (respectively, the good fun Earth to Echo and less so Jack the Giant Slayer among their credits) never solve the problem of how to carry over his origins beyond the status of a rather one-note adult villain. It probably doesn’t help any that the hero is so engaging; Zachary Levi (in an appropriately over-inflated muscle suit) is having a ball as adult Billy Batson (the younger played by Asher Angel, absolutely fine, as only a kid could be whose parents gave him a name spelling an inevitable showbiz career), goofing off without using his powers to do good for far too long before he actually does (involving, along the way, nearly causing mass fatalities when his actions lead to a bus dangling off a bridge); Jack Dylan Grazer (It) easily eclipses Angel as motormouth, goofball sidekick Freddy, snagging all the best lines, and even the best maudlin sympathy votes (Angel has no mom, but Freddy doesn’t even have full mobility).

By far the best section concerns their discovering Shazam’s powers and not necessarily putting them to the best use (a hilarious sequence of a stopping a supermarket hold up turns into a dare competition of shooting Shazam in the bullet-proof face). In the mix are various side orders of caring foster parents (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews), school bullies deserving a comeuppance, foster siblings destined to find out Billy’s secret (the standout being Faithe Herman’s talkative, hug-demanding Darla) and the quest for Billy’s natural mother, but as long as the picture balances its sincerity with a wilfully anarchic streak it stays the right side of over-sentimentality. Obviously, this is a family morality tale, so a strong take-home message is a prerequisite, and it’s a sign of the makers’ skill that this isn’t too sugar-coated.

The problem Shazam! encounters occurs during the extended showdown with Sivana. Billy has fled their one-on-one confrontation, unaccustomed to his powers and understandably unnerved by someone who can actually do his superhero self damage. Following a standoff in which the rest of his adopted siblings have been held hostage, Billy realises the extent of the powers bestowed by Djimon Hounsou’s Wizard, so granting his new kin their own super-abilities (including poor disabled Freddy, who can now float)… and as if by magic, the picture loses its footing.

One comedian with natural timing playing a superhero is not remotelythe same as five Big John Little John heroes struggling to do likewise, four-fifths of whom make their younger counterparts look like expert players when it comes to delivering zingers. More than that, the decision lets the air out of the specialness of the founding concept, diluting the uniqueness, brings it more in line with a lame Saturday morning kids show, but on a grand budget. Maybe that’s the kid in me speaking, resenting the loss of the different-from-the-rest premise, but if so, I’m proud to stand by my relative immaturity. If everyone’s super, there’s no cachet in the super-ness at all (unless all the little Nietzscheans can be superior little fascists together). Perhaps, if the results had been closer to a Mystery Men line-up of actually funny people (but in a consistently funny movie to boot, which is where Mystery Men went a bit wrong) it might have been different.

So I don’t know about the merit of the Shazam! sequel inevitably set up during the closing credits. Even without the Captain Sparkle Fingers Quartet, how much mileage is there in the teen-adult dichotomy now The Greatest American Hero element of knowing how super powers works has been done and dusted? More than that, though, how interesting will it be to have the superheroics equally apportioned to non-entities, rather than focussing on a performer who can solidly deliver the gags? So I’m not optimistic. Nevertheless, Shazam! is great fun for the most part, really well directed, highly inventive and possessed of a good heart. Hopefully Shazam will turn out to be a bit heartless and rescind his generous gifts of powers prior to the sequel…


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

They seem to be attracted to your increasing nudeness.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was put in mind of Shazam! watching Pokémon Detective Pikachu, another 2019 tentpole that somewhat underperformed based on expectations. Not particularly due to any plot resemblance, but because both movies fall apart under the weight of an overblown and underwhelming finale. In the case of Shazam! that may be more damaging to its prospective sequels (if they keep the team of super-adult kids), whereas Detective Pikachu will simply have to struggle with a whole heap of unnecessary expositional baggage attempting to imbue the proceedings with emotional resonance.

You’re a slut with a snake in your mouth. Die!

Mickey One (1965)
(SPOILERS) Apparently this early – as in, two years before the one that made them both highly sought-after trailblazers of “New Hollywood” – teaming between Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn has undergone a re-evaluation since its initial commercial and critical drubbing. I’m not sure about all that. Mickey One still seems fatally half-cocked to me, with Penn making a meal of imitating the stylistic qualities that came relatively naturally – or at least, Gallically – to the New Wave.