Retro and goofy: ‘Shazam!’: Review

Every fan of superhero movies, and there are many, have entertained the idea of being bestowed spectacular powers to fight evil.

It is impossible not to when presented stories of great responsibility and mind boggling abilities that are thrust upon the weak, the broken, or in the case of “Shazam!,” the outcast. It is a common story, told time and time again, that is embraced wholeheartedly in Director David F. Sandberg’s adaptation of the goofy 70s television series of the same name.

The movie blends the absurdity and silliness of the caped crusader man-child, with some darker elements focused on family and in particular the foster care system. The protagonist Billy Batson, played by Asher Angel, is a foster child who is introduced to the audience after repeated escapes from the loving arms of his foster families in pursuit of his long lost mother.

The movie focuses mainly on Billy’s exploration of his newfound super powers, bestowed on him in true to form ridiculous fashion by a wizard. 

Billy tells his sarcastic sidekick Freddy Freeman early on, “Some old guy brought me to a temple, and he made me say, ‘Shazam.’” This hilarity is often rather abruptly contrasted by the struggle of Billy coming to grips with his lost mother and being told repeatedly that “she doesn’t want him”. 

While taking a nice change of tone from the seriousness that the Marvel franchise Avengers and DC Justice League movies have introduced to the genre, Sandberg appears to not be sure of the tone.

“Shazam!” producer Peter Safran spoke to Screen Crush on the topic of tone, saying “With ‘Shazam!’ we felt this was the tone that was best suited to a really fun and funny action-adventure with a great wish fulfillment through line,” and that “David always felt that this is the way ‘Shazam!’ should be told, with great humor, great heart, but also some real jeopardy and some real scares in there that I think are extraordinarily effective”

Watching the movie, it isn’t jeopardy and scares that stand out but the often brutal abandonment that both Billy as the hero and the villain, Dr. Sivana played by Mark Strong are faced with in very similar fashion. Their conflict is nothing new, with Sivana on a quest for power and Billy standing in his path, but their similarities bring a new dark look into the foster system to the silver screen.

Serious undertones aside, the scenes of antics with his friends and the comedic pairing of Sivana’s seriousness against Billy’s teenage enthusiasm will make audience members chuckle throughout. The effects and stunning for the most part when practical, and while some of the monstrous enemies take rather dull and uncreative CGI forms on screen, they still fit in with the whole “retro goofy” feel of the action.

As famed film critic Roger Ebert describes in his review, “Shazam!” is the “blockbuster version of plopping down in front of a Saturday morning cartoon, watching an archetypal caped crusader save the day. All the while you slurp your sugary cereal, an act of killing time before the next major superhero story comes to theaters.” 

Fans of the original 70s franchise should be pleasantly surprised, and those weary of never ending playboy billionaires saving the world should find solace in this new character and the wacky cast that surrounds him. While perhaps not as lighthearted as Sandberg anticipated, it does the world of comics and superheroes a true justice and is well worth a viewing.