Film Review: ‘Shazam!’

The Worlds of DC greets its newest hero…

Spoiler-free review

Shazam

Zachary Levi enters the Worlds of DC in ‘Shazam!’ from Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema (c. Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema).

Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans

Directed by: David F. Sandberg / written by: Henry Gayden (story by Henry Gayden & Darren Lemke, Shazam created by Bill Parker & C.C. Beck) / 132 minutes

What’s it about?

Foster child Billy Batson, granted god-like powers by a mysterious wizard finds he must grow-up sooner than expected when he finds himself faced against the threat of an ancient evil…

In review

Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema’s Shazam! Is the latest offering from the ‘Worlds of DC’ cinematic universe, a sweet, fun and funny superhero romp that wears its childlike innocence and sense of adventure with pride. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel or stand amongst the very best of the genre but Shazam! is non-the-less a good time and a crowd-pleaser with a spirit that harkens back to the Christopher Reeve Superman films.

Based on one of DC’s lesser known – but oldest – characters (who at one point was selling more comics than Superman and originally known as Captain Marvel until legal issues got in the way), Shazam! sees troubled fourteen year old foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), struggling to adjust to life with his new adoptive family, encounter a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who believes Billy to be pure of heart and selects his as a successor to his incredible powers – by merely saying the word “Shazam” (which on the face of it seems silly but is actually an acronym of Greek gods Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury), Billy’s body transforms into that of a muscle-bound adult (Zachary Levi) endowed with an almost limitless range of powers and becomes the only hope of preventing evil demons, known as the Seven Deadly Sins, from being unleashed upon the world by the crazed Dr, Sivana (Mark Strong – formerly Sinestro in Warner’s ill-fated Green Lantern) who plans to seize the power of Shazam for himself.

Shazam! doesn’t hide from the fact that it’s essentially a superhero version of Tom Hanks classic Big (with a hint of Spielbergian magic) and much like Spider-Man: Homecoming did with the coming-of-age films of John Hughes, it simply goes along with it. Although the opening act may be a little sluggish it serves to give viewers a proper introduction to the characters and draw you into Billy Batson’s story – a significant part of which is his friendship with his foster brother and superhero fanboy Freddy, superbly played by It’s Jack Dylan Grazer and it’s the chemistry between the cast and their respective characters (which also includes an undeniably cute turn from the talented Faithe Herman as young ‘sister’ Darla) that really makes things click. Angel and Grazer are obvious standouts but it’s when Zachary Levi enters the frame that Shazam! hits its stride. The former Chuck star is absolutely the perfect choice to play the empowered version of Billy and he exudes the right combination of youthful excitement, awkwardness and physicality the role demands, handling all the action, heart and humour (an integral and well executed element of the film) with equal skill and with a believability and vulnerability that sells the idea of a boy in a man’s body. As Sivana (whose father is played by John Glover – Smallville’s Lionel Luthor), Mark Strong provides a decent amount of menace and danger – pitched with an appropriate touch of corniness. Sivana is by no means one of the all-time “great” villains but Strong does well with the character, for which we do get a bit of a backstory that helps define his motivations.

Shazam! is not as action orientated as other comic book blockbusters but it still has a fair measure, mostly reserved for its hero-forging middle section where Billy/Shazam must quickly master his abilities in a deadly face-off with Sivana and the climactic finale as he grapples with the creepy CGI-horde of the Seven Deadly Sins and director David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation) has a firm grip on it all. These moments are certainly exciting but in the end it’s the family-focused, character driven aspects of Shazam! that make it all-the-more appealing and whilst it may make some fans hungry for a return of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman it expands the DC film universe as it continues to find itself on firmer footing.

The bottom line: a solidly entertaining comic book flick with a great leading cast, Shazam! successfully balances emotion, laughs and superhero punch-ups to engage the masses.

Shazam! is in cinemas now.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

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Flashback: ‘Man of Steel’

DC’s cinematic universe began with a fresh take on the world’s first superhero…

Man of Steel flight

Superman takes flight in ‘Man of Steel’ (c. Warner Bros).

 

Year: 2013

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Henry Lennix, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne

Directed by: Zack Snyder / written by: David S. Goyer (story by David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan)

What’s it about?

Transported to Earth as his home world is destroyed, the infant Kal-El is raised as Clark Kent by a kind farmer and his wife. As an adult, Clark struggles to find his place in the world until he discovers his true heritage and sets on mastering his amazing powers…

Retrospective/review

With Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns failing to connect with audiences and plans for a sequel abandoned, the summer of 2013 saw the release of Man of Steel – arriving just in time for Superman’s 75th Anniversary. Whilst Superman Returns sought to be a spiritual successor to Richard Donner’s seminal Superman: The Movie, Man of Steel would take a slightly edgier and more modern approach in an effort to make the iconic superhero more relatable. The film would also be seen by Warner Bros. Pictures as the first entry in a Marvel-style shared universe (once unofficially referred to as the DC Extended Universe, or DCEU, but now officially branded as ‘Worlds of DC’) featuring DC’s stable of comic book characters.

Enlisting The Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan as a producer and to craft a story with screenwriter David S. Goyer (who previously worked with Nolan on his Batman films), Man of Steel was built from an intriguing premise – what if Superman existed in the real world, today? How would humanity react and what would a man with incredible abilities choose to do with them? Given the critical and commercial success of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Warner Bros. naturally felt a similar take was needed for Man of Steel in order to make Superman a more identifiable and dramatically engaging character for a contemporary audience without intentionally alienating existing fans.

Directed by Watchmen’s Zack Snyder, Man of Steel is a Superman film for more complex and troubled times whilst still conveying an underlying sense of hope and providing the blockbuster spectacle viewers had come to expect in the wake of The Dark Knight and The Avengers. It may have become divisive, but it works rather well and favours that Nolan ‘heightened reality’ over the family-friendly fantasy of Superman: The Movie.

The story is solid – there’s the traditional opening on Krypton (depicted as a more organic Star Wars-esque world in comparison to the cool crystalline aesthetic of Donner’s Superman), its ultimate destruction and the baby Kal-El escaping doom to arrive on Earth. Shifting to some thirty years later, Kal-El is now Clark Kent, a drifter who finds himself lost and without purpose but often faced with the urge to help those in need. Through a series of flashbacks we learn of Clark’s struggles to reconcile his abilities with the life of a normal person. Searching for answers, Clark ultimately discovers his origins and embarks on a journey to master his gifts and utilise them for good, but the arrival of Kryptonian survivors, led by the militant General Zod presents an unexpected threat to Earth and its people and throws an inexperienced Superman into a dangerous conflict.

Man of Steel Zod

General Zod: a formidable foe.

The cast is equally as good. Henry Cavill has a firm grasp of the central role and provides a grounded and very human portrayal of the man who will become Superman. Amy Adams is impeccably cast as the Daily Planet’s star reporter Lois Lane, bringing dramatic weight to the requisite qualities of professional drive and personal strength. As General Zod, Michael Shannon delivers a powerful and formidable antagonist whose threat is further enhanced by Antje Traue’s Faora-Ul. The casting is made all the more impressive by the inclusion of Russell Crowe, who succeeds Marlon Brando in the role of Jor-El, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent, respectively and Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White.

The action is exciting, especially during the film’s final act. Some have found themselves at odds with the level of destruction in Man of Steel, but it both shocks and enthrals in a way that’s realistic and entertaining. It’s also seemingly a response to the reception of Superman Returns which many felt was too slow and lacked action and physical conflict. Zod’s death has also proven controversial, yet it’s arguably one of the film’s most emotionally effective and powerfully acted scenes. Henry Cavill’s performance in that particular moment is gripping – his gut-churning yell grabbing the viewer and making you feel all the anguish, frustration and regret of the situation.

Man of Steel Lois & Perry

Laurence Fishburne joins Amy Adams’ Lois Lane as Daily Planet Editor Perry White  (c. Warner Bros).

The production design is accomplished (particularly in respect of Krypton), the costuming superlative and the effects are great, all captured beautifully via Amir Mokri’s cinematography and Zack Snyder’s kinetic direction. A real highlight of Man of Steel is Hanz Zimmer’s wonderful score – atmospheric, emotional and exciting it’s one of Zimmer’s finest providing themes that enhance the visuals greatly (especially during Superman’s exhilarating first flight). As classic and unforgettable as John Williams’ Superman theme is it would feel out of place here and not fit the world of Man of Steel.

Ultimately, Man of Steel establishes hope as Superman makes it known that he’s here to help. The events of the film would end up driving the titanic clash of 2016 sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice but as it stands, Man of Steel is highly underrated and a superbly executed redefinition of Superman for modern times.

Geek fact!

Man of Steel cleverly incorporates a Christopher Reeve cameo with a brief glimpse of the actor’s face inserted into Henry Cavill’s performance during Superman’s battle with Zod’s Kryptonian World Engine.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Film Review: ‘Aquaman’

Warner Bros.’ Worlds of DC heads for the seven seas…

Aquaman 2

King of the sea: Jason Momoa leads the action in ‘Aquaman’ (image credit Warner Bros. Pictures, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison

Directed by:  James Wan / written by:  David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick & Will Beall (story by Geoff Johns, James Wan & Will Beall, Aquaman created by Mort Weisinger & Paul Norris) / 143 minutes

What’s it about?

As the kingdom of Atlantis prepares for war, Arthur Curry – aka ‘Aquaman’ – finds he must fulfil his destiny and take the throne in order to unite the underwater world and prevent a deadly conflict…

In review

Aquaman, the latest of Warner Bros. Pictures’ slate of superhero films under the ‘Worlds of DC’ banner (which was previously and unofficially referred to as the ‘DC Extended Universe’, or DCEU) is a fun, albeit partly derivative, comic book blockbuster that’s highly entertaining if inferior to previous Warner/DC outings Man of Steel and Wonder Woman.  It’s fair to say that some of the narrative beats are predictable and unoriginal and comparisons to Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther are easily drawn but with that in mind, Aquaman holds its own and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is – a swashbuckling and visually jaw-dropping popcorn action adventure.

Picking up where he left off in Justice League (and with backstory that’s interspersed throughout in a series of flashbacks), Jason Momoa is the likeable lead infusing Arthur Curry/Aquaman with roguish charm and swagger, offset by just the right touch of vulnerability that provides the character with an essential element of relatability.  It sounds cliché, but it’s a significant part of what draws audiences (and readers) to these colourful heroes in the first place and through the efforts of Mamoa and the film’s screenwriters it’s hard to believe that Aquaman could ever have been one of DC’s most ridiculed characters.  Opposing Mamoa is Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson as Arthur’s half-brother Orm – aka ‘Ocean Master’ – whose militant rule of Atlantis and a desire for conquest threatens war with the surface.  Wilson is great and is a formidable presence, providing Aquaman with an effective villain.  Another standout is the reliably excellent Willem Dafoe as Arthur’s childhood mentor, Vulko and Nicole Kidman adds further star power in the role of Queen Atlanna.  Amber Heard is fine as Mera (whose father, King Nereus is played by action legend Dolph Lundgren) but is no Gal Gadot and unfortunately Yahya Abdul-Mateen II similarly underwhelms as Black Manta – it’s not entirely the actor’s fault given he’s handed some cheesy lines that undercut the threat value.

Whilst there are familiar tropes – the reluctant hero searching for purpose and fulfilment has been seen countless times – and there’s a shameless riff on Indiana Jones as Arthur and Mera search for a powerful Atlantean artefact, the writers of Aquaman deliver an enjoyable and fairly pacey tale that despite some droll dialogue is enhanced greatly by astonishing visuals.  Director James Wan (Furious 7) and his team take the fantasy of the lost city of Atlantis and really run with it, depicting vast and rich uaquatic realms teeming with a variety of life that’s wonderfully bizarre and inventive – the sight of an army of soldiers riding sharks and battling gigantic crab-like creatures is both odd yet strangely believable.  Wan executes it all rather well and injects the epic scale action of Aquaman with energy and skill, although the use of slow-motion in superhero action scenes is becoming a little tiresome.

In terms of the film’s tone it’s fairly light and family friendly with dashes of humour (that’s thankfully not too goofy or forced), continuing Warner Bros.’ plan of course-correction from Zack Snyder’s darker, more introspective and existential vision.  In some ways that’s a shame as there are some merits to the latter but from a crowd-pleasing perspective (and in pursuit of Marvel-level popularity and healthy box office returns) it’s understandable.  It’s also completely accessible to new or casual viewers – whilst Aquaman is certainly part of the overall main DC cinematic universe, bar a single reference to the events of Justice League it favours a standalone approach and that’s totally fine and allows Wan’s film to be what it needs to be and provide firmer foundations for the Worlds of DC going forward.

The bottom line:  A fun popcorn adventure, Aquaman doesn’t break new ground but is an enjoyable and visually exciting comic book romp.

Aquaman is in cinemas across the U.K. now and opens in the U.S. and worldwide from 21st December.