Authors Rachael and John Derrick have been writing together since 2006. Under the name John Clifford, John wrote and directed a one-act play, The Dream in Question, as well as several short plays for sci-fi conventions. Rachael worked in actual group homes, journalism and then international education before becoming a child and family therapist. They live with their daughter and two cats in Indianapolis. Their first original superhero novel, Bounceback, about an adult woman who turns into a teenager with superpowers, is available now on Amazon.
Shazam! is a fun superhero comedy that doesn’t entirely know how to express its deeper ideas about how a kid turns into a good person. (Spoilers! It’s not magic.) Like its hero, the film stumbles on the way, but eventually learns to fly.
We open on a young boy named Thaddeus Sivana circa 1974, who is magically whisked away from a car trip with his horrible father and brother in order to be randomly tested by an old wizard played by Djimon Hounsou. Young Thaddeus is offered great power with zero instructions, then told he will “never be worthy” because he was tempted by an alternative he had no reasonable way of knowing was evil. With no explanation of what he just experienced or how to learn from his mistake — or even what his mistake was — Thaddeus is dropped back in the car and immediately blamed for the accident that follows. This is the villain’s origin story, but rather than inspiring apprehension for his future evil deeds, this scene mostly engenders pity.
We then jump to the present day, where we meet 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a repeat-runaway foster kid messing with the cops and frustrating social workers in Philadelphia. Billy’s great. He’s troubled but charming. He gets his own angsty flashback before being sent to live with Rosa and Victor Vazquez and their already-extensive clan of foster kids. Despite the filmmakers apparently having no idea what a “group home” actually is, the Vazquez family is amazing. This is where the movie finds its true magic. It then manages to lose that magic several times, like the remote control we keep forgetting not to put on the back of the couch that likes to eat small objects in its deep cushions. Like that remote, the movie always know roughly where the magic will be. It just wastes a lot of time getting back there.
We see the now-adult, now-evil Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) investigating other people who have experienced the same abduction by the same crappy wizard. His research allows him to finally break through to the wizard’s hall, incidentally killing his research assistant in the process. Sivana then absorbs the power of the Seven Deadly Sins, which will spend 98% of the film as underwhelming monster minions straight out of Ghostbusters. With very few exceptions, the creatures seem to have nothing to do with the character flaws they supposedly personify, even during Sivana’s next scene in which he takes revenge on his family and his family’s company by crashing a board meeting.
Once the horror show is out of the way, Billy Batson gets treated to the same short strange trip to the wizard’s cave as Thaddeus, only this time the Seven Deadly Sins aren’t there. Instead of facing the good versus evil temptation, Billy is given the superpowers freely. Now when he says the wizard’s name, Billy turns into a Superman-style adult hero played by the dependably funny and charming Zachary Levi. With the help of his disabled fanboy foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer, who doesn’t need superpowers to steal every scene he’s in), Billy learns to use his new powers through trial and error, just in time to face the bad guy with the help of his new family.
Shazam! takes some fascinating and potentially brilliant liberties with its source material, even as it struggles to flesh out its villain. The original comic-book origin story is about a kind old wizard bestowing a magical superhero alter ego on a good-hearted orphan. Here, the wizard comes across as a jerk and a fool, and that seems to be on purpose. The wizard’s MO — abducting randos to offer them a choice between his powers and other powers, and then berating them for showing interest in the other powers — contrasts with that of foster parents Rosa and Victor, who know kids will make the same mistakes a few times before they learn.
The difference between Thaddeus and Billy in this telling isn’t that Billy is innately good, it’s that he has a chance to try out his powers, mess up and learn who he wants to be before he has to face the Sins. Unlike philanthropist-turned-mad-scientist Doctor Sivana from the comics, this Thaddeus is the abused son of a rich family, as lost in his way as the runaway Billy. We see this same parallel suggested by the respective totems Thaddeus and Billy carry: a Magic 8-Ball and a spherical compass keychain. Each character desperately seeks direction from a universe that asks them to be heroes before it ever demonstrates it cares about them.
It’s between the broad strokes and the little flourishes that the villain’s story falls down into the couch, through an inconsistent tone and a total lack of humanizing detail. When the good guys aren’t around, Sivana’s scenes are played as straight-up horror. You can make that kind of thing funny, but director David F. Sandberg doesn’t bother until the very end, where it works so well we wish someone had gone back to rewrite the beginning. Until then, Sivana is neither funny nor compelling. He has no motivation beyond hurting the people who hurt him, and then hurting everyone else just because. His lack of partners, sidekicks or family might be a deliberate contrast to our hero, but without a meaningful exploration of his life since the wizard’s cave, he’s reduced to a two-dimensional mustache-twirler without a mustache.
Still, wasted potential does not make for a waste of a movie. Like Billy himself, Shazam! is saved by the Vazquez family. Rosa and Victor only have a handful of scenes, but we love them immediately. They’re former foster kids themselves, and especially in 2019, it’s pretty cool to see the white savior trope inverted as an infinitely patient Latinx couple gives a troubled white boy the chance he needs. On paper, the four other kids who share that house with Billy and Freddy (Mary, Pedro, Eugene, and Darla) look exactly like the sort of characters whose names we struggle to remember in other movies. Instead, thanks to Batarang-sharp writing and fantastic performances all around, every single one of them is instantly charming and memorable.
As Billy grows to love and cherish his new family, the film casts off its shabby old wizard and makes his foster siblings increasingly central to the action. And like Billy, we forget all about the stumbles and the might-have-beens, and learn to love the movie we’ve got.
The home release of the movie includes a solid assortment of special features, including several behind-the-scenes featurettes. The longest, “The Magical World of Shazam!” clocks in at 27 minutes, and is the usual assortment of behind-the-scenes clips and anecdotes you find on a lot of DVDs, though weirdly only two members of the cast really show up here: Levi and Strong. The director, writer and various crew members get their bits, but most of the kids and other supporting cast only really show up in a much shorter “Shazamily Values” feature.
As for deleted scenes, Shazam! has 16 of them, available with or without director commentary intros. They’re mostly interesting alternate takes that nevertheless pale next to the finished version or fun character moments that weren’t really needed, but a couple of those early scenes with Sivana and the Sins were originally very different. Sivana still has no real personality or goal, but his childhood choice is slightly more nuanced and the introduction of his powers less cliched and more tonally appropriate than the final version.
Finally, if you’re already finding the wait for the sequel interminable, there’s a follow-up adventure in the form of a 4-minute motion comic. In “Superhero Hooky,” Levi voices Shazam as he narrates a new adventure for the benefit of the school principal. It’s a little rough, but it definitely has its moments.
And that’s Shazam! in a nutshell. Fun fact: While Superman is sometimes called the Big Blue Boy Scout, Shazam has long been known as the Big Red Cheese. (Spoilers! These writers may not know the actual definition of a fun fact.)