SHAZAM! (2019)

Look, up in the sky! It’s Zachary Levi, and he’s buff as hell! And we’re all calling him “Shazam” instead of “Captain Marvel,” for reasons that were complicated for a long time and are even more complex now. Great!

SHAZAM! is a whole hell of a lot of fun, a modern day kid’s wish fulfillment film that harkens back to a time when it was still possible for such a thing to be dark, vulgar, and tongue-in-cheek. This is a movie in which 14-year-olds are bullied for being different, catastrophic car accidents are presented in brutal detail and have life-altering consequences, kids are interested in strip clubs despite the preponderance of internet porn, giant demon monsters bite adult heads off and capture children, and one of the first things that two underage teenage boys elect to do upon realizing that one of them appears to be an adult is buy beer. Which is not to say that there’s not a lot of sentiment here as well, though it manages to avoid being cloying for the most part, and even I was surprised at how much it was able to manipulate my emotions – I mean “move me” – in its emotional moments. It has a lot of heart, is what I’m saying, but manages to avoid getting treacly by balancing its emotionality with good jokes and the occasional supernatural murder.

In 1974, Thad Sivana is en route with his cruel and demanding father (John Glover, who looks amazing for 74) and bullying older brother to his grandfather’s house for Christmas when his Magic 8-Ball toy flashes a series of glyphs and he is transported to the Rock of Eternity, a realm from which all magic flows. He meets the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who tells of the council of wizards who safeguard magic, of which he is the last living remnant, and of the Seven Deadly Sins, trapped on the Rock in statue form. He offers the boy a chance to accept his power and take his place as the champion of magic, but Thad is more drawn to a magical object, which whispers to him. Shazam tells him that he has failed the test and transports him back to his father’s car, whereupon he freaks out and attempts to get “back” by jumping out of the moving car, causing an accident.

In the present, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a fourteen year old foster kid who has run from dozens of homes in the eleven years since his mother lost him at a carnival. After the foster system catches up with him after his most recent escape, he is placed with Rosa and Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans), former foster kids themselves who run their own home now. Their eldest is Mary (Grace Fulton), who is soon to finish high school and about to start college, followed by Freddie (IT’s Jack Dylan Grazer), the same age as Billy, a disabled nerd obsessed with superheroes, which, lest we forget, exist in this world. There’s also the overweight Pedro (Jovan Armand), whose “goal is to get swole,” preteen Eugene (Ian Chen), whose schtick is being obsessed with video games, and the youngest, Darla (Faithe Herman), a sweet elementary-aged girl whose greatest desire is to show Billy the affection that he so desperately needs and get that same love in return (she also steals every scene that she’s in). Meanwhile and elsewhere, the now adult Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has an entire facility of psychologists and scientists working on the phenomenon of “mass hallucinations” by tracking down and interviewing others who were brought to the Rock of Eternity and failed to pass the test. Finding his way in, he unleashes the Sins from their captivity and becomes their magical champion.

Billy is prepared to take off again pretty much immediately, but as he’s attempting to disappear after his first day of school, he helps Freddie fight off two bullies (Carson MacCormac and Evan Marsh) who first assault him and then mock him for being motherless. Escaping, he too finds himself at the Rock of Eternity, where the now-dying Shazam chooses Billy as his champion, allowing him to turn into a magically-powered adult superhero (Zachary Levi) when he speaks the word “Shazam!” But as long as those powers exist, the Sins won’t rest … .

After all the origin stories that we’re all so sick of, one comes along that absolutely works. The obvious (and at this point  this observation is well-worn) influence is from Tom Hanks’s 1988 wish-fulfillment fantasy flick Big, which we’ll just assume that everyone has seen. The comparison almost makes itself, especially since that film, like this one, has some narrative elements that normally wouldn’t fly today in this world of sanitized children’s films – can you imagine a wide release like Return to Oz, Secret of NIMH, The Goonies, or even The NeverEnding Story coming out in theaters next week without there being a significant parental backlash? I mean, when was the last time you saw a movie that had both a teenage protagonist and a man’s head getting bitten off? But there’s also some Journey of Natty Gann thrown in there to pluck at the heartstrings, plus some imagery that could basically have been taken from The Gate thrown in for good measure. Also, Jackass.

I won’t get into what the Shazam power is or what mythological archetypes his powers are drawn from (that’s what Wikipedia is for), and this took a nice and unexpected (though in retrospect properly foreshadowed) turn toward the end that I don’t want to spoil since it genuinely took me by surprise, so I’ll be brief. This movie is genuine. It’s true to itself and has a genuine warmth that helps glaze over some of the iffier narrative choices, taking a film that verges on melodrama at points and pulls it back from that edge with a firm hand. There’s become such a delineation between “media for kids” and “media for adults” that we’re so unaccustomed to a film that is squarely in the realm of entertainment for the whole family that we’re not sure how to access it and interact with it, but this is one of those films. Kids will love it. Adults will also love it, even if they are as cynical as I am and started cringing as soon as Freddie claimed to know Shazam and immediately foresaw exactly where that plot line was headed. But all of that was balanced out by the joy of watching two kids, one of them in the body of a superpowered adult, performing Johnny Knoxville style stunts to test his limits. When almost every scene is a real gem, even something as rote for a superhero movie as stopping a mugging in a park, it encourages forgiveness of some of the more obvious story choices. This one is going to stick around.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Aquaman (2018)

There are two distinct, directly opposed routes to take in adapting Aquaman to the big screen. My preferred angle would be to lean into the inherent absurdity of the character’s underwater superheroics, having deliriously over-the-top fun with the various sea creatures & Lisa Frank waterscapes that environment invites. The lesser, cowardly route would be to poke fun at that absurdity, to make Aquaman a gruff macho bro who wouldn’t be caught dead swimming with dolphins in bright superhero tights (at least not with a smartass quip about the indignity). The confusing thing about the DCEU’s Aquaman film is that it chooses both of these routes, embracing & rejecting the inherent silliness of Aquaman lore in what has to be the most perplexing mixed bag experience offered by a blockbuster since . . . the last film in the DCEU. Aquaman is a film that deals only in extremes. Its soundtrack must feature the ethereal beauty of Sigúr Ros and the obnoxious corporate party anthems of Pitbull, nothing in-between. It has to take the regal lineage & mythology of its underwater sea kingdom dead seriously and feature a cutaway gag of an octopus playing the drums. It has no qualms exploiting the cartoon energy of its setting as if it were an underwater Ferngully or an extended version of the “Under the Sea” number in Disney’s Little Mermaid, but it also feels compelled to cast Jason Momoa in the titular role as the broiest bro who ever bro’d, lest Aquaman come off as an uncool seafaring pansy. In the hands of an over-the-top Asian action spectacle craftsman like a Steven Chow or a Tsui Hark this all-over-the-place quality might have felt controlled & intentional, but coming from an American studio (with negligible influence from Furious 7 & Dead Silence schlockteur James Wan) it mostly plays like a confused jumble of self-conflicting ideas.

Jason Momoa puts in the exact same Aquabro performance here that he delivered in Justice League, except now there’s more of it. So very much more. Instead of popping in for an occasional, cute bro-liner like his much-memed “My man!” in the previous film, he’s asked to anchor a sprawling mythology about the regal lineage of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, which is on the verge of civil war. Legitimate actors Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Patrick Wilson admirably play the material straight as if there were actual stakes to this middling franchise entry and it wasn’t just a lavishly expensive, underwater episode of Wishbone. Momoa’s jockular, beer-pounding frat boy has a much more difficult time of it, especially in scenes where he’s asked to generate genuine chemistry or pathos with the sleepwalking Amber Heard (in one of history’s all time worst big screen wigs). It’s a shame that the mythology is so inert & self-serious, both because Momoa’s sex-idiot boytoy persona struggles to carry the weight and because the various underwater creatures that define the world are so pitch-perfect in their absurdity. Aquaman is packed to the gills with mighty sea horse steeds riding into battle, mounted laser sharks roaring in ferocious defiance, stingray-shaped submarines zipping around like underwater UFOs, a pissed-off Nicole Kidman hurling tridents in Burning Man drag, etc. I was often bored with the villain’s quest to become “Oceanmaster” (whatever the fuck that is), the hero’s search for the almighty trident McGuffin that would stop him, and the overall conflict of “uniting the two world’s” of Land & Sea, but every time I was about to give up on the movie entirely some mutated Lisa Frank monstrosity would emerge to reel me back in. For every shot of Momoa mugging to pure-cheese guitar riffs in embarrassing attempts to transform Aquaman into a badass, there’s equally weighted flashes of pure nerd-ass shit that accepts the character for the uncool goof that he is. I have no idea what to make of the result except to say that it’s exhausting.

There were moments of divine absurdity that had me thinking Aquaman might be the best film in the DCEU (a low bar to clear, but still). They were usually followed by 20 minutes or so of excruciating boredom before that pleasure resurfaced, choking on the flood of narrative glut. My disinterest in Momoa’s bro-flavored charms might have been what sunk my appreciation of the film to an extent (although I wouldn’t fault anyone for prurient interest in watching him get wet for three hours). Mostly, though, I think my inability to fully embrace the film’s live action cartoon energy resulted from its own half-commitment to its over-the-top, nerd-ass tone. When the evil sea creatures of Aquaman off-handedly cite land-dwellers’ pollution of the ocean as a reason to declare war, I couldn’t help but think of the more fearlessly committed overfishing politics of The Mermaid or the birds’ rights activism of 2.0, Asian blockbusters that are unembarrassed of their ludicrous premises. Aquaman, by contrast, constantly apologies for the frivolity off its underwater Ferngully by having a mugging macho class clown reassure the audience that everything onscreen is a joke and the hero is actually super cool, not nerdy at all. You can feel James Wan pushing for weird surreal touches in the background but the cultural monolith of the modern superhero blockbuster has a way of smoothing everything out into a routine monotony. The result is a picture at war with itself, like so many power-hungry Atlantians. A few years ago I might have rated this film a half-star higher for the moments of unbridled goofiness that do shine through the studio system muck, but I’m just finding the weight of this genre too exhausting to afford much more of my energy. A version of Aquaman that was an hour shorter and entirely relegated to the underwater sea creature civil war might have been something truly remarkable, but franchise filmmaking requirements constantly pull it out of the water so that another macho man can mug for the camera in all his heroic buffness and the repetition of the schtick is getting punishingly dull.

-Brandon Ledet

Justice League (2017)

Look! Up on the screen! It’s big! It’s dumb! It’s loud! It’s Justice League!

And it mostly works. Mostly.

The very first scene of Justice League does some good work walking back the problems—and they are problems, not merely criticisms—of the first few non-Wonder Woman films in this universe. We see Superman as children see him, which is also the way that this franchise keeps trying to retroactively force its audience into reconceptualizing him: as a true-blue (literally, given the lightening of his costume) hero and symbol of hope. He’s kind, sympathetic, and, you know, Superman, as he’s supposed to be. And then, just as his life was, the video is cut short. This leads into a beautiful opening credits montage, a strength of Zack Snyder’s as a director (even those who hate his Watchmen adaptation, which I surprisingly don’t, are all but universally pleased with its Dylan-composed credits sequence).

This sequence is not without contentious issues, of course. First, there’s a headline seen in a newspaper box mourning the loss of David Bowie, Prince, and Superman, but not Leonard Cohen, which is pretty disrespectful given that the whole thing is set to a really, really terrible cover of “Everybody Knows.” There’s also the issue that we’re supposed to be seeing a world in mourning for the space god who showed them some truths about themselves, but if you’re going to enjoy anything about this movie, you’re just going to have to accept this retcon.

Consider the speech from Marlon Brando’s Jor-El in the first Richard Donner Superman film (and later repurposed for the trailer for Superman Returns): “They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.” This same speech was actually echoed by Russell Crowe in his turn as Papa El in Man of Steel: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” Unfortunately, this franchise has made zero effort to actually follow through on these lofty ideals of the Superman-is-Messiah beyond paying lip service and a couple of “subtle” images in Man of Steel. The problem is that this was never present in the actual text of the film, which presented us with a broody, angry, super-powered alien whose only affection for the beings of his adopted world were his love for his mother and an office romance. He was more Tyler Hoechlin’s Derek Hale in Teen Wolf than Tyler Hoechlin’s Clark Kent in Supergirl (he’s killing it, by the way), and that absence has been sorely lacking in this film series so far.

But. But. Justice League, for all the baggage that its carrying from three bad movies and one spectacular one, actually works if you ignore all that needless, pointless, and out-of-place GRIMDARK nonsense that preceded it in the earlier installments. And it’s not just with Superman either; the scene that immediately follows the opening montage shows Batman out and about being Batman, and even uses some passages from Danny Elfman’s previous work on Tim Burton’s 1989 film adaptation (but which will always be a keystone for me as the theme music for the Batman animated series).

This first Batman scene is both good and bad. Your standard Gotham City burglar is exiting onto a roof at night, sees Batman, attacks the Bat, gets his ass handed to him, and is dangled over the side of a building to attract a Parademon (the foot soldiers of the film’s villain), which can apparently smell fear. Bats traps the Parademon in a net, tests out a series of sonic disruptions on it, and it dies, leaving behind a clue about the three Mother Boxes. It’s so, so dumb, but the combination of the old Elfman theme and the absurdity of the whole thing makes it feel like the cold open of an episode of the animated Justice League, where Kevin Conroy’s Batman would do something just like this: lure, trap, find weird clue that matches something he’s already investigating, detective it up. It shouldn’t (and for most people won’t) work in a feature film with live actors that is supposedly trying to take itself seriously, but that narrative works for me on a certain level. On the other hand, there are other elements of this scene that are inarguably bad story choices, like Batman just kind of grappling away from the scene to do detective stuff, completely disregarding the theft he just interrupted and leaving the burglar to his own devices.

The overarching plot of the film concerns the arrival of Steppenwolf, one of the members of Jack Kirby’s cosmic DC creations The New Gods, on earth. Millennia ago, he attempted to invade the planet and turn it into a “primordial hellscape,” but he was repelled by an alliance of Amazons, Atlanteans, the tribes of Man, and a couple of others that we’ll explore in a minute. Steppenwolf carrier with him three Mother Boxes, pieces of advanced technology that, when combined, create the terraforming effect that will make the earth his new home (yes, this was the exact same desire of the villains of Man of Steel). Now, after several millennia, he has returned in the wake of Superman’s death because mankind’s mourning of that great symbol of hope has made it ripe pickings for the invader’s crusade, and Batman has to recruit five superheroes with attitude to repel his forces (yes, this is essentially the same plot as the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, and yes, I would love to see the trailer for JL recut with the opening narration of MMPR).

I’m not going to lie to you: this movie is clearly half-baked and it makes a lot of mistakes. Beyond the fact that Bats uses a street level criminal as bait and then ditching him without even notifying the police, there are other mistakes both big and small. For instance: the janitor working at Star Labs is seen bidding Dr. Stone good night, and it’s obvious (at least on the big screen) that the ID he’s wearing is for a different person, as he has dark hair and is clean-shaven, while the picture on the ID is of a man with a big bushy head of white hair and a glorious Mark Twain mustache. You can imagine sitting in the movie theater and thinking, like me: “Oh, he must be a spy who stole this ID, that’s a neat clue.” But no, it’s just a mistake; later, after said innocent janitor has been kidnapped by the villain, we see his belongings left behind in a pile, including an ID with an accurate photo. That’s this movie in a microcosm: when you think that it’s being clever, it’s actually just a goof.

When I was a kid, the DC comics characters were much dearer to me than Marvel’s. Although becoming an adult and becoming more socially aware has meant that I’m less inclined to love Batman uncritically (i.e., he’s kind of a fascist who spends most of his time attacking poor people out of his own sense of morality, rarely actually inspecting the causes of poverty and crime and trying to correct the problem at the root, although some of the best Batman writers have taken note of this and written him accordingly), he’s still the first character I think of when I think of superhero comics. The aforementioned Batman animated series was a defining piece of media for young Boomer, as were reruns of Superfriends, and I loved visiting the one aunt whose cable package included FX, as that meant I would get to see an episode of the Adam West Batman and, if I was very lucky, Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman. It’s for this reason, and not because I am a “Marvel fanboy,” that I’ve been pained to see this franchise handled so, so poorly in the past few years. Wonder Woman was not just a step in the right direction, but a wholehearted plunge into how to to this whole thing right (Alli may have given it a mere 3.5 stars, but that was a 5 star movie for me personally).

Justice League is having a harder time straddling that fence, seeing as it has to undo the immense damage done to the franchise as a whole by Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. Sure, Suicide Squad was a terrible movie on the whole, but at its core it was a C-grade movie dressed up as a blockbuster, which is an aesthetic that I’m always a little bit on board for in spite of myself, especially when the actors really commit to the nonsense; additionally, the backstory and arc of Jay Hernandez’s Diablo contain far and away the most effective emotional beats of the first three films. It certainly didn’t fracture the fans in the same way as BvS, which some people are still defending for reasons that are unclear to me. Still, JL is trying hard to course correct, and the job that it’s doing is admirable, even if it stumbles every ten minutes or so. It works as a cartoon about the Justice League that just happens to be live action and have a tonally dissonant visual aesthetic from the text of the actions on screen.

The most important thing I can tell you if I’m trying to give you an idea as to whether or not you should see this film is this: Justice League works, if you accept it not as part of this franchise, but as an entry into the larger cultural understanding of Superman specifically and DC in general. What I mean by this is that the story it’s trying to tell, about a world without a Superman, does not work as a piece of the DCEU divorced from the context of the DC animated universes, or comic books, or even the earlier Donner and Burton films. But within that larger conversation, in which we do have a Superman who is a beacon of hope, truth, and justice, it does.

Additional notes:

  • I, too, saw all of the photos of Henry Cavill’s uncanny valley face online before I went to the theater, but I never noticed it when actually watching the movie. Maybe it says something about how my brain works that I completely overlooked it, but I’d wager it has more to do with the fact that if this were real life, Superman would have had to keep telling me “My weird face thing is up here.” You know what I’m talking about.
  • This has been addressed in other reviews that I’ve read and heard, but it is super weird that no one is at all concerned about maintaining their own or other’s secret identities in this movie. Aquaman calls Bruce Wayne “Batman” in front of a whole bunch of villagers, and Lois calls the newly awakened Superman “Clark” in front of several Metropolis police officers, which is only going to make it more obvious when he shows back up at work after having disappeared and reappeared at the exact same time as Supes did.
  • Ezra Miller’s Flash is charming, and I liked him a lot. A lot of his jokes fell flat, but I liked that they were overlooked in universe as well. I think that he’s probably the best addition to this universe since Wonder Woman.
  • Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is given almost nothing to do other than to be the machina that the deus exes.
  • All the stuff that you heard about Wonder Woman being more sexualized in this film is true, as I noticed the lingering shot of her rear, but she’s still Wonder Woman and still the best thing about this movie. I can’t wait for WW2.
  • The design for Steppenwolf is terrible. A stop-motion Starro would have been better, and would have made for a better villain overall anyway. Can you imagine a film where Starro the Conqueror appeared and tried to terraform the world into something more suitable to himself (i.e. covering the whole earth with the ocean)? There would be no need for the cliche sky beams, and instead there could have been the opportunity to discuss the rising oceans that are the result of climate change and Starro’s need to barely push humans into doing his will. The insistence on doing the New Gods stuff right out of the gate, especially after the imagery and ideas of Jack Kirby were so much better utilized in Guardians 2 and Thor: Ragnarok earlier this year, was a bad decision.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond