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

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Thor 2 – The Dark World (2013)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: It seems silly now to think that the ongoing existence of the Thor franchise was not a given. Prior to the first film’s release, Kevin Feige announced that there would be a second Thor following the release of The Avengers, but Kenneth Branagh wasn’t so sure. In fact, his response to the news seems almost pessimistic, as he stated that he felt the audience would have to decide. At the time, there was gossip that this was a response to what must have been seen more and more by the individual directors as executive influence. Although our culture has a tendency to think of studio influence as an inherently negative contributor to a film’s overall quality (probably because its impact is negative in most cases), but there are examples of this kind of oversight working. Two prominent examples in this same genre are Star Wars and Star Trek: The Next Generation: in both cases, once the creator had full creative control the content took a nosedive, and the material itself vastly improved when the property was returned to more corporate oversight. Although this would later (famously) be the reason that Edgar Wright would leave the Ant-Man project, Branagh’s stated reasons for leaving Thor 2 were that he was hesitant to get straight back into production so shortly after the first film was completed, given the long lead times that effects-heavy films like the Marvel spectacles have.

Branagh’s successor was originally slated to be Brian Kirk, and the film would have been his feature debut after working as a frequent director on Game of Thrones. He entered negotiations for the project in August 2011, but ultimately backed out, citing contractual issues. Patty Jenkins, who had previously directed the biopic Monster and who is slated to direct the upcoming Wonder Woman, was brought on to direct, although she too left the project in December of 2011; this time, the cited reasons were creative differences. Ultimately, Alan Taylor, who had also previously worked on Game of Thrones as well as Mad Men, was brought on to helm the picture. Don Payne, who had a hand in the script for the first film, was brought in to draft the script. Payne lost his battle with bone cancer in March of 2013, and it can be assumed that he may not have been able to contribute in the creative process after his initial script treatment. Whether or not his declining health took him off the project, Robert Rodat was brought on to give it another pass. Rodat was most well known at the time for his scripts for Saving Private Ryan and The Patriot, and there’s a darker text to this film than the first that can be attributed to his influence.

On the casting side, Mads Mikkelsen was in talks to portray a villain in the film (presumably Malekith) but was was offered Hannibal and took that opportunity instead. The role of the Malekith ultimately went to Christopher Eccleston, a British actor known for his portrayal of the Ninth Doctor in the Doctor Who franchise and who is currently starring in HBO’s series The Leftovers. All major cast members were set to return, as well as virtually all of the minor characters. One of Thor’s buddies, Fendral, was recast; ironically, Zachary Levi was set to play him in the first film but had to back out due to commitment to Chuck, but he replaced Joshua Dallas in the role when the latter was pulled away by his obligations to Once Upon A Time. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was cast as Algrim, an elf supersoldier (yeah) who takes on the name “Kursed.”

For those of you who saw the movie once and then kind of forgot about it while waiting for the next Marvel movie, the plot is this: Once upon a time, Thor (Chris Hemsworth)’s grandfather Bor took a magical liquid McGuffin known as the Aether from the leader of a race of “dark elves.” These elves existed before there was light in the universe and who, as a result, hate lightness, goodness, and pretty much life itself. In the present day, an interdimensional alignment is occurring where all the different “realms” that Thor talked about in the first film will line up and physics will be a little wonky. Luckily for him, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is on the scene investigating these strange phenomena. The alignment allows her to get lost inside another realm, where she stumbles upon Bor’s hiding place for the Aether, and she becomes infected by it. The plot contrives to trap Thor in Asgard, so he must enlist the help of Loki (Tom Hiddeston) to cross over to Earth and save the day from the villain who keeps trying to kidnap his girlfriend so she can help him destroy the universe itself.

Brandon, what did you think?

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three star

Brandon: There seems to have been a monumental shift in the Thor franchise here. If you boil the series down to its most basic parts there’s exactly two contrasting realms where the narrative operates (although its internal folklore is heavily tied to their being nine realms, the rest of which are mostly relegated for brief visits): Earth (or some kind of variation of Earth that has seen modern contact with gods, aliens, and supermen) & Asgard, some kind of golden city of the gods that rests somewhere across the dimensions & can only be reached by a rainbow bridge. The first Thor film staged a familial, Shakespearean drama on the mighty purty Asgard, (which was a perfect fit for director Kenneth Branagh’s background), but for the most part it was a fish out of water comedy set on Earth. Although an near-immortal god, Thor was buffoonish in his attempts to adapt to Earth life & spent most of his MCU debut acting like a profoundly handsome & powerful Mr. Bean. Thor 2 takes a wildly different approach to its superheroics, borrowing a little Chris Nolan gloom to dampen down the good mood (right down to the wormhole fascination & the emphasis on the “Dark” aspect of its title). One of the things I enjoyed most about the first Thor film was that it lightened the mood of the MCU in a sincerely wholesome way. It felt like the start of what many people consider Marvel Studios’ “house style”. The Dark World ditches that bright outlook for a much gloomier aesthetic, but I ended up enjoying the film well enough anyway. After seven un-Nolan superhero movies the MCU can easily afford to go angsty for a single picture.

Completely ditching the fish out of water comedy of the original Thor film, The Dark World instead delves deeper into the distant world of Asgard. There are some comedic elements to the film (mostly in Kat Dennings’ strait -out-a-CBS-sitcom comic relief goof Darcy), but the plot is for the most part dead serious. A lot of the same Asgardian concerns about who will take the throne when it’s left vacant by an aging Odin (played again by an even-more-game-than-last -time Anthony Hopkins) & who exactly The Gatekeeper of Asgard (an equally more-engaged Idris Elba) is faithful to play out exactly like they did in the previous film, just with enough time & attention to take the main focus. Thor is still gleefully oblivious of his obligations to the throne. Loki is still an evil, manipulative weasel who teases playing nice before he pulls the rug form under his gullible brother. Aliens from other realms are still trying to cut deals with Loki to take over the Universe. All is right in the world(s). Instead of dragging Thor back to Earth to make more of a fool of himself, it’s Natalie Portman’s scientist hottie Jane’s turn to make a fool of herself on his world. While investigating a “gravitational anomaly” (the aforementioned wormholes) Jane is infected with something called The Ether, which is essentially purely-concentrated space evil. This is no run of the mill space evil, either. It’s an “ancient force of infinite deconstruction” that turns matter into dark matter or some such hooey. Some alien baddies seek to reclaim & harness the space evil & there you have the basic makings of a ludicrously overstuffed Marvel Studios movie plot.

By far the best aspect of The Dark World is the film’s visual treats. If I weren’t watching the film for the purpose of this review it’d be the exact kind of thing I’d zone out for just to drool over the imagery in isolation. It’s the exact way I interact with (don’t shoot!) the Lord of the Rings franchise. I’ve seen Jackson’s adaptations countless times, but can name you only a few of the characters’ names without Google’s help & know very little of the plot outside the endless walking & the quest to destroy The Ring. I treated The Dark World much of the same way. It’s a feast for the eyes, a gloomy trudge through so many alien bests, war ships, and swirling storm clouds that any given farm outside of the Earth scenes could easily pas as a heavy metal album cover. I didn’t evoke that Lord of the Rings comparison lightly, either. As soon as the film opens with Hopkins intoning the Epic Tale of the Dark Elves & warning of the One Ether to Rule Them All, Jackson’s work was already at the forefront of my mind. I was prepared to space out & maybe confirm some plot details on Wikipedia after the end credits. Honestly, that’ s probably something I should still work on. The details are a little fuzzy, but I really enjoyed what I saw.

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twohalfstar

Boomer: I forgot about everything that happened in this movie pretty much the moment I walked out of the theatre in 2013. I remember enjoying it as a pleasant diversion, but it’s apparent that this movie is spinning its wheels. The number of different directors who were at one point attached to the property makes one feel that there is a lot of welding between different ideas for the film, and not all the of the connections work. There’s also the fact that there are parts of this film that feel like the first Thor in tone but are out of place in this darker overall film. It also feels like there was a lot cut out of the movie, especially with regards to the motivations of the villains. Loki’s motives are the same as they always are, and his arc (such as it is) feels largely like a retread of everything we’ve already seen. They even have him reprise his “you must be truly desperate…” line from The Avengers, which feels less like an echo and more like a cynical cut-and-paste from one script to the next. Eccleston is particularly underutilized, as he has virtually no distinguishing features that separate him from all of the other generic genocidal dictators that make their home in this genre. The man is probably the best actor to portray a villain in this franchise since Jeff Bridges, and he’s utterly wasted in a role that a mannequin could play.

The tone is too dissimilar from the first film as well. Thor took place almost entirely in New Mexico and Asgard (give or take a couple of field trips to Jotunheim), and the bright sun of the former and the boisterous lighting of the latter gave that film a warm quality, and the gray overcast skies of the British Isles are a stark contrast. That dissonance characterizes The Dark World from its predecessor, and the tonal shifts within the film itself, along with the handing off of writing duties from Payne to Rotan, leads me to infer a few things. There may have been a hesitation to throw out too much of a dying man’s work, but Rotan’s tendency toward darker storytelling highlights the scenes that retain Payne’s lighter take from the first film and makes them stand out even more. There’s an argument to be made that, should you find yourself watching A.I., you can see the moment when Kubrick died and Spielberg took over to complete the film, because their individual visions conflict with more than complement each other. There’s an element of that here, where you can see Rotan take over from Payne, and the end result is a bit of a mish-mash of ideas.

The women in Thor’s life take it the worst this time around. Although Jane’s scientific knowledge comes through at the end of the film to save the day, she spends most of the movie in near catatonia, saying few lines and having to be protected constantly. The MCU has largely avoided the damsel-in-distress routine that seemed to be the standard in comic book film (give or take your Pfeiffer Catwoman) up to this point, but this is an all but a textbook example. Rene Russo’s Frigga has the best scene in the film (when she protects Jane from the invading elves), and her funeral is the closest the film comes to having a tone that works both as an amalgam of Payne and Rotan’s approaches and to a compelling feeling overall, but it’s not enough. Kat Dennings gets more to do this time out and, although I find her screen presence enjoyable, it didn’t do more to expand our understanding of Darcy, instead simply repeating character beats from the last time we saw her. In no other film is it more apparent that the MCU is killing time. Kevin Feige likely made a mistake by committing the film to a 2013 release date before locking in a creative team, because the final product feels somehow both rushed and overproduced. I think the upcoming third Thor film, Ragnarok, will be a step up, but only time will tell.

Lagniappe

Brandon: It wasn’t entirely intentional, but I’ve mostly relegated my thoughts on the MCU’s post-credits stingers to these “Lagniappe” segments so that they’ve become sort of a meta post-review stinger in a weird way. So, I guess I should touch on the two that occur here. One is a teaser for the (then) upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie that worked perfectly well by accomplishing two succinct missions: introducing Benicio del Toro’s weirdo “collector” character & relegating talk of the Infinity Stones MacGuffin to the credits, both of which were fine by me. Even more innocuous was a second stinger that served as one last romantic beat for the Me Thor You Jane relationship, which, again, was fine. I’m usually a lot more likely to be annoyed when the stingers are the sole tie to other properties in the MCU through a quick two-line cameo. That quick cameo actually occurs much earlier in The Dark World in a scene where Loki mocks the ultra-wholesome (and all-around best Avenger) Captain America in a one-off goof. I don’t know if it’s just that I like Cap so much or what, but that gag was actually quite amusing for me. It was at least funny to watch Chris Evans mime Loki’s sardonic version of himself.

Speaking of Loki, The Dark World really turned me around on that little scamp. I wasn’t particularly invested in his character as anything more than a pissant weasel before, but things took a much more interesting turn here: he reveals himself to be hurt & emotionally vulnerable in a way that never felt quite as convincing before. This turn toward the occasionally sympathetic makes his acerbic brutality all the more interesting when he inevitably changes his mind & commits himself to evil. Not that his Kylo Ren emo tantrums weren’t still amusing. I got a particularly good giggle out of the exchange where Thor confesses “I wish I could trust you” & Loki responds “Trust my rage.” That’s some high quality angst right there.

Boomer: Now that we’ve had Chris Eccleston play a villain in this film and David Tennant as Kilgrave on Jessica Jones, I guess it’s only a matter of time before we see Matt Smith in this franchise. Also, it’s such a bummer that they killed off Frigga in this film, but I am hopeful that they may find a way to bring her back for Ragnarok. A trip to the afterlife isn’t entirely out of the question for this franchise, right?

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Thor 2 – The Dark World (2013)

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three star

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.