Shazam!(!)

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a movie to depart from the dark and dreary sepiatones of its lugubrious predecessors, a decent respect for the opinions of the audience must have impelled it to the separation. This particular film is far from groundbreaking or unique, but has its own lighthearted, yet sincere part to play in the exponentially expanding lexicon of superhero films. I know not the ins and outs of comic book lore or the production of this movie, but “Shazam” is a much needed breath of fresh air in the dank and musty alleyways of the DC universe. It strays into cliche, but more often than not, ends up proving why cliches exist in the first place.

“Shazam” tells the story of 14 year old Billy Batson: a disgruntled and self-enclosed foster child whose prime motivation is only to find his real family. There is nothing new about this sort of storyline: our hero, of course, does find his family, and it is, as always, not in the way he expects. Of course, the proof is always in the pudding. The way in which old reliable storylines are made new makes all the difference in the world. And often that can be done with the effective inversion of a cliche.

The set-up is nothing new. A mystical being is seeking a candidate worthy enough to receive great power (and, according to some obstinate scholars, great responsibility). An ordinary plot might well follow the line that this worthy candidate is found in the most humble of situations. However, that is not exactly the direction taken. The worthy candidate is simply not found. In desperation, the great powers are given to someone who in no way distinguishes himself as worthy at all. Enter Billy Batson.

The comedic meat of the story plays out throughout the second act. With the build of an adult and powers of a superhero, our protagonist sets out to… do exactly what any irresponsible teenager would do with the keys to his parents car. In an early conversation, Billy is asked if he would prefer the superpowers of flight or invisibility. It is a question as old as the ring of Gyges, and is, in fact, exactly the same question. What would people really do with the power to do anything and no repercussions for anything they might do? In Billy’s case, they are the sort of things you would expect a teenager would do, albeit set to the soundtrack of Queen’s  “Don’t Stop Me Now.”

Underlying all the shenanigans on the surface, however, is a surprisingly traditional story that is arguably even older than cliche. The story draws us into a drama about the corruptibility of human beings, the difficulty of truth and virtue, and a literal battle between humanity and the embodiments of sin. It is more than a trope; it is a myth. A myth with an intriguing inversion in our “unworthy” protagonist, but a myth nonetheless.

Another odd twist in the nature of the movie is that it would hardly seem out of place in the Marvel Universe. As a DC film, however, it comes out of the blue (or red with gold trim). One distinguishing factor, notably, is that it is fresh enough to avoid the sort of soulless whimsy typified in the less creative offerings of the Marvel Universe. It is goofy and warmhearted, but comes by it honestly. It has an unfortunately weak third act, and is slow in the first. It is far too ham-handed in the significance of the number seven and has some rather out of place scares, but none of the missteps stick in the mind to the point of destroying the experience. You will still leave the theater with a grin.

★★

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