We are ready for The Big Red Cheese. The one-time Captain Marvel who now goes by the copyright-friendly moniker of Shazam! is here to smash down the wall of gloom established by Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel. We want color; we need color. Wonder Woman and Aquaman broke free from Justice League and reminded audiences that joy could fill spandex just as well as a scowl. For Warner Bros. to compete in the market, they have to embrace other emotions as well as genres within the superhero framework. Director David F. Sandberg and star Zachary Levi are here to mix it up.
We’re just weeks away from finally seeing how (or if) they’re going to pull it off, but I have high hopes from one of the most delightful characters in comics. This new trailer goes a long way in earning that enthusiasm and gives a few hints at how it connects to the larger roster of heroes. Like most properties, Shazam has swung in every stylistic direction. I appreciate that Sandberg is looking to eat his cake and have it too with this film. Characters can be more than one attitude. Badass can balance with silly.
First thought – look at all those smiles. This is pure, wish-fulfillment fantasy. How would your childhood self react to a sudden burst of strength and invulnerability? It would be wonderous. There is no coming down from such a high. Zachary Levi’s cartoon face taps into that glee just as well as, if not better than, Tom Hanks as Josh Baskin in Big. That’s the gag they’ve been selling since Geoff Johns, and Gary Frank relaunched the character with DC Comics’ “New 52,” and they are leaning hard into that homage with the film.
We open as the best superhero sagas do – the city. Here is the battleground in which young Billy Batson (Asher Angel) will prove himself a champion worthy of the name Shazam. Philadelphia is not Gotham City. It’s not Metropolis. It’s not a New York or a Chicago stand-in. We crave its cheesesteaks, and we can go there whenever we want. Over this god’s eye view, we hear The Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) call out our young protagonist’s name.
We saw this shot in the last trailer, placing the tough kid literally on the other side of the tracks. The film takes place a few years after the Justice League’s battle with Steppenwolf. Why should a kid like Billy care about anything like that? He’s an orphan, recently set up with another foster family. He’s got his own worries, his own sorrows. Doesn’t matter; Billy Batson is chosen.
Magically called down to the Rock of Eternity, Billy encounters a being he can barely comprehend. The Wizard steps from his throne and gets into Billy’s grill. The other council seats behind them are empty, the result of a great war that cost their owners their lives. “Say my name,” says The Wizard, “so my powers will become yours.” S represents the wisdom of Solomon. H for the strength of Hercules. A equals the stamina of Atlas. Z for the power of Zeus. A for the courage of Achilles. M for the speed of Mercury.
“Shazam,” The Wizard whispers. Billy responds like most do when they encounter such ridiculous comic book hokum. He giggles, “Are you for real?”
“SAY IT!” The Wizard screams. “Ok!” Billy apologetically responds. Cut to a shot towards the end of the film when Billy prepares to go into his final battle with an archnemesis he didn’t even know he had a few weeks earlier. As far as effects go, this one is fairly rad. A confident leap, a magic word, and a heroic transformation into The Big Red Cheese. Mock him all you want, he knows he’s a little silly, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to smash you in the face when the time comes.
When a kid is gifted superpowers, the first thing he’s going to do is run off bragging to his best pal. Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) is Billy’s disabled foster brother and all around superhero aficionado. Think of him like his Yoda, guiding him through the dos and don’ts of capes and cowls. Freddy eggs Billy on, pushing him to test his abilities.
Step one: you gotta learn to strike a pose.
Step two: you gotta learn how to take a hit.
Step three: go get that paper.
Step four: beer, and lots of it.
Um, yeah. So, Peter Parker, he is not. Billy Batson does not have the weight of Uncle Ben’s death on his conscious. He’s a kid with no parents, who was pushed from one random home to another practically since birth. The world has done nothing for him. However, The Wizard saw something in Billy. Maybe it was a good nature or a bright human spirit, but he knew that Billy would do right by this gift. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s not going to stray a little before push comes to shove.
That shove comes in the form of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a megalomaniacal scientist who might have a serious grudge against The Wizard that granted Billy access to Shazam. Similar to our hero, Sivana manipulates electricity into lightning bolts and can fly above the clouds. Mark Strong is practically a mirror to the character as drawn by Gary Frank, and while I’d love to see the actor pull himself away from villainous typecasting, I can’t be top mad about it here either. The dude looks good.
In his first encounter with Sivana, Billy accepts his appearance with as much seriousness as he does his superpowers. “Oh, you’re like a bad guy, right?” Well, Shazam has nailed being a superhero so far, might as well knock this guy down and move on with his day. Yeah, no. Sivana makes quick work of the child.
Freddy chastizes his friend, “You literally did the opposite of what a superhero is supposed to do.” As much fun as they had stealing money and scoring beer, Freddy wants Billy to live up to his potential. They can fight for the little guy; they can make a difference together. Superman is cool. Batman is cool. Wonder Woman is cool. Shazam can be cool too.
Meet the Shazam Family. The other foster kids Billy lives with have cracked the mystery. “You’re him,” says Mary (Grace Fulton), “You’re the hero.” At the climax of the “New 52” comic, Billy’s foster family snap off a piece of Shazam’s energy and use it to transform themselves into powerful allies against Sivana. While we don’t get a glimpse of that epic fight here, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that’s where Sandberg ultimately takes this story.
Billy calls down the lightning knocking Dr. Sivana to the ground. The North Pole Fishing Hole was briefly seen at the start of the trailer after Billy’s rooftop proclamation. Notice that he appears to be carrying The Wizard’s staff, which channels the energy of the gods that make up S.H.A.Z.A.M.
The brawl between Billy and Sivana takes them inside a toy store where a desperate hero tosses Justice League merchandise as a weapon. Nice to know that the Ben Affleck and Ray Fisher likenesses continue to thrive in the DCEU.
When action figure projectiles fail to defeat a foe, you better rely on your sparkle fingers. Hopefully, all that montage-training encouraged by Freddy will have prepared him properly for this final fight smackdown. Don’t cross the streams.
After a few exchanges with The Big Red Cheese, Sivana gets the impression that the beefcake may be younger than his body suggests. “How old are you?” he askes. Um…”Basically 15.” To ram that maturity home the trailer cuts to Billy showing off his astonishing powers to a flock of iPhone phone onlookers. You’re better than this, Billy.
The trailer ends on the heart of the movie. Freddy schooling Billy on what it means to be a hero. It’s not hard. If there is a cat in a tree, you get it. If there are men robbing a convenience store, you toss ’em through the glass. You’re a good guy; you fight bad guys. “You leap tall buildings in a single bound.” That’s what you do. Go be the best Superman you can be.
Billy pounces to prove his worth, and yeah, doesn’t quite make the leap. He crashes into the office building terrifying the hapless cubicle occupants. Living up to the Justice League will be hard work, but anything worth doing is damn hard. It’s good to have a pal like Freddy to keep you honest.
Shazam! opens in theaters everywhere on April 5th.