Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is responsible for superhero movies that take themselves seriously. Nolan succeeded in justifying the possible existence of a vigilante in an extremely corruption-prone city, Gotham, who serves as a symbol for justice and hope. Even then, it was a stretch, and audiences had to take a leap of imagination. Subsequent superhero franchises have been infatuated with credibility and stakes, even if they remained light-hearted.

How does Marvel expect me to feel the stakes in a movie such as Captain Marvel, when I know for a fact that she would be featured in Avengers: Endgame, surviving whatever ordeal was presented to her? How are we to feel of the fate of Black Panther and Spiderman in Avengers: Infinity War when it is public knowledge that there are sequels to their movies in the works, and the latter has already gotten a trailer?

Shazam! has figured a way out of this lack of credibility and stakes - to stop pretending. It is a movie that recognises that superhero movies were always meant for children. Their strength comes out of their ability to teach kids morality and make them believe that they are heroes in their own story. The film does not pretend the hero is ever really in any shape or form in actual danger or that the actual impact on human society and politics of the discovery of superhumans can be explored in such commercial movies.

The film stars Asher Angel as Billy Batson, a 14-year-old orphan chosen by an ancient wizard to carry the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury, the initials of whose names reads “Shazam.” It is never explained how he gets to have four of the powers of mythical Greek or Roman gods and heroes, but when it comes to the powers of wisdom, he has to get it from a king in the Abrahamic religions.

Could he have not gotten the powers of Athena, goddess of wisdom? Was there a rule about him only getting male gods and heroes’ powers? Or did “Ahazam” not read as well as Shazam?

Billy and his close friend, Freddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fan of superheroes, have a great power discovering all the powers of Shazam. The fun stops though, when a supervillain - which always show up just when the hero does - confronts them. Doctor Sivana, who also has the powers of Shazam, threatens to unleash the Seven Deadly Sins.

Of course, all of the seven deadly sins, from pride to greed, are already manifest in the world, and it is not clear how much worse it would get if Sivana succeeds in unleashing the ones he finds locked away in an ancient magical crypt.

There is genuine humour in this film, and much of the credit should go to Zachary Levi, who plays the adult superhero incarnation of Billy and Grazer. Levi is believable as a buff, very powerful adult who nonetheless is still a kid in the inside. The best parts of the movie are the scenes where Billy discovers Shazam’s powers. None of these scenes would have worked out if it was not for the spot-on performance of Levi.

Grazer is even better. One of those great finds Hollywood makes once in a while, the 15-year-old is the best thing about this film. He plays a physically disabled but hilarious sidekick to a superhero. But he is one of those that show us that the sidekick has feelings, and the scene where he opens up about this is very touching. Thanks to Grazer and the clever character development the screenwriter gave him, Freddie may very well be the best superhero sidekick in movies. He is a whole lot better than the monotonous Bucky Barnes, War Machine or any of the cinematic incarnations of Robin to date.

PUBLISHED ON Apr 13,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 989]

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