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The DC Comics universe gets its best movie since Wonder Woman with Shazam!, a fun—and surprisingly dark—blast of superhero fantasy. While a little sloppy at times, the movie works thanks to its central performances and warm-hearted core.

Zachary Levi is an excellent choice to play the title character; that character is the result of a 14-year-old boy being handed super powers by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou). That boy is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster child in search of his real mom. When he yells “Shazam!” a lightning bolt blasts him in his melon, and he becomes the glorious, red-suited, white-caped superhero—but he still has a 14-year-old’s brain. This gives Levi the chance to do a Tom Hanks/Big sort of shtick, and he’s good at it.

Adults in a certain age group might remember the Shazam TV show from the 1970s. Batson would actually transform into Captain Marvel—not the Marvel Captain Marvel, but the DC Captain Marvel. (There’s a convoluted, legal history behind how Brie Larson eventually wound up playing a character named Captain Marvel. We won’t go into it here.) In the TV series, Billy got his powers from an animated Zeus and his family; it was a combination of live action and cartoon on Saturday mornings with your Frosted Flakes. It was actually kind of badass, but I digress.

The new Shazam (who goes by various names, including Captain Sparkle Fingers) gets coached by his superhero-obsessed sidekick and foster brother, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Freddy winds up being one of the big reasons this movie works, despite its flaws. Grazer employs the same kind of whip-smart line delivery that made him one of the more memorable kids running away from Pennywise in It.

As for those flaws: There are abrupt tonal shifts and subpar CGI—but it’s refreshing to see DC’s take on a comedic, shiny superhero after the gloomy blunders that were Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Justice League, and the goofy bombast of Aquaman. Shazam! has some of the joy that’s missing from the latest Superman flicks.

Director David F. Sandberg is an interesting choice to helm what is essentially a family-fun blockbuster. Watch out: Sandberg directed the creepy horror films Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, and horror does creep into a couple of genuinely frightening scenes. Sivana (Mark Strong), the film’s villain, is accompanied by monster personifications of the seven deadly sins, and they tend to bite people’s heads off and throw them through windows—making parts of Shazam! nightmare fuel for young children. As an adult, I appreciated the chance to be scared (even if the scares did feel slightly out of place), but I imagine some parents might sit shocked as monsters bite heads off. The scary stuff is countered by a sweet family message involving Billy and his foster home. Faithe Herman steals scenes as Darla, Billy’s blissfully optimistic little foster sister who will make you laugh and break your heart. Still, the violence is just short of R-rated, so be careful.

Some poor screenplay choices take the action to all-too-familiar places, like a convenience-store robbery and an attack at an amusement park. (“Uh oh, someone’s still up there in the Ferris wheel!”) Sivana doesn’t impress much as a bad guy. He’s serviceable, but nothing extraordinary.

Shazam! doesn’t feel like a DC movie, nor does it feel like a Marvel movie, for that matter (although it does use a Ramones song for its credits, as did Spider-Man: Homecoming; this actually bugged me a little bit). Batman and Superman live in the same universe as Shazam, but those parts aren’t filled at the moment. (Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill are out.) The movie still finds ways to include the characters that are fun nods, and maybe DC will do some legit crossovers in the future. I’m thinking they have at least one more Shazam! in them.

Shazam! is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

I read It when the novel came out in 1986, and I was underwhelmed. It had a cool premise, but sloppy, overlong, out-of-control prose. That sucker needed some editing.

I had been gobbling up Stephen King books (I’m a big fan of Christine and Different Seasons), but experienced a bit of a lull in interest after his lousy Peter Straub collaboration, The Talisman. I felt like King was overextending himself a bit, and It seemed like a big mess.

In other words … I’m not a huge fan of the source material for the new It film.

I was also not a fan of the wimpy 1990 TV miniseries with John-Boy Walton, Jack Tripper, Harry Anderson and a decent Tim Curry as evil clown Pennywise. It featured that unintentionally hilarious puppet spider at the end.

The good thing about a movie like Andy Muschietti’s It is that the director and his writers can keep core themes that worked, but switch things up and streamline the narrative to make the story work better. As a result, the new It is a triumph.

While the miniseries dealt with both the young and older versions of the Losers Club—the posse of kids who stand up to evil—the new It stands as Part One, completely dividing the kid and adult stories. There’s also a major time change, with the kids’ story taking pace in the late ’80s instead of the 1950s. Thank you, Stranger Things.

The core story remains the same: Children in Derry, Maine, have been disappearing for many years. The film starts with the sad case of Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), a little boy in a yellow rain slicker who follows his paper boat to the sewer drain, where he makes an unfortunate acquaintance.

That acquaintance is Pennywise, the dancing, sewer-dwelling clown, played as a most savage beast by Bill Skarsgard. The big difference between Curry’s Pennywise and the new incarnation is that Curry’s Pennywise seemed almost like a normal circus clown—until he sprouted monster teeth and took you out. He was into trickery. Skarsgard’s Pennywise is a makeup-cracking, scary demon clown. He has an ability to charm for a short while, but he oozes evil. If you saw him at a circus, you’d be seriously afraid for the trapeze artists and lions. He even drools a little while addressing Georgie … before tearing Georgie’s arm off. At this moment, It immediately declares itself to be an R-rated, no-holds-barred King affair, as opposed to the homogenized TV version.

The kids are great. The standout is Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh. At one point, one of the Losers calls her Molly Ringwald. Lillis has that kind of teen-film leading-lady presence. Jeremy Ray Taylor will break your heart as Ben Hanscom, the chubby kid who has a crush on Bev. (Their first meeting is one of the best scenes in the film.)

Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard and Jack Dylan Grazer provide solid comic relief as Richie and Eddie, while Jaeden Lieberher (excellent in Midnight Special) does a damn fine job with a stutter as Georgie’s big brother, Bill Denbrough. As for the bad kids, Nicholas Hamilton is the second-scariest entity in the film as bully Henry Bowers. He’s very real. I’m pretty sure I got in a locker room fight sometime in the 1980s with Hamilton’s Bowers.

Muschietti scores some big scares, especially during a slideshow gone very wrong, and a meeting between the Denbrough brothers in the family basement. (“You’ll float, too!”) It appears there was never a moment when Muschietti and his writers paused and thought, “Say, perhaps that idea would be a bit too unsettling? Maybe it’s a bit much and wrong?”

It: Part Two, while not official yet, is a certainty. As for It: Part One, it takes the best elements of King’s inconsistent novel effort, and comes out a frightening winner.

It is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews