Shazam!

Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David F. Sandberg

Writer: Henry Gayden


With the global phenomenon that superheroes have become and the weightiness and maturity that many fans have come to associate with the genre, whether it be the disturbed philosophy of The Dark Knight, the reflective politics of Black Panther, or even the obscenely adult humour of Deadpool, a lot of people forget that most of the superheroes we love originate from comic books and Saturday morning cartoons aimed at children. The early DCEU films in particular tried so hard to adapt these stories into an esteemed, multifaceted saga with the kind of dark, gritty tone, densely complicated narrative and bleak (some might even say nihilistic) morality that they hoped would establish them as Marvel’s mature older brother, that I couldn’t help but feel that DC found their universe’s childish origins to be downright embarrassing. When The LEGO Batman Movie came out, a film that unashamedly aimed itself towards children and eagerly celebrated its hero’s colourful, campy history, I was as dumbstruck as I was impressed. This was a movie that wasn’t the least bit embarrassed to treat the mythology of the Caped Crusader as ‘kid’s stuff’, practically a blasphemous statement to make in this day and age. Shazam! follows in this tradition as a superhero movie that was gleefully made for kids and has absolutely no problem leaning on the inherent silliness and childishness of superhero movies.

Based on a 1940s comic book series about a superhero called Captain Marvel (a name that unsurprisingly never gets uttered once in this film), Shazam! is the story of the un-titular hero’s alter-ego Billy Baston (Asher Angel). Billy is a 14-year-old boy who has been living in foster care since he was little but has never stayed in any single place for long due to being a difficult and rebellious brat. He gets into trouble with the police thanks to a stunt he pulls in an attempt to track down his birth mother, leading him to be relocated to yet another foster home run by the welcoming and loving Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans). Their home is a large and diverse one that houses the paraplegic wisecracker Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), college hopeful Mary (Grace Fulton), tech genius Eugene (Ian Chen), uncommunicative loner Pedro (Jovan Armand), and bubbly sweetheart Darla (Faithe Herman). Billy however has no desire to become a part of their family and resolves to run away as soon as possible. He does however demonstrate a capacity for nobility and kindness when he defends Freddy from a pack of school bullies, a deed that catches the attention of a force far beyond his comprehension. Billy is thus transported to a mystical lair where he meets the dying wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who bestows his magical powers onto the young boy so that he might defeat the great evil that is to come.

What follows is essentially Big if it were also a superhero film. Billy discovers that by saying the word “Shazam!” he can transform himself into an impressively buff, superpowered adult man in a red spandex suit (played by Zachary Levi). Whether the spandex suit is actually a part of his physical body or if it’s simply an impractical outfit that offers no apparent means of relief when nature calls, Billy never figures out. Confused and beside himself, he brings Freddy in on the secret and together they set out to discover just what exactly Billy’s new body can do. Through a series of tests they learn that Billy’s powers include super strength and speed, invulnerability, and lightning magic. Their initial response however isn’t exactly that with great power comes great responsibility. Instead the adolescent boys take advantage of Billy’s abilities by buying beer under his adult guise, using his lightning powers to charge their phones, and uploading his stunts onto YouTube. Levi proves himself to be an ideal casting choice, looking imposing enough that anyone would be awed by his presence but also making use of his comedic talents to show that there is a young kid in there who cannot believe that he is inhabiting this kind of body. Even if his brash and awkward portrayal of the character isn’t exactly consistent with Angel’s performance as the rather quiet and level headed Billy, it still works.

Soon enough the big bad comes along in the form of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), the unfortunate child of a rotten family who was summoned by Shazam as a young boy but was rejected from the call for power and greatness when his heart proved impure. Having dedicated his whole life to returning to that magical realm and claiming what he believes to be his destiny, Sivana has struck a deal with the devil (or, rather, seven demonic entities personifying the deadly sins) in order to realise his goal. Strong is such an intimidating figure throughout that his mere presence is enough to make you forget that Shazam! is a kid’s film. One scene where Sivana marches straight into a board meeting and casually tosses a character out of a skyscraper window mid-sentence caught me completely off guard. What makes him a great foil to Levi in this kind of movie is that Sivana has absolutely no idea he is the villain in a children’s comedy, making his puzzlement at the adult Billy’s amusing antics and juvenile humour all the funnier. The best example of this comes in their climatic showdown where Sivana’s obligatory bad guy speech about how much more powerful he is than the hero and how futile his efforts are doesn’t quite land with the effect he intended.

Shazam! isn’t just a kid’s adventure with some silly gags and action scenes. Billy’s main concern before acquiring his powers is searching for his long-lost mother, a pursuit that eventually leads him to some tough truths and complicated feelings. What Billy wants more than anything is to have a family that loves and accepts him and he gets so consumed both by his fruitless search and the preoccupation of being a superhuman with god-like powers that he doesn’t even notice how close he is to seeing his dream come true. The Vasquez family have invited him into their lives and are only too willing to offer the belonging and affection he has always desired, but Billy is so blind to the chance that it isn’t until an external threat appears and threatens to take them all away that he even realises what he actually had. It’s a strong lesson with such a satisfying payoff that the movie doesn’t care if it comes across as a bit schmaltzy. Such sweetness and sincerity is almost unheard of in a modern-day superhero blockbuster and the movie wears its own hokiness like a badge of honour. This is a movie that was made with the whole family in mind and it wants viewers to walk away feeling not only thrilled and amused but also moved.

Shazam! feels like a movie that was made in the Spielbergian spirit of the 1980s, an era where PG actually meant something. It’s a kid’s adventure through and through, but with enough of a personality and an edge to make it feel like there is something grown-up happening amidst all the adolescent jokes and cartoonish action. Unlike the likes of Netflix’s Stranger Things though, it doesn’t rely on direct references and callbacks in order for the connection to be made; it’s all there in the style and tone. The movie is goofy, but it’s also action-packed. It’s a movie that’s capable of being silly and light-hearted in one moment soberly dark the next without it feeling like a dissonant clash in tones. It’s a movie where not all of the digital effects look top notch, but that’s sort of part of its child-like charm. It is also, much in the spirit of such 80s classics as E.T. and The Goonies, a movie that lends much weight to childish personalities and experiences. Freddy in particular, a kid whose disability has rendered him to as much of an outcast as Billy, is a character whose voice counts for a lot as he assumes the role of both friend and (seriously unqualified) mentor. The rapport they share is one of the many pleasures of this thoroughly enjoyable movie.

★★★★

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Captain Marvel

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Jude Law

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet


While the monumental success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a record feat of production is not to be doubted, the quality of the individual films have tended to vary between pretty great and barely passable. Lately, for give or take a couple of years now, they’ve been on quite a hot streak with the emotional resonance of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, the visual inventiveness of Thor: Ragnarok, the political boldness of Black Panther and the shattering scale of Avengers: Infinity War. Having maintained such a solid and consistent batting average as they have, something was bound to give sooner or later. Captain Marvel is by no means a terrible movie nor is it the worst in the MCU canon (hello The Incredible Hulk); it did however leave me feeling underwhelmed in a way that the MCU hasn’t really done in a while. More’s the pity since this is the first of their score of films to feature a female protagonist and to be (co)directed by a woman. Its creation is overdue and its ardent celebration of girl power is to be lauded; I just wish it had been in service of a more compelling story with a more well-defined protagonist and told in more engaging way.

To its credit, the film does try to shake things up on the outset by giving us a superhero origin story in reverse. Instead of showing us an ordinary person who later becomes somebody extraordinary, this is instead the story of one who is already extraordinary and later learns that she used to be ordinary. This is Vers (Brie Larson) who, when we first meet her, is completely unaware that she was once Carol Danvers, a hotshot pilot for the U.S. Air Force. By this point Vers is living on the planet Hala, the homeworld of the Kree (whom MCU fans might remember as the baddies in Guardians of the Galaxy). She possesses ambiguous super powers over which she has little control but which nonetheless prove useful in her capacity as a member of an elite squadron called Starforce. They are led by Yonn-Rogg (Jude Law), a great warrior who has taken it upon himself to train Carol and presses on her at every opportunity that her emotions are her greatest weakness. She is haunted by nightmares depicting memories of a past she does not recognise and not even the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening), an artificial intelligence whose appearance varies depending on the viewer, is unable to provide the answers she seeks. Vers eventually winds up on Earth and there finds that the answers to her past might have something to do with the Skrulls, the sworn enemies of the Kree.

Her arrival causes quite a stir in 1995 Los Angeles and is investigated by none other than a young SHIELD agent called Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, digitally de-aged to his Die Hard with a Vengeance self). Marvel has used this technology before on the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Michael Douglas and Kurt Russell, but never has it been employed at such length and executed so seamlessly. So much so that when Clark Gregg shows up as an unconvincingly younger Agent Coulson, you’ll think that the film’s entire de-aging budget went to Jackson alone. His first meeting with Vers proves a riotous one as he winds up chasing her across the streets of L.A. while she pursues the Skrulls who followed her to this planet. Realising that their goals may be similar, Vers and Fury partner up and resolve to investigate the mystery of her forgotten past together, enjoying a playful and appealing rapport as Jackson delivers his most committed performance in the ten years he’s been playing this character. He is outmatched only by Ben Mendelsohn, playing a Skrull named Talos who spends half of the film posing as Fury’s boss Keller and the other half in his natural, green form, and Goose, the feline who deserves his very own Marvel franchise.

It’s a good thing the supporting cast is as strong as it is because they have to do a lot of heavy lifting for want of a more compelling main character. None of this is Larson’s fault as an actress though; in fact, when she’s able to get into the action and deliver a few quips, she ticks all the right boxes. She can shoot energy blasts from her hands, meaning that not every action scene amounts to a simple punch-em-up, she is rather reserved in a way that the more loudmouthed Marvel heroes tend not to be, and she has this enchantingly rebellious spark befitting a woman who has zero tolerance of mansplaining and cat-calling. The problem is more with the way the movie handles her story. Since Vers has no memory of who she was before she got her powers, the film gives her little to draw from in terms of personality and motivation. Even when she does finally remember her past, the film has given her so little of substance to attach herself to that it doesn’t feel like she has all that much at stake in this whole affair. She doesn’t have any kind of family or love interest, there isn’t any place that she calls home, and the only real connection she has to her life on Earth is her friendship with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). The film was so intent on maintaining the mystery for as long as it possibly could that it only occasionally made the time for Vers’ actual character.

The film was directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who are much more at home making character-driven indies, and, while it isn’t at all unusual for Marvel to hand some of their biggest titles over to formerly small-time directors such as the Russo Brothers and Taika Waititi, It hasn’t really paid off this time around. While their talents for character interaction do shine in the more down-to-Earth scenes (I mean that in the most literal sense possible), the pair seem much more lost in the spectacle of their cosmic sci-fi adventure. The action scenes are so often shot in dark, murky settings and are strung together so choppily that it’s difficult to so much as keep track of what’s happening on screen. Marvel tends to have a rather bland and generic visual style they like to impose on their films when they’re not entrusted to one of their more visually distinct filmmakers like Gunn, Coogler or Waititi and Captain Marvel is one that suffers from a severe lack of some sort of stylistic personality. The shots are routinely composed, the colour and lighting is pretty much nondescript and the action scenes don’t have any kind of punch or flair to them beyond what an anonymous second-unit team compiling a studio-mandated fight scene for a mid-90s blockbuster could have done.

Still, that this film isn’t one of Marvel’s better offerings doesn’t mean that is has nothing of value to offer. As well as the enjoyable interplay between characters and some pretty good gags, the movie is also determined to make a statement about the world today, especially as it relates to women, and there is satisfaction to be gained if only from the knowledge that a small and loathsome sub-culture on the Internet is fuming because of it. It certainly adds some amount of depth to Vers’ journey for identity and independence as she grows more defiant in her unwillingness to follow the orders given to her by domineering male authority figures that she considers to be morally wrong. There’s also a gratifying moment near the end where Vers puts one of the more obnoxious male characters in his place by refusing to do battle with him on his terms or prove herself according to his regressive standards. The film isn’t as triumphantly defiant as it aspires to be, nor is it a particularly good film in general, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that there some aspects I enjoyed a good deal. Ultimately, however, Captain Marvel is more table setting than it is a cinematic feast. Maybe further along down the road we’ll get a sequel that allows the character to come more into her own, but even that wouldn’t retroactively make her first outing any better.

★★★

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisby, Djimon Hounsou, Aiden Gillan, Jude Law, Eric Bana

Director: Guy Ritchie

Writers: Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram


There have been many unlikely combinations in art between subject and style that have worked splendidly despite expectations and preconceptions. A Second World War Western by the director of Pulp Fiction? Excellent! A hip-hop/rap musical about the US’s first Secretary of the Treasury? A masterpiece! An absurd yet melancholic TV show about a horse who used to be a sitcom star? Incredible! So when I saw that Guy Ritchie of all people was going to take on the King Arthur mythos, I was ready to give it a chance. His style is one that I’ve enjoyed in other movies before and he already made it work with another unlikely subject in Sherlock Holmes, so maybe there was something to this idea. In this case though, it doesn’t work. This version of the British legend is so stupid, so silly, and so dull that I’m inclined to take the version with the coconuts, the Trojan Rabbit and the Knights Who Say Ni more seriously.

Many years ago in a great battle where Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) defended the kingdom of Camelot against the warlock Mordred, his treacherous brother Vortigern (Jude Law) orchestrated a coup and used dark magic to slay the king and seize the throne for himself. Uther’s son survives the usurpation and drifts away on a boat that ends up in Londinium. The boy is found and raised by prostitutes and grows to become Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), a strong fighter and streetwise scoundrel. When a confrontation between Arthur and some Vikings goes badly, Arthur is taken by the king’s men and put on a ship to Camelot. There the Blacklegs have been forcing young men to try and pull out a sword stuck in a stone nearby. Arthur successfully removes the sword and is overwhelmed by its power. After he is subsequently taken prisoner and learns the truth of his heritage from Vortigern, a mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisby), an acolyte of Merlin (Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Film), rescues him from his planned execution with the aid of the Uther’s former knight Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou). The mage and her team then enlists Arthur to embrace his legacy and help them overthrow Vortigern.

This movie takes pretty much the opposite approach to the Clive Owen film, which sought to depict a demystified, historically authentic King Arthur. Ritichie is instead more interested in modernising the myth and having some fun with it. This Arthur is less of a medieval nobleman and more of a 21st century lad, roughing it up and talking in slang. His crew is made up of other rough, tough misfits such as Back Lack (Neil Maskell) and Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and they are a multicultural bunch, complete with their own martial arts master in Kung Fu George (Tom Wu). They crack wise, get into fights, and plan their ruses the way the characters in Snatch would plan their heists. This is all fine in theory and Guy Ritchie is the kind of stylistically over-the-top director mad enough to pull it off. In theory, a contemporary King Arthur film with cockney banter, acrobatic, slow-motion sword fights and an array of enormous CGI creatures should’ve at least been good fun. The film however is anything but, and that is because it Ritchie exhibits absolutely zero restraint and moderation on his style.

It is one thing for a director to have a distinctive storytelling style that adds a fun, interesting twist to the narrative, it is another thing entirely when that style usurps the narrative. The movie is so overloaded with rapid edits, haphazard shifts in time and space, hectic ­mise-en-scène and blaring sounds that all the important things like story, dialogue and character get lost in the chaos. There are so many things happening all at once that nothing at all is happening. Nothing means anything in this film because nothing is allowed to sink in and be processed. Whether the film is being serious and trying to have an emotional impact, such as the moment when Arthur learns who he is and what happened to his father, or when the movie is being silly and cheeky and trying to have a laugh, such as when Arthur delivers one of those stories within a story that Ritchie likes so much recounting his encounter with the Vikings, it all rushes past like a blur. The film just doesn’t know when to stop and let a moment play out or when to let a crucial piece of information or plot development linger just long enough for the viewer to absorb it. It’s like Guy Ritchie made a 10-hour movie and then screened the whole thing in fast-forward.

It is entirely possible that the reason Ritchie went so overboard with his style is because the movie itself offered little else of substance or worth. The story is so determined to keep moving forward that it never actually gets anywhere. When Arthur lifts Excalibur from the stone and discovers that he is the heir to the throne, the objective from that point on is making Arthur the king. That’s fine except it feels more like an obligation for the plot than a progression, considering that we never really see Arthur displaying qualities of heroism or leadership. It doesn’t help that Hunnam plays him as a smirking rogue; I had a harder time rooting for him than I did for Jamie Campbell Bower’s rather bland take on the character in the otherwise solid Starz series from a few years back. Jude Law can be quite entertaining in his  scenery-chewing role as the villainous, slightly camp Vortigern but that’s about it. When a movie understands its story so little that it ends up detracting from one of its pivotal moments with an embarrassingly distracting celebrity cameo for the ages, you know you’re in trouble.

The Legend of Tarzan

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Christoph Waltz

Director: David Yates

Writers: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer


Before we had Batman, Superman or the Avengers, there was Tarzan. In this day and age where superheroes command the box office, it makes sense that Hollywood would want to revive and capitalise on one of the original superheroes. It is however rather telling that the figure they chose is a white man who rises as a hero and saviour for the people of Africa. Since race is one of the hottest topics in the world right now, a movie based on a story that reflects 19th century values of white supremacy seems at the very least ill advised. The film does acknowledge some of the dated aspects of this concept but is less than successful in its attempt to rise above them. The larger debate that needs to be held is one that I am not nearly qualified enough to engage in but, due to the prominent role these concerns play in the movie, it is an issue that needed to be acknowledged. Putting the politics and racial issues aside, The Legend of Tarzan is a sometimes exciting but otherwise drab movie.

The film is set in the late 19th century and opens in the Belgian Congo where Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a ruthless captain, has been sent by King Leopold II of Austria to search for diamonds. There he meets the tribal leader Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) and strikes a bargain with him. The bargain concerns Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) who currently lives in London as Lord Greystoke with his wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). Although the Tarzan myth is a popular one in England, it is one that Greystoke is determined to leave in the past. Therefore, when he receives an invitation from the Prime Minister and King Leopold to visit Boma and assess the progress of the Congo’s development, it is an offer he is inclined to refuse. His mind is changed by the American entrepreneur George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) after he shares his suspicion that the Belgians are engaged in an illegal slave trade. Greystoke thus returns to his home with Jane and Williams to investigate these claims and there finds that he must become Tarzan once again to save the Congolese people.

The reason I’m more inclined to view and judge this movie through a political and racial lens rather than, say, Disney’s Tarzan is because this film brings it upon itself. The story tackles such historically provocative subjects as African colonisation and slavery and presents a revisionist version of events that allows the Brits and Americans to come across as the goodies. One way it does this is through the inclusion of George Washington Williams, a real life veteran of the civil war and writer of African-American history. The film hopes that it can escape the racist and imperialistic connotations of the Tarzan mythos by having a black character around to assure the audience that everything happening on screen is just fine and to remind us that the Belgians are the real baddies. Maybe the movie’s heart was in the right place but it just doesn’t work. When the film features such images as the jubilantly white Tarzan and Jane being hailed and celebrated by the black natives, it’s difficult to resist the urge to groan or to roll your eyes.

A 21st century movie based on Tarzan was always going to be problematic and working around the undertones of the original story was never going to be easy. The Legend of Tarzan however falls flat just as a movie in general. There are some good elements like the flashbacks revealing Tarzan’s origin which work well in their lucidity and restraint. Tarzan himself however is about as bland as a protagonist can get. The physique Skarsgård achieved for the role is certainly impressive but it shouldn’t have been the most interesting thing about him. Waltz meanwhile is called upon once again to portray yet another watered-down version of Hans Landa. Robbie does well as the spirited and capable Jane, which is a change from the damsel in distress she is usually portrayed as if a little bit idealistic for a movie set in the 19th century. The movie could’ve used a lot more of the life that she gave to her role.

The fatal weakness of The Legend of Tarzan is that it is dull, dull, dull. While the action is well executed, it isn’t until the final third that we get to see any of it. The visuals are flat and uninspired, which comes as a great disappointment after the example set by The Jungle Book. The story is tedious and typical of Hollywood in its obvious and simplistic way. If the movie had been more exciting and fulfilling to watch, perhaps its backwards and misguided subtext might have been a little more tolerable. Even then, Disney proved that it is possible to take the story of Tarzan and turn it into a fun, exciting and innocent adventure. The Legend of Tarzan in contrast is a misguided movie with a white saviour story that it is constantly trying to excuse to the point that it gets uncomfortable to watch. When people say that Hollywood is out of touch, this is the kind of thing they’re talking about.

★★