4K Review: Shazam! Remains a Tasty Big Red Cheese

It’s vaguely ironic that the most Marvel-like DC movie to date is based on a character traditionally known as Captain Marvel. Shazam!, out now on VOD and arriving on 4K and Blu-ray this week, crucially remembers that superhero stories can simultaneously serve as allegories for real-world problems (in this case, adopted kids adjusting) and still show super powers being fun and good. On repeat viewing, it’s really remarkable how much this movie gets right. It’s scary, funny, entertaining, and delivers characters we care about. All while staying within established parameters of the grimdark DC Universe.

In the wrong hands, a wizard granting a kid the power of a magic word to become an older superhero could easily have come across as really stupid. But as with so many DC movie directorial picks, it seems as though getting a horror director (David F Sandberg, in this case) made for the right choice. In both genres, people have to believe in non-scientific elements, suspending disbelief when they get a story that can sustain it. And at least in Shazam!, there are seven monsters who indulge the impulse to frighten.

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The element I’m most grateful they retain is the essential one: every time Billy Batson says “Shazam!” he transforms into the superhero. (A superhero who goes unnamed; they can’t call him Captain Marvel, and he can’t say “Shazam!” without becoming Billy again.) Typically in a superhero movie, I’d expect there to be a catch: he can only say it in front of certain people, or it only works when he believes in himself. But no — it always works, every time. And comes in handy once Billy realizes how to use sudden size-shifting in a fight.

Like almost everyone his age, Sandberg is clearly enamored with ’80s Amblin movies, but that’s mercifully not his only influence. At times, Shazam feels like the perfect mash-up of Young Sherlock Holmes and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Zachary Levi makes a charming man-child in spandex, while Mark Strong makes the most of his second chance at DC villainy as a sympathetic yet scary Sivana. Best of all, when a final scene suggests possible future team ups, you might just find yourself actually wanting to see the Justice League onscreen again. As long as this guy’s part of it.

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Watching the movie for the second time at home, I noticed it seemed more blown out visually than I remembered. The high dynamic range of 4K still kept every detail visible, but many of the daylight exteriors look over-exposed. Jack Dylan Grazer’s Freddy routinely looks as white as Casper the friendly ghost, and I’m not sure that’s intentional. Unless the idea is to give audiences the real full effect of snow reflectiveness, maybe.

Or perhaps it’s an unintended side effect of making all the darker night battles and interiors perfectly comprehensible. It’s not a movie-killing effect, but one does wonder about the choice.

(It’s also possible my local movie house has dim projection. That happens.)

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As usual, DC doesn’t do director commentaries, which is still disappointing. But Sandberg does introduce deleted scenes and explain their trimming. These include an entire alternate intro for young Sivana, as well as a wholly different revenge on his father, who was recast. A few scenes at the end were trimmed, due to Sandberg’s feeling that audiences want things to wrap up once the battle is won. (One such scene offers an extra hint of Black Adam.) In what serves as an official mini-sequel, we get the motion comic “Superhero Hooky,” which reveals the Shazam family’s first attempt at collectively fighting crime when they’re all supposed to be in school.

Behind-the-scenes featurettes are thorough, with lots of fun tidbits. For toy collectors, it’s especially amusing to see that the actors “flew” using devices called tuning forks that basically work like dynamic figure stands. The Rocky tribute scene was originally filmed on a street corner, until producers loved it so much they insisted on reshoots in Philadelphia. Then, however, it was so overcast that the Philadelphia skyline had to be digitally re-added in post-production.

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And yes, there is a particularly spot-on Gomer Pyle reference, as impersonated by Levi himself.

Maybe once DC starts getting as far as sequels that most people like, they’ll get less jittery about allowing directors to talk over their movies. Until then, there’s enough bonus Levi and Sandberg here to fill in most of the trivia gaps. A must-have for DC fans…and any grown kid who ever dreamed of super powers.