Shazam! Review

Shazam! is a pleasant surprise. While the DC Extended Universe has been a bit of a mess – trying to play catch up with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe too quickly and filled with movies who think forced brooding and edginess equate to maturity – Shazam! takes a step back, looks at the current state of the super hero genre, and happily takes it back to its more innocent early years. In a time when even Marvel’s films are becoming more and more serious (though they have actually earned their more mature tone after years of growing, and still understand that being ‘serious’ doesn’t have to come at the expense of fun), it’s fun to see a movie like Shazam! embrace the sillier side of comic book super heroes.

Formerly known as Captain Marvel (yeah, it’s a little confusing, so let’s not go down that rabbit hole right now), Shazam is actually one of the oldest comic book super heroes. And yet, he’s remained relatively obscure, never reaching the mainstream heights of Superman, Batman or Marvel’s Spider-Man. Hopefully this movie can change that, and do to Shazam! what 2008’s Iron Man did for its titular super hero, and turn its subject into a mainstream attraction.

It’s a wonder why Shazam has remained in Superman’s shadow. The origin story of this hero is at once simple and earnest, and something of a parody of super hero conventions (which it did long before parodying super hero conventions was a thing). Most super heroes are born with their powers (like Superman or the X-Men), gain them through freak accidents (the Incredible Hulk) or make them through their own skillsets (like Batman and Iron Man), and have duel identities of hero and civilian. Shazam, meanwhile, is a kid who transforms into an adult superhero by the magic gifted to him by a wizard.

It’s a beautifully simplistic origin story, really. And I kind of wish more comic book authors would have looked to it for inspiration over many of the more convoluted super hero origins that became the norm.

The kid in question is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an orphan who has bounced around from one foster home to the next, often running away on his own volition. Billy eventually finds himself in another foster home, where he becomes foster brothers with Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled super hero fan who quickly becomes Billy’s best friend, despite their differing personalities.

Meanwhile, in another dimension, an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) has been keeping seven demons (named after the Seven Deadly Sins) imprisoned with his power for centuries. But Shazam’s body is succumbing to age, and his seal on the demons is withering along with his body. Shazam has thus been seeking an heir to inherit his immense magical power, both to keep the demons sealed away, and to protect the mortal world from any other supernatural threats. After his fellow wizards put their faith on a successor that went rogue long ago, Shazam sought to find the perfect heir.

Shazam’s spells had found him many candidates through the years, but all of them failed his tests of character in one way or another. So he continued his duty despite his weakening seal on the demons. One of these failed heirs, however, became obsessed with discovering the way back to Shazam’s dimension. Naturally, this individual became an evil genius, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). After Sivana discovers a portal to Shazam’s realm some decades later, he takes revenge on the wizard by taking the power of the demons, which he plans on unleashing on the Earth for his own nefarious gains.

With no more time to lose in his misguided quest for a ‘perfect’ candidate, Shazam changes course to find the best possible candidate in the time he has left. And when Billy displays his strength of character by standing up to some bullies who were harassing Freddy, he is summoned to Shazam’s chambers to inherit the wizards unfathomable power, which he can call upon at any time by saying the sorcerer’s name.

In place of merely possessing the wizard’s abilities, Billy is transformed into an adult super hero (Zachary Levi) whenever he utters Shazam’s name (and reverts back to his normal self whenever he says it in his hero form). Not knowing what to do with his newfound power, Billy seeks the aide of Freddie’s extensive knowledge of super heroes to discover the true extent of his abilities.

The premise itself is just so much fun. I make no secret my disdain for Superman, a character who can essentially outdo every other DC hero at their own game, and does so with a holier-than-thou disposition. But here we have a hero who is just as powerful as Superman (more so in some continuities), but has the carefree, irresponsible and sarcastic attitude of a kid. While Superman often seems to look down on “lesser” beings, Shazam is likely to be as surprised and amazed by his own powers as everyone around him. Superman is so often treated as a perfect beacon of heroism, but is actually kind of arrogant and condescending. Shazam, on the other hand, is recognized as having flaws despite his power, and has to learn and grow because of his faults, making him a far more compelling character.

Yeah, I’m going on about the contrasts between Shazam and ol’ Supes. But I find that Shazam as a character is essentially a better and more lighthearted version of the Man of Steel. I’m happy that this movie might make more people recognize the character of Shazam after being left out of the mainstream for so long.

And yes, the film Shazam! fully embraces the silly nature of the character. This is one of the funniest super hero films in recent memory. While the majority of the DCEU has been bogged down by its “edgelord” mentality, and the MCU has grown more serious as it reaches its crescendo, Shazam! is a delightful break from brooding that tells a good story, and has a whole lot of fun with it.

That’s not to say the film lacks seriousness. On the contrary, the character development feels organic, and the emotional moments feel rightly earned. Shazam! is a super hero film that understands you can laugh at the material without making itself a joke. The acting is similarly well done, with Angel, Grazer and Levi all giving memorable performances that add to both the film’s story and its sense of humor.

Unfortunately, Shazam does make a few missteps with its pacing. A number of key story moments come off as rushed, while other, less important moments can linger at times. In one notable example, the first scene we meet the adult Dr. Sivana and learn of his quest to return to Shazam’s dimension…is also the the scene in which Dr. Sivana discovers his way back to Shazam’s dimension. The film’s opening scene (which depicts a young Sivana who fails Shazam’s test) gives us a good understanding of the character’s motivation, but it’s a shame that when we’re re-introduced to the character in his proper villainous state, we kind of get rushed through his ambitions.

Still, whatever pacing issues the film may have ultimately can’t detract from Shazam!’s entertainment value. Shazam! is a film that rewinds the clock back a bit, to a time when super hero films were a bit lighter and more breezy, but still treats its story with respect and dignity. Shazam! is a funny and surprisingly thoughtful movie that delivers on its poignant moments almost as often as it does its comedic ones (the relationship between Billy and Freddy is a refreshingly original dynamic for a super hero film). It’s certainly the best DCEU film so far, and one of 2019’s most charming movies.

And yes, I think Shazam would totally beat Superman in a fight.

 

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Justice League Review

*This review contains some spoilers, but nothing that wasn’t obvious already, really.*

You know what? I hate Superman. There, I said it.  I hate Superman, and watching Justice League reminded me exactly why I hate him. Despite being named after a team of super heroes, Justice League goes out of its way to display just how useless the rest of the team is compared to Superman alone. His super strength is stronger than Wonder Woman’s, his super speed is faster than Flash’s; plus he can fly, lift buildings, has heat vision, ice breath, and is basically indestructible. In one scene, he nonchalantly throws Batman to the side as if he’s garbage. I hate that Superman can just do anything. I hate that he makes infinitely better super heroes look like nothing by comparison. I simply, flat-out can not stand Superman.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the rest of Justice League.

Since its inception with Man of Steel in 2013, the DC Extended Universe has been a shallow attempt at recreating what Marvel has done with its Cinematic Universe. While the MCU wisely took its time in bringing its different super heroes together, the DCEU seemed to be in a desperate game of catch-up, rushing the crossover aspects together with its beyond-muddled second entry, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The DCEU has become so needy in its desires to replicate what Marvel has accomplished, that it seems to consistently forget to make coherent movies and strong characters to justify its extended universe.

But then, earlier in 2017, we had a glimmer of hope in the form of Wonder Woman. There was a movie that told a simple super hero origin story, but had a main character who was likable and fleshed out, not to mention it actually seemed to understand human emotion. Surely Wonder Woman signified a turn for the better for the DCEU? Surely these movies would learn from past mistakes and take notes from what made Wonder Woman work?

Nope. Here comes Justice League to undo all of that goodwill Wonder Woman established.

In all fairness, Justice League isn’t as much of a disaster as Batman V. Superman, nor is it as boring as Man of Steel. But it’s still a clunky, over-bloated movie that lacks focus and, even more disappointing, lacks any heart. It wants so desperately to be on the same boat as the MCU with its shared universe, but also makes the shared universe concept feel pointless with how insignificant everyone else feels compared to Superman. If one team member can take out all the others without breaking a sweat, why should we care that there’s a team at all?

Basically, the story here is that a being from another world named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) invades Earth looking for the three lost “Mother Boxes” which, when combined, can destroy a planet or something. And so with Superman dead after the events of Batman V. Superman, Batman tries to form the Justice League to defeat this otherworldly threat…before completely giving up on the idea and deciding to use a Mother Box to resurrect ol’ Supes because everyone is useless compared to him.

“Steppenwolf makes me miss the villains of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Yes, he’s THAT bad of a character.”

In all honesty, Steppenwolf is very likely the most boring, uninteresting villain in super hero movie history. I’m not exaggerating. Ciaran Hinds’ acting abilities are entirely lost on a character who is written without the tiniest shred of depth or motivation. So much as calling him a placeholder villain is giving him too much credit. I don’t even think he has a line of dialogue that isn’t about destruction or obtaining a Mother Box (which may as well just be called Macguffins). He’s an absolute non-entity. Perhaps worst of all, he’s a CG character who is entirely unconvincing. Every time he fights with the heroes, it looks like the Justice League is grappling with a PS3 monster.

Speaking of bad visual effects, Justice League is full of them. This is a movie aiming to be a big blockbuster, but one which appears the studios behind it didn’t have enough faith to put the extra funding into it.

The CG used to hide actor Henry Cavill’s mustache has already obtained internet infamy, and with good reason. It’s downright distracting. Apparently, Cavill has an obligation to another role that requires a mustache, so he couldn’t shave it. So the filmmakers just decided to CG the area in between his nose and upper lip, and it looks as weird as it sounds. Might I suggest a better option would have been to give Superman a mustache? Sure, Superman isn’t known for having facial hair, but with how often comic books – the origins of these characters – retell, retcon and flat-out ignore certain continuities, is adding a mustache to Superman really so out of the question? I mean, come on, you’re resurrecting the dude with a magic box, but a mustache? That’s just too far. Hell, if Superman had a Tom Sellick ‘stache going on I might actually like him (slightly) more. At the very least, it would be less distracting to see Henry Cavill’s actual mustache than to have a CG band-aid over it.

“Can somebody please get this bad CG off me?!”

The unholy trinity of bad visual effects in Justice League is capped off with Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a member of the Justice League whose mostly robotic body clashes obnoxiously with the human side of his face. It just looks really bad. I mentioned PS3 graphics earlier, but now I’m starting to feel like that was maybe a bit insulting to the PS3. I would much rather look at a ten-year old PS3 game than Steppenwolf’s ugly mug or Cyborg’s…visual awkwardness.

To be fair, not everything is outright horrible in Justice League. On the bright side of things, Gal Gadot returns as Wonder Woman, and is as charming as ever. Aquaman is portrayed by Jason Momoa, and actually seems to be into the character. Some of the action scenes are also decently successful in creating excitement, and unlike the oppressive “edginess and grit” of Man of Steel or Batman V. Superman, Justice League at least tries to lighten the mood at times. Sure, not all of the humor works – with the antics of the Flash (Ezra Miller) growing more exhausting as the film goes on – but I’ll take the attempt at fun over the forced brooding of Batman V. Superman any day.

Despite those few highlights, it’s hard to recommend Justice League. Even Ben Affleck’s take on Batman – one of the few positive qualities of Batman V. Superman – seems lackluster this time around, as though Affleck no longer cares following Batman V. Superman’s reception. The characters are one-dimensional, the plot is beyond thin, the pacing is cluttered and all over the place, it’s riddled with bad dialogue, and for a movie that needed to rely heavily on special effects, the effects in question are just really bad.

All that, and I haven’t even mentioned the seemingly pointless elements of the movie. A good example of this is the opening of the movie itself, which is presented as a video of Superman recorded by a couple of kids, asking the caped hero some questions after another rescue. The scene ends just as ol’ Supes is about to answer the question of “what is his favorite thing about Earth.” This scene doesn’t play into the main story, nor does it seem to have any thematic purpose. I honestly don’t know why it’s there.

At the very least, Justice League is the kind of bad movie I can get a kick out of talking about, which is more than I can say for Man of Steel or Batman V. Superman. But it’s also a blatant showcase of these DCEU movies not learning from past mistakes. And considering this is the follow-up to the delightful Wonder Woman, the results sting twice as much.

Maybe DC should just reboot this cinematic universe, but keep Wonder Woman canon and use it as the new starting point. Also, leave Superman out of it. Yeah, that’d be nice.

 

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Injustice: Gods Among Us Review

Injustice

DC crossovers are always a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, the comic book giant has created some of the world’s most iconic superheroes. On the other hand, many of their properties don’t mesh naturally with the others, whereas Marvel’s series feel more properly linked together. While the latter element of DC crossovers has lead to some disastrously muddled movies in recent times, the idea does fit a bit better into the world of video games. A great example of this is 2013’s Injustice: Gods Among Us, a fighting game built around the DC Universe from the creators of Mortal Kombat.

In short, Injustice: Gods Among Us is a really good fighter that uses the DC license to its benefit. It has a wide variety of DC heroes and villains – from the obvious picks like Superman, Batman and the Joker, to relatively obscure choices like Solomon Grundy and Deathstroke (unfortunately my favorite DC villain, The Scarecrow, doesn’t make the playable roster) – as well as some fun, original ideas for the fighting genre.

While it’s true that most of the game’s basics will be nothing new to those familiar with the genre – with the game following the tried-and-true format laid down by Street Fighter 2 – Injustice does have a few new tricks up its sleeve.

For starters, not only does each character play differently from the others, but many of them have gameplay-altering abilities (Flash, for example, can “speed up” so his opponents move in slow-motion until they land a hit, while Wonder Woman can switch from her fists and whip to a sword and shield). The stages also have interactive elements, which can be used to varying effects depending on the character (Superman might throw a car at his opponent, while the Joker would simply blow it up). Perhaps most notably, the character’s extravagant special moves can be countered in quicktime events, with players waging on a set amount of stored-up power, which can result in taking more damage or even healing a bit of health from blocking the move, depending on how much energy was wagered.

These aforementioned special moves are as ridiculous as those from Mortal Kombat, though appropriately less gruesome. Superman takes his opponent into the atmosphere before sending them crashing back down to Earth, The Flash runs around the world to deliver a single, devastating punch, while Aquaman sends a tidal wave crashing down on his enemies and follows it up with vicious sharks. They’re appropriately outlandish, and when combined with the character variety and level features, it makes Injustice a fighter that’s full of surprises.

Injustice also has a pretty strong sense of balance, as I haven’t really noticed any characters to have significant advantages or disadvantages with their play styles. Though I do have to admit certain moves are a little too easy to spam repeatedly (I myself have a little too much fun throwing laughing gas canisters as the Joker).

The multiplayer modes are what will keep players coming back to Injustice for more, with some additional modes providing some extra fun, but it should be noted that the game features a pretty impressive single player campaign as well. Unlike most fighting games, in which each character has their own campaign and fights a set number of characters with minimal plot, Injustice: Gods Among Us instead has a singular, cinematic story that spans twelve “chapters,” each one starring a different character.

The plot sees a number of Earth’s heroes, such as Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Aquaman, as well as the Joker, mysteriously teleported to another dimension. In this alternate world, Joker had managed to temporarily poison Superman’s mind, with the Man of Steel then destroying all of Metropolis and all who lived there during his manipulation, including his own family. Overrun with grief, Superman murdered the Joker and conquered the Earth, to ensure order under his newfound dictatorial delusions. Any heroes who oppose Superman’s new regime are killed, with the exception of Batman, who has created a resistance and brought the heroes from the more traditional timeline to help aide him in bringing down Superman’s rule.

InjusticeIt is a pretty fun story that introduces some good concepts, like an alternate Lex Luthor, who is a law abiding citizen working undercover with Batman to help end Superman’s regime, and even a few quicktime events before certain fights, to determine whether you start the match with an advantage or disadvantage. But the story isn’t without its flaws in both narrative and gameplay.

For starters, each chapter is composed of four fights. That may not sound like much of a problem, but after the first few chapters, it becomes incredibly formulaic, and just feels like a means to pad things out. You may even roll your eyes at how frequently the current character conveniently runs into exactly two opponents to be fought in succession in one segment of their story, and then conveniently bumps into two more soon after. You can’t help but feel that some chapters would have been better with either more or less to them, instead of following its four fights rule to such an obsessive-compulsive extent.

Another downside is that the story can get a little silly, despite presenting itself as dead serious. The number of times the plot rapidly jumps around just to be sure to include specific characters is a bit pandering, and much of the plot’s focus between the different dimensions comes off as fanfictiony gobbledygook. On the bright side, it’s never as muddled as Batman V. Superman, and it’s certainly a lot more fun, but the serious tone often clashes with the rather ridiculous goings-on within the story.

With all that said, Injustice: Gods Among Us is still one of the better fighting games released in recent years. It has a sense of variety and polish that, frankly, the Mortal Kombat games themselves don’t have. And as far as I’m concerned, any excuse to have Batman characters beat Superman to a pulp is a good one.

 

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