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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Shazam!

“Breakthrough” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.

I have to admit that I have a hard time placing “Shazam!” It’s in the DC Universe, which is made clear by all of the Batman and Superman references, but not of the DC Universe. Does this mean that it’s part of the DC Extended Universe, like “Suicide Squad”? Perhaps, but the one thing that throws me for a loop is the fact that it takes place in Philadelphia. Don’t get me wrong, I like seeing Philly get some love outside of the “Rocky” movies, but when other cities in the DC Universe are named things like Gotham, Metropolis, and Midway City, I can’t help but notice when an actual city name is used. That’s more of a Marvel thing.

But perhaps I’m overthinking this detail for a movie about how fourteen-year-old orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) was granted superpowers from a Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) and transforms into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) by saying “Shazam!” One of the strengths of the movie is how it goes against the grain of the more serious superhero movies from DC. It’s irreverent, witty, and fun—but not in a disrespectful way. Well, kind of, if you stay until the very end after the credits for the “Aquaman” joke, but I have a good feeling that our muscle bound underwater superhero can take it.

The movie also rings true and is down to Earth enough to be relatable. Think about the things you’d expect a fourteen-year-old boy to do when magically turned into an adult and granted things like super strength and imperviousness to bullets. That’s pretty much what Billy and his friend Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) do. Freddy is an expert on superheroes and Billy needs him to guide him through how to be one. Freddy is also there to document Billy’s abilities when he’s in the form of Shazam. Interesting note that the movie never officially settles on the name “Shazam” for him and there’s a running joke about giving Billy a cool superhero name. My favorite was Thunder Crack.

Another strength of “Shazam!” is the villain. Mark Strong is perfectly cast as the menacing Dr. Sivana. When at one point early in the movie Sivana says that he’s “not pure of heart,” it’s an understatement. The man willingly gets possessed by the demonic forces of evil creatures that represent the seven deadly sins and one of his first acts after gaining power is to go on a vengeful murder spree. The creature design on the sins is grotesque, like that of extra-evil gargoyles with piercing red eyes. They communicate telepathically with Sivana, which is more unnerving because you realize they are all inside his head. Though for the one creature with the long tongue perpetually sticking out of its mouth, I doubt it could speak if needed anyway.

Story structure-wise, “Shazam” takes a different approach when it comes to character building. Most superhero origin stories focus on the hero and the villain comes later. It’s usually not until sequels, after the hero has been established, that the villain’s origin story is told first. Part of the irreverence of “Shazam!” is in breaking with that mold. In this origin movie, the villain gains powers first, and then we see Billy come into his powers. This works well, since we get to spend more time with the villain and establish him as a menace and as a character without the feeling of rushing through the proceedings to get to the action. There is plenty of action, but it is built up to at just the right pace.

Less irreverent is the usual trope of the hero and the villain being light and dark mirror images of each other. Billy is an orphan who finds a family in a foster home. Sivana has a brother and father whom he despises. Billy is a champion of the light. Sivana is a champion of the dark. It’s obvious, but it works and doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the movie.

With all of the ups and downs of the DC movies over the past few years, “Shazam!” is a breath of fresh air—albeit snarky fresh air. It’s a treat to see the DC Universe outside of the lens of the usual line up of DC heroes. This movie builds a solid foundation for an extended universe franchise of its own. Buy it.

More New Releases: “Breakthrough,” about a faithful mother who prays for her fourteen-year-old son to come back from the brink of death and be healed after a drowning accident, starring Chrissy Metz, Josh Lucas, Topher Grace, and Dennis Haysbert; and “The Psychic,” one of notoriously inconsistent director Lucio Fulci’s best movies, this stylish masterpiece from 1977 about a clairvoyant woman who unravels the mystery behind a skeleton in a wall is a must-see, whereas Fulci’s “Murder Rock,” from 1984 is more of a mid-tier movie about murder at a dance academy and is only worth watching by those with a fondness for skimpy ‘80s dance outfits and hard-bodied young women.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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