Both of these superhero flicks err on the side of fun.
I think it’s about time I said something about Marvel movies and DC movies. Not Marvel vs. DC. That battle’s over, for now. DC will never equal what Marvel has done over the last ten years – heck, no one will. They’ve created the most complex and consistently entertaining multi-movie story in cinematic history, and it’s not remotely close.
DC has realized this, finally. It took them a good while. Zack Snyder’s time at the helm was characterized by a good number of dark, boring, ponderous, dreary, depressing dumpster fires packaged as films. I don’t think I’m being too harsh. It’s very hard to mess up Batman fighting Superman and our friends at Warner Bros managed to do it.
But someone at Warner is thinking clearly, because Shazam! is a blast. (Maybe all the dunderheads were off making The Crimes of Grindelwald. Too soon?)
If you created a DC film that was the direct antithesis of the Snyder-era tone WB has adopted thus far, the result would be Shazam! (OK, stopping with the exclamation mark now; reminds me too much of Jeb!.) Long-time readers of this column will remember how disappointed I was by Aquaman, and we’ll circle back to that, but this movie has the happy heart that that film lacked. This time the comedy emerges not from a long-haired dudebro cracking wise, but (mostly) from the situation.
The film embraces its basic premise of “Big except Tom Hanks is a superhero.” It even pays homage to that piano scene. You know the one. What it gains from that commitment is confidence. The story has a clear through-line, things happen and are paid off later, characters behave like human beings – you know, all the things DC movies before this lacked. Unlike the title character, the movie never feels unsure of its power.
The script works best when it lets the story breathe, watching Billy Batson discover his newly-acquired powers and struggle with (yes, for the umpteenth time) the responsibility that comes with them. I swear, Spider-Man should just teach a seminar.
Zachary Levi captures the childlike wonder Billy-as-Shazam has upon discovering his abilities, and we marvel and laugh along with him as he does things with them that an average teen would do – try to fly, go viral, buy beer. Billy’s not some good-hearted hero early on. He’s just a kid gifted with incredible powers and given literally no guidance as to how to use them. He has a good heart, though, impossibly. And that ultimately wins out.
(SPOILERS NEXT PARAGRAPH)
There’s a truly devastating moment, Billy’s very lowest point in the movie, when he finally finds his mother whom he lost all those years ago. She tells him she saw him after they were separated in a crowd and simply abandoned. He was about five at the time. That’s about the worst thing a parent can do to a child. All her excuses came out hollow. I was beyond furious at her, and she was a fictional character. I hope others have the same reaction, though. It was such an effective scene.
That situation, and a number of others, show off how strong Billy is inwardly. By the end of the movie Billy’s grown and it’s clear why the old wizard Shazam (played acceptably by Djimon Hounsou) selected him to wield his power against dark forces.
The characters are all decently realized and don’t take much effort to construct. Billy’s adorable little sister is a near-perfect child actor; they’re rare and I hope she gets more work.
The drawback is the script, which contains several reeeeeeeeeeeeeally cheeseball lines and quite a few that don’t make sense. Overall, though, what a triumph, and credit to the writers for at least not relying too much on shoehorned jokes (like Aquaman) and letting the situation itself provide the humor.
This, not Aquaman, is the first good DC movie since Wonder Woman. It’s a heartwarming and hilarious romp centered on the importance of family. And to bring things full circle, its biggest strength is that it barely links up to any of the prior DC movies. Maybe Warner Bros should focus on small stakes and take this one film at a time for now.
Action movies revolve around the action. It’s there in the name. The story is driven by characters doing things. This makes action the most expansive movie genre, because it can be easily combined with others. Action-horror combines action-driven plots with scares; action-thrillers combine action-driven plots with increased dramatic tension – you get the picture.
Thor: Ragnarok is an action-comedy of the highest order, a refreshing break from the pure action or action-adventure we usually get from Marvel films, and a needed reboot of the Avengers’ second blandest member (sorry, all two of Hawkeye’s fans).
I’m not a fan of pure comedy movies, especially the modern type. Most have two key problems: they aren’t funny (or they’re just crass), and they lack a compelling plot. The rare exception, like The Lego Movie, makes me take interest. Action-comedy, though, is different.
An action-comedy works if the jokes are funny (which means the writing needs to be top notch), the plot’s sensical, the execution’s sufficiently spectacular, and the characters – the glue holding everything together – are interesting. Thor: Ragnarok gets nearly all of these points right.
First off, the writing is hilarious, and unexpectedly so. We’d been trained for years as Marvel fans to expect fun, near-straight-faced action films that didn’t take themselves seriously but didn’t devolve into absurd spoofery. Ragnarok toes the fine line between self-aware and self-mocking that’s almost impossible to walk. It’s a rare minute that passes without something bonkers being said or occurring. Normally a whiplash-level change in tone like this would bother me. This is the rare formula shift that doesn’t.
Thor needed something, anything to shift his character from the Shakespeare-toned muscle-bound cipher he’d become. The solution Ragnarok lands on is beautifully simple: make him The Funny One. Instead of serious-ing him up more due to his travails saving the world and walking in Midgard, let’s roll with the idea that it loosened him up – partially because he’s kind of an alien from another world who doesn’t get how things work, and partially because Chris Hemsworth has impeccable comedic timing.
Taika Waititi, the visionary director behind this project, deserves all the credit in the world for making this script work. Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost penned it. I don’t know who they are, really, but this feels like a Waititi work to the core. Marvel’s Kevin Feige also deserves credit for backing off and letting Waititi bring his unique comedic skill to bear.
The plot is straightforward and trope-filled. I won’t lie, at points it drags. But then the writing and acting saves it from becoming blah. And yes, the action scenes are on point, well-realized, and entertaining. I especially liked the new ways Thor found to use his hammer in his opening throwdown with Surtur’s minions, and after his subsequent and sizable power-up, watching him wreak havoc on Hela’s folks was likewise satisfying.
As I said, the characters in a solid action-comedy are the film’s binding agent. Here’s where Ragnarok hits some bumps – none fatal, though. Thor doesn’t really grow or change, except in his power set, throughout the film. But since he starts out the film with such a different personality, it’s more an opportunity for the audience to get to know him again – an origin story of sorts. Loki’s evolution from manipulative cad to manipulative cad who occasionally does good things is welcome. Tom Hiddleston is charisma personified, and he perfectly embodies Loki’s insecurity manifesting as swagger.
Cate Blanchett is fine as Hela. Maybe it’s that I don’t think of her as a particularly effective actress, but although I felt she was a real threat and her line readings were all on point, her writing was kind of weak. Not her fault, though: the script just creates a sister for Thor and Loki that wasn’t ever hinted at in prior movies, so we’re blindsided. Mark Ruffalo is really trying, but I wasn’t impressed with his Bruce Banner. His Hulk is an absolute riot. Tessa Thompson is also doing well, but she didn’t grab me. She’s notable, but not neat.
Finally, the best part of the film: Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster. He plays it like every weird Jeff Goldblum meme coalesced into one character and somehow ran an entire planet. Madcap, odd, perfectly creeptastic.
I can’t fit everything I like about this movie into a review. Some weak characterization and occasional pacing stutters hamper it overall, but it mostly succeeds.