Orange Wednesday: Shazam! (2019) and Aquaman (2018)

Jack Dylan Grazer and Zachary Levi in Shazam!
Jack Dylan Grazer and Zachary Levi in Shazam!

It’s a bit of a superheroey week this week for Orange Wednesday, thanks mainly to release schedules rather than my superhero fanboyness. Although that’s a factor.

Up for review this week are two DC Extended Universe movies:

  • Aquaman (2018): Jason Momoa is half-human, half-Atlantean and all man, but must choose whether to live a quiet life or become King of Atlantis. Amber Heard helps him choose.
  • Shazam! (2019): Teenage foster kid gets given a magic word that turns him into the World’s Mightiest Mortal – Chuck‘s Zachary Levi in a padded suit. What will he do with his new powers?

Both of those after the jump!

Mark Strong and Zachary Levi in Shazam!

Shazam! (2019)

Adaptation of the DC comic that sees foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel) taken in by yet another new family. When he comes to the rescue of his new foster-brother (Jack Dylan Grazer), his good heart alerts the dying wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) to his presence. Shazam needs a new champion to take on his duty to protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins, so passes his powers to Batson, who only has to say the wizard’s name to transform into the Superman-powerful Zachary Levi (Chuck, Thor 2: Dark World).

Unfortunately, the evil Dr Sivana (Deep State‘s Mark Strong) has already freed the Seven Deadly Sins from their prison and is about to unleash them on the world. All he has to do first is kill the wizard’s new champion…

Shazam and his foster family

Family fun

Shazam! is not only the funniest of the DC Extended Universe movies, it’s also the most family-friendly and lowest budgeted. Indeed, while it is a superhero movie – albeit one that revolves around magic rather than science-fiction for a change – and an origin story at that, for the most part, it’s an amusing look at what would happen if a 14-year-old boy suddenly got the powers of a god. Would he immediately go around saving lives? Or would he use them to get cash, beer and get his revenge on the school bullies?

There’s also a lot more heart and soul in the piece than most superhero movies. The evolution of Billy’s relationship with his foster family, particularly Grazer, is often times moving and is a lovely rejoinder to every TV show and movie that demonised the care system and prioritised “blood family” over foster families.

Given that Shazam! is a little known hero (Shazam/Isis Hour back in the 1970s being the last time the comic ever penetrated the general population’s consciousness), the film gets to play with Shazam! villains, lore and secrets as though they were brand new.

That means there’s one big reveal towards the end (the introduction of (spoiler alert) the Shazam! family ) that comes as a big surprise for practically everyone in the cinema, complete with some moderately stellar casting. As I pointed out just after the nu52 came out, DC’s reboot of its comic book universe was mainly geared to creating viable film properties (cf Wonder Woman‘s titular heroine being the daughter of Zeus), and here we get a full-on nu52 version of that Shazam! feature.

There’s also a delightful mid-credits scene that introduces another, utterly bonkers Shazam! villain and there’s a reference in passing midway through the movie to Black Adam, who will be played by The Rock at some point, probably in a separate movie.

However, the family focus and the lower budget, that means that Shazam! never really demonstrates why Shazam! is the World’s Mightiest Mortal. There are fights, but nothing on the scale of Man of Steel or Wonder Woman, say. “Scenes of mild peril” is really the operative phrase. Fine for kids, of course, but it might leave adults feeling a little wanting.

Shazam! is very enjoyable and in many ways is a delight. It needed a bit more oomph to really triumph, but it’s got a great cast – particularly Levi, although Strong is as menacing as always and Smallville‘s John Glover gets to be yet another supervillain’s disapproving dad. It’s also nice to have a superhero movie that people of all ages can watch.

Jason Momoa in Aquaman

Aquaman (2018)

DC’s most mercilessly mocked superhero finally gets his own movie, one that’s almost as funny as Shazam!, but which is less geared up for kids. It sees Jason Momoa (Stargate: Atlantis, Game of Thrones) reprising his Justice League role to play the titular fish-converser. The son of the underwater city of Atlantis’ queen (Nicole Kidman) and an ordinary human lighthouse keeper (Once Were Warriors‘s Temuera Morrison), he has to go to Atlantis to stop his half-brother (Patrick Wilson) from uniting all the undersea kingdoms and waging war on the surface world.

To do that, though, he’ll need to collect a very special artefact, and with the help of Atlantean princess Amber Heard, he goes on a quest. Unfortunately, another new enemy is also chasing them…

Jason Momoa and Amber Heard in Aquaman
Jason Momoa and Amber Heard in Aquaman

A pretty mess

As a movie, Aquaman is all over the place. However, that doesn’t stop it being both a visual delight and a whole lot of fun. The movie jumps from genre to genre almost as quickly as it goes from kingdom to kingdom, going from straight vigilante movie to full-on comedy to fight movie to National Treasure-like global treasure hunt to The Bourne Supremacy-style chase movie to war movie.

Director James Wan (Saw) gives each of these scenarios a different, usually stunning, primary-coloured look and manages to inject real pep into the action scenes, with a race across the rooftops of Sicily, for example, offering surprisingly different ways to show a two-pronged chase scene.

This is a star-making movie for Momoa, whose frequent toplessness combined with an easy “bro”, blue-collar sensibility finally make cool a character that even Shazam! felt it could mock. However, surprisingly, the movie makes Heard’s character an equal partner in both the action and comedy, giving her almost as many good lines and “woah!” moments, while taking advantage of her “fish out of water” nature in the surface world.

The movie’s also surprisingly clever and willing to mess with clichés. “We’ve got bogies on our six!” Momoa tells Heard. “I don’t what that means!” “It means we’ve got bad guys behind us.” “Then why didn’t you say that?” is her marvellously tetchy rejoinder.

There’s more like that, too. But more importantly, it’s a movie that argues against war and revenge, as well as those who would want power for themselves.

Also in the cast are Dolph Lundgren as Heard’s dad, Willem Dafoe playing a good guy for once as Momoa’s Atlantean mentor and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta – a role that thankfully doesn’t remove its racial importance. Again, as with Shazam!, Aquaman is such a little known property, everything’s fresh for the audience, so Manta, Oceanmaster et al all feel original.

Aquaman isn’t going to win any awards, particularly for the ‘de-ageing technology’ used on Kidman and Morrison that renders the latter more Hispanic than Maori. But it’s a jolly romp that knows it has a silly character but a great leading man and a chance to do something different from the standard surface-dweller superhero movie.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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