No confirmation on how exactly this will be released to streaming, but at almost 4 hours length, with heaps of new footage, and a darker tone in line with DC's MO, this version will hopefully live up to the deafening hype.
The DC Extended Universe is still a bit of an uneven mess compared to the more consistent, albeit safer films of Marvel Studios. That’s not to say DC doesn’t have a few runs on the board. Hell, with the spectacular successes of Wonder Woman (2017), Aquaman (2018), Shazam! (2019) and the non-canon-but-insanely-lucrative Joker (2019), DC has made a serious impact and cemented their position as a comic book flick contender. Still, the memory of stinkers like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Suicide Squad (2016) linger, despite the latter featuring a standout performance by Margot Robbie as one Harley Quinn. So, what’s a studio to do when you’ve got a fabulous star in an otherwise dodgy property? It’s soft reboot time, baby!
Birds of Prey basically chucks away (almost) everything from Suicide Squad (including, thankfully, Jared Leto’s execrable turn as Joker) and gives Harleen Quinzeel a mostly clean slate. She’s finally ditched the clown prince of crime and finds herself embroiled in a convoluted caper that swiftly becomes a fight for her life. Complicating matters is camp-as-several-rows-of-tents crime boss, Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) and the timely introductions of several arse-kicking ladies like Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and alcoholic cop, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).
The first thing you need to know about Birds of Prey is that it’s very silly. The second item is: it’s also a lot of fun. Margot Robbie continues to embody the role in an iconic fashion, as at-home in Harley’s skin as Ryan Reynolds is in Deadpool’s scarlet strides. Further to that, you’ve got a supporting cast that includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead not being wasted for once and a welcome return to the screen for Rosie Perez in a decent-sized role (and playing underrated GCPD character Montoya to boot). Ewan McGregor’s also having a lot of fun, although his role feels like it has been altered in the third act, perhaps due to studio tampering or just plain old wonky writing.
Cathy’s Yan’s direction is crisp and propulsive, with some excellent action scenes. And perhaps most gratifyingly, the third act doesn’t involve our unlikely heroes battling a bunch of CGI blobs descending from a portal in the sky. That’s not to say this is a perfect film. The fact that it’s even called Birds of Prey is borderline baffling, because the ultimate story it tells is only tangentially related to that property. This is basically Harley Quinn’s adventure with some entertaining guest stars, and a bunch of colourful, affable nitwittery designed to appeal to an audience in the mood for a good time or just lightly drunk. If you find yourself in such a state, and you’ve got 109 minutes spare, then Birds of Prey offers a slight but enjoyable flight of fancy.
After dropping the ball on their two biggest superheroes, Batman and Superman, the DC Extended Universe looked like it was headed for trouble. Justice League was a mess, albeit a sporadically entertaining one, and while Wonder Woman was a cut above, one solid film isn’t enough to challenge Marvel’s box office domination. But then something strange happened, Aquaman was released and revealed itself to be a big, colourful fun movie that utterly demolished the box office. Aquaman! The butt of comic book jokes since time immemorial is now the biggest superhero in the DC pantheon. With that unlikely fact solidly in place, it’s not such a crazy idea that Shazam! could be next. But the question has to be asked: is it any good?
Shazam! tells the story of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a young tearaway who has basically made it his life’s mission to be a pain in the arse of the various foster families he lives with as he searches for his biological mother, who he was traumatically separated from years earlier at a carnival. Life takes a sudden, unexpected turn when an ancient wizard grants Billy the ability to turn into Shazam (Zachary Levi), a rather dishy-looking adult who can fly, is super strong and most importantly has the power of being able to buy beer without an ID!
The concept of an adolescent boy with super powers is both a bit terrifying and absolutely hilarious, and Shazam! does a wonderful job of milking it for every single chuckle. The scenes where Billy and bestie, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) test out Shazam’s superpowers for Youtube views are easily the best moments in the film, showcasing a wry, knowing wit and genuine belly laughs. Slightly less successful is the villain’s plotline, involving Thaddeus Silvana (Mark Strong) who previously failed to be worthy of the Shazam mantle and is now taking revenge against the world, using the powers of seven demons who are living personifications of the seven deadly sins. Mark Strong is solid, as always, but the plotline gives him little to do other than glower menacingly near the overly digital demons, who look a little like tech demos effusively excited by their very expensive particle effect technology.
Still, Marvel villains are usually a bit pants as well, and that shortcoming doesn’t negatively impact the surprisingly nuanced take on family that is the film’s ultimate message. Shazam! is over-the-top, extremely silly and more than a little juvenile and yet by leaning into the arrested development that so often underscores films in this genre, it actually manages to say something sweet and earnest. Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer do a wonderful job portraying good-hearted, albeit annoying, teenage boys and Zachary Levi absolutely sells being a goofy boy in a big man’s body.
Shazam! won’t change the mind of anybody suffering from superhero fatigue, but for the rest of us it’s an engaging, heartfelt ode to the slightly jerky teenager inside us all and our often untapped potential to do the right thing.