Seeing the Light and Dark in Shazam! and Lords of Chaos

Shazam!, indeed. Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

In Orange County theaters this week, you can see a semi-fictional movie about pioneering Norwegian black metal band Mayhem battling inner demons in Lords of Chaos and a totally fictional film about an American superhero battling his own lord of chaos in Shazam!

I recommend both, although if a shotgun or lightning bolt was pointed at me, I’d choose Shazam!, which is a surprise considering I am not a huge fan of the comic-book-superhero genre. While I appreciate the humor of Ant-Man, Iron Man and Thor: Ragnarok, I slept through parts of each. No such slumber occurred with Shazam!

In 1974 Upstate New York, a boy named Thaddeus Sivana is riding in the back of a car when he is magically transported to the Rock of Eternity by the wizard Shazam, who is the last of a council of seven searching for a new champion. Lining the walls of the lair are the spirits of the Seven Deadly Sins (Lust, Envy, Sloth, Pride, Greed, Wrath and Gluttony). Failing a test because he is not pure of heart, Thaddeus is sent back to the car (and immediate tragedy). But he returns as an adult (Mark Strong), and instead of seeking Shazam’s benevolent powers, Sivana willingly becomes a vessel for the Seven Deadly Sins to escape and wreak havoc on the world.

Meanwhile, in present-day Philadelphia, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a 14-year-old who constantly runs away from foster families to search for his mother, whom he was separated from in a crowd as a young boy. After stopping bullies attacking his paraplegic, new foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy jumps into a subway car but is magically transported to the Rock of Eternity by Shazam, who makes the teen his reluctant champion.

Whenever Billy says, “Shazam,” a bolt of lightning strikes him, and he becomes a totally buffed, grown-up, costumed superhero (Zachary Levi), who, with comic-book nerd Freddy by his side, harnesses his powers to save victims; stop criminals; and score junk food, money from ATMs and entry into a strip club.

In other words, every teen boy’s dream—until the nightmare comes with the inevitable encounters with Sivana, who wants to take possession of Billy’s powers. He wants nothing to do with the fight, until Sivana targets his foster family.

Credit for why this all works so well goes to director David F. Sandberg and the screenplay based on the story by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke and the DC Comics’ character created by writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck. (Fun fact: In the debut comic they produced in 1939, when the main character says, “Shazam,” a magic bolt of lightning turns him into Captain Marvel. But it’s not the Captain Marvel who Stan Lee and Gene Colan created for Marvel Comics in the 1960s and the Captain Marvel movie that is also now in theaters.)

Shazam! benefits from a strong cast, headed by Levi and Angel as Billy and veteran British actor Strong as the oh-so-evil Sivana. Once I got over Grazer’s resemblance to Fred Savage at that age, I was able to recognize his strong performance, too.

The comedy seamlessly mixes with stunning special effects and heartbreaking or heartwarming drama, with Sandberg and editor Michel Aller establishing a pace that never sees the movie drag. It’s just a big ol’ lightning bolt of fun.

 *     *     *     *     *

Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos is something completely different. Åkerlund and Dennis Magnusson’s screenplay is based on the 1998 book Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind. (Not-so-fun fact: Moynihan did not mind being called a fascist or neo-fascist in the 1990s, although more recently, the Boston-born journalist, publisher and musician has distanced himself from those labels and denounced the far-right.)

As with the book, the movie deals with Norway’s black metal scene in the early 1990s, which would extend beyond satanic lyrics and stage antics to include suicide, murders and church burnings. I recall how disturbing these events were from the news accounts at the time, but Åkerlund’s film actually makes it less sinister and more a case of the wrong people mixing at the wrong time in the wrong place.

The focus is Mayhem and the band’s charismatic leader and guitarist, Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth (Rory Culkin). He spews anti-religion ideas to legitimize the black metal brand he birthed in Oslo, but some followers take him seriously, as others did decades earlier with the “race war” talked up by Charles Manson, a future Moynihan interview subject.

Culkin, with his dead eyes obstructed by stringy black strands à la Ozzy Osbourne in the early Black Sabbath years, plays Euronymous with just the right combination of showman, huckster and, ultimately, frightened little hellboy. His undoing comes at the hands of protégé Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes, who surpasses his mentor as a musician but never seems to get over originally being called a poseur by the biggest poseur of them all.

Åkerlund presents a dreary Norway—is it ever not wet there?—with black metal’s de rigueur leather, roadkill, pig heads, KISS-worthy makeup, and buckets and buckets of blood. The tone is more clownishly comical than truly messed-up. Unfortunately for Euronymous, everyone did not get the joke.

Shazam! was directed by David F. Sandberg; written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke; and stars Zachary Levi, Asher Angel and Mark Strong. Now playing countywide.

Lords of Chaos was directed by Jonas Åkerlund; written by Åkerlund and Dennis Magnusson; and stars Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen and Jack Kilmer. Screening at the Frida Cinema, 305 E. Fourth St., Ste. 100, Santa Ana, (714) 285-9422; Fri., 9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10:30 p.m.

OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.

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