Many critics, myself included, feel that DC and Warner Bros. made a mistake in hiring Zack Snyder to create their shared cinematic universe. His deconstruction of superheroes, dark and somber color palette and cruel universe removed the fun and escapism that many comic book movies provide. With the critical failure of Batman v Superman and Justice League, it has been hard to be a DC fan. When fans expressed concerns that his films were too dark and serious, he famously replied “It’s a cool point of view to be like, ‘My heroes are still innocent. My heroes didn’t f***ing lie to America.’ … But you’re living in a f***ing dream world.” The studio has started to correct course though. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman brought hope and optimism back to superhero movies. Then they had a vibrant and fun adventure with James Wan’s Aquaman. And this week, Shazam! brings heart and a ton of humor to the table.
Superhero films at their core, are stories about wish fulfillment, and this is literally the case in Shazam! The film is centered around14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster kid who is granted the ability to transform into a super-powered adult (Zachary Levi) by saying the word “Shazam.” The scenes where Billy and his foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) set out to discover the powers and limitations of Billy’s new alter ego had me laughing harder than I have in a while. There is an innocence and joyousness that was severely lacking in previous DC movies that is very welcome here. It’s also very refreshing to see a film that has a teenager as the main character, as opposed to a world-weary veteran who is late in their career.
I was a bit surprised that David F. Sandberg was selected as the director because of his background as a horror film director. (He is best known for the 2016 movies Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation.) He isn’t as strong or as visionary of a director as Jenkins and Wan, but with Shazam! he has created a film with heart, humor, and some surprising scares. The marketing has kept the monsters/demons under wraps, and it didn’t seem to upset the kids in the audience near me, but there are a few scenes that might be too intense for some younger viewers.
The movie begins with the origin story of the villain, Thaddeus Sivana, where as a young child in the 1970’s he is mocked by his brother, and dismissed by his father, and is transported to the cave where the aging wizard Shazam lives. He is tested to see if he is true of heart and will receive the wizard’s power, or if he is tempted by the demons held in check under the wizard’s control. Sivana is deemed unworthy and is expelled from the cave. He vows to find a way to return to the cave and claim the wizard’s power for himself.
Fast forward to the present day where Billy has run away from several foster homes, and after a run-in with the police, is placed in a new home in Philadelphia. We learn that he was lost at a carnival as a 3-year-old and has spent his whole life searching for his biological mother. His new foster parents were foster kids themselves, and have several kids living with them. There’s Mary, the college-bound student, Eugene, who is a video game expert, Pedro, the quiet, big kid, the hug-loving Darla, and the physically disabled, superhero-obsessed Freddy.
Once Billy stands up to two school bullies and protects Freddy, he is sent to the same cave Sivana visited where Shazam transfers his powers to Billy. These powers each represent a letter in his name: S – for the wisdom of Solomon H – for the strength of Hercules A – for the stamina of Atlas Z – for the power of Zeus (which enhances all of his other physical abilities and allows for interdimensional travel) A – for the courage of Achilles (which would include invulnerability from ancient mythology) M – for the speed of Mercury (and, by extension, the power to fly). The film seemed a bit slow in the first 40 minutes while everything was being set up, but once Billy and Freddy begin to explore these now powers, it kicks into high gear. The film also draws plenty of laughs as the boys work to create a heroic name and catchphrase. These names include “Captain Sparkle Fingers,” “Thundercrack,” and “Sir-Zaps-a-Lot.”
Zachary Levi has a blast and is terrific in conveying the idea of the childlike wonder and enthusiasm of a 14-year-old boy who receives superpowers. From dancing to shooting lightning bolts from his fingers, or checking himself out of school, it’s impossible not to laugh along with him. Billy lives in Philadelphia and while Batman, Superman, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman protect the world, Billy is just a kid and he does what any 14-year-old boy would do when put into an adult body. He buys beer (which he spits out immediately after) and goes to a strip club. We don’t go inside and since Shazam! is a mostly family-friendly film; however, we see him emerge a few minutes later carrying a basket of chicken wings and talking about how friendly the women were. His easy chemistry with Freddy is what makes the film work so well, and it’s nice to see a child with a disability treated like any other kid, and not a pity case.
The action sequences aren’t incredibly memorable, but work well overall. Some of the CGI with the flying didn’t quite land (pun intended) for me, but it didn’t take away from the film. There’s a strong emphasis on family – as Billy has to rely on all members of his foster family in order to defeat Sivana and save the day. Those familiar with the comics may see the twist coming, but I was pleasantly surprised with how they came together to take on the Seven Deadly Sins.
Shazam! isn’t a perfect movie, but it is a fun time at the theater and is definitely continuing the upward climb that DC films have been making of late. The film is smart to focus on Levi’s charisma and the chemistry he has with his costars. It also doesn’t require any outside knowledge of the rest of the DC Universe. Batman, Superman, and Aquaman are all mentioned, but the plot doesn’t directly tie into any of their stories.
The failure of the Snyder DC film universe may actually be the best thing that could have happened to Warner Bros. and DC. Directors are now allowed to create individual stand-alone stories that don’t have to tie into other films before or after. The director can also put their individual stamp on the superhero they are working with. This allows the studio to create a dark and gritty take on Joker. There is also along with a rumored Supergirl film, and Birds of Prey is in the works. Each film is able to stand on its own merits, and may eventually lead to another Justice League film, but one where we care about established characters. Shazam! is a promising step in that direction.
Ultimately, Shazam! is a celebration of the excitement that young kids feel when they open their first superhero comic, or take their action figures on adventures, or tie a dish towel around their neck and run around the backyard pretending to fly. Like I previously mentioned, it’s mostly family-friendly (a few intense scenes with the Seven Deadly Sins and a few mature themes) and playful and heartwarming film that stresses the importance of accepting yourself, and the importance of a loving family. Plus, Zachary Levi flosses in a superhero costume…you can’t help but laugh and be entertained. If the film was about 20 minutes shorter, Shazam! I would give the film an A- instead of a B+ that I give it. I think word of mouth will give this film legs at the box office, and will likely be #1 until Avengers: End Game hits theaters later this month.