After Aquaman raked in the cash at the box office, it falls on one little movie to carry on the goodwill for DC, the superhero comedy Shazam! Based on the character once known as Captain Marvel (before Marvel trademarked the name) created by Fawcett Comics (which was bought out by DC) to be an answer to Superman (a much more popular character), the film has a lot to prove. Can Shazam! beat the odds and provide solid superhero fun, or is it another misstep for DC? Let’s find out.
Shazam! follows a young boy named Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a rebellious youth who has fled from multiple foster homes on a journey to find his real parents. After his latest attempt is foiled he is sent to the home of the Vasquezes, where he meets Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a crippled superhero fanatic, and other foster kids Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand) and Darla (Faithe Herman). After saving Freddy from bullies, Billy is dragged into the realm of the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who is seeking a champion to protect the world from the forces of evil. Accepting the task, Billy becomes a superpowered adult version of himself (Zachary Levi), and must learn to master his abilities in time to stop the evil Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) from destroying the world.
Director David F. Sandberg and writer Henry Gayden walk a very fine line with this film, balancing funny, action-y, emotional and even some scary tones and making it all look easy. Sandberg in particular shows a great range, bringing in some elements of his horror movie roots with Dr. Sivana while showing an equally deft hand in the more emotional and comedic moments. While most of the film is set in modern day Philadelphia, Sandberg finds a way to make the world of magic and wizards fit in with the rest of the DCEU, and it never sounds too silly or ridiculous! For a director known only for smaller horror films, this is a massive step up, and the movie wouldn’t work without his sure hand and confidence behind the camera.
Speaking of those tones, they all work here in spades. The humor is spot on, lovingly sending up the superhero genre without being mean-spirited or over the top, and remaining firmly rooted in the characters and their dynamics. Watching Billy learn about his powers is a total blast, as he and Freddy try to test the limits of what he can do in the only way they know how, punching things and blowing stuff up! While it is obviously a superhero fantasy, it still feels real because this is exactly what young teen boys would do, and the performances of Levi and Grazer really sell it. It makes you realize the joys of being a superhero, rather than once again going through the same old sad song and dance about the burdens of being a hero without abandoning the origin story template of power and responsibility.
The reason this mix of tones works is because Gayden wrote the film not as a traditional superhero Marvel-style movie, but as more of an 80’s kids film. The superhero elements are all there, and they are done well, but it feels more like The Goonies or Gremlins than Iron Man. This makes the film feel more unique and inspired, as it takes the style of those films and updates them for today while adding in the insane mythos that is Shazam’s origin story. This also allows the film to be a little scary at times (though not enough to really frighten little children, I think), as well as serious and emotional. But most importantly, at least in my opinion, Gayden never runs away or tries to downplay the source material’s inherent goofiness, instead choosing to embrace and even amplify it at some points!
None of this would work without the committed performances from the cast, centering on Zachary Levi and Asher Angel as the two halves of Shazam. Levi is an absolute joy to watch on screen and his enthusiasm for playing this character is infectious. He balances the more bratty, less appealing parts of a teenager’s personality with the superhero bravery and kindness well, as does Angel, carrying the more adult and serious elements of the film with ease. He is very likable and has a great sense of comic timing, making the scenes where Billy is a kid in many ways as fun as when Levi is on screen as Shazam. Both actors do a wonderful job making you feel for Billy and cheer him on as he finds himself and becomes a true hero, and they help make the film as fun, compelling and heartfelt as it is.
That’s not to say that the rest of the cast doesn’t bring their A-games, because they absolutely do. Jack Dylan Grazer is my favorite actor in the film, bringing the same comedic timing and nerdy glee that made him a scene-stealer in It to bear as well as a surprising amount of vulnerability. He has a speech in the second act about being a foster kid that really moved me in a way no superhero movie has (sans Logan), and he nails it. The rest of the kids are all good, particularly the ridiculously adorable Darla, and they create a very realistic foster family dynamic. Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans play the foster parents, and they both do an excellent job as truly loving parents, even towards the closed-off and distrusting Billy. You see why the foster kids love them as much as they do, and it’s in their sadly limited screen time where the theme of family hits the hardest. Djimon Hounsou isn’t on screen much but brings his A-game as the wizard Shazam, using his booming voice to project both power and tenderness as he reasons with Billy to be his champion and take his mantle.
Mark Strong is finally given a decent superhero movie role as Dr. Sivana, who is rather cleverly positioned as the foil to Billy. While the character is a tad underwritten, he is given a clear backstory and motivation, enough to where you may not sympathize with him, but you definitely understand where he’s coming from. Strong gives the role a real sense of menace, along with well-timed humor, fitting for a character that is as truly cruel and evil as he is. Sivana made me tense up whenever he arrived, mostly because of some of the evil things he gets to do here, and Strong gives it his all.
What really makes the film work as well as it does, and my personal favorite aspect of it, is the surprising amount of heart that it has. Just like those 80’s films it’s not afraid to talk to kids about important issues, with this one really centering on the theme of family and what that means for kids like Billy who have been left to fend for themselves. The aforementioned speech by Freddy and Billy’s personal mission throughout are just a few examples of how they present this to the audience, and it somehow does it with complete sincerity and no cheese or schmaltz. Unlike so many superhero movies the emotion feels genuine and earned here, and when Billy steps up to the plate to defend his family it’s a powerful moment that left my audience cheering.
If I could really think of any complaints, it’s that some of the action scenes drag on a little too long. While it avoids the third act slump most superhero films suffer from thanks to a delightful development, I started to feel the time as it hurtled towards the end. I really enjoyed Mark Strong’s performance, but I can see how some might think he was underwritten and one-dimensional. And the CG effects were a little subpar at points, but none of these issues were enough to overcome how much I enjoyed the movie.
In a sea of superhero blockbusters it’s important to find a way to stand out, to distinguish yourself from the formulas and the universes and all of that. With it’s winning blend of humor, heart and action, Shazam! manages to not only stand out but stand above the pack. Zachary Levi and Asher Angel are perfect for this role, as they, Sandberg and Gayden embrace what truly makes Billy Batson such a special character, and dare to lean into the silliness of it and make it work. Shazam! really is a special film that works on all cylinders and is hopefully a sign of more DC goodness to come!
My Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Shazam! opens wide on April 4th.