No other movie encapsulates the change in tone of Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe than Shazam, a wholly enjoyable ode to the comic books of our childhood that inspired a sense of hope and wonder. Not to further chop down the Zack Snyder era, but this truly feels like a turning of the page that started with Wonder Woman and continued with Aquaman. Slowly but surely, the DCEU is becoming a place where superhero movies can just be fun again, and a reminder of why we fell in love with comic books in the first place.
Shazam is a firm reminder that comic books, and in particular superheroes, were created to inspire the imaginations of kids. We’ve all sat around the lunchroom table and talked about what it would be like to get super powers; what kind of hero we’d be. For Billy Batson (Asher Angel), that wish comes true although it’s not something he ever wished for. Billy’s an orphan, a particularly trouble-making one who has run away from multiple foster homes. It’s shortly after being place in his latest home, a Full House situation if there ever was one, that he is zapped from a chase by schoolyard bullies and into the wizard Shazam’s (Djimon Hounsou) realm. Weak and near death, Shazam needs a champion to pass his powers on to, someone pure of heart. Considering the things we’ve already seen Billy do up to this point, it’s debatable whether he qualifies, but Shazam is desperate. Billy passes the test and transforms in to the new adult-sized Shazam, who now looks 100% like Chuck star Zachary Levi.
We’ve never seen an origin story quite like this on the big screen. Taking its cues from Tom Hanks’ Big and other light-hearted nostalgia flicks, Shazam finds Billy bumbling through being both an adult and a hero with incredible powers he has yet to figure out. He turns to the only person he knows who can help, his disabled, equally-trouble-making foster brother Freddie Freeman (a terrific Jack Dylan Grazer) who knows what this superhero thing is all about. And they do what any kid would do who suddenly looked grown up. They exploit it, buying alcohol and hitting a strip joint. But Freddie also tries to teach Billy how to use his powers, with hilariously disastrous results that are all captured and marketed on YouTube turning them into celebrities. But is using these gifts, which include flight, strength, invulnerability, and electricity, to become famous the most responsible thing to do? What would Superman think? Or Batman, for that matter?
While neither Superman or Batman appears in Shazam, their influence is felt both on a visual level (sight gags abound!!!) and on a thematic level. Both heroes serve as guideposts to the kind of hero the world needs for Billy to become, but his path to getting there is vastly different than theirs. Of the recent superhero movies the one Shazam reminds me most of is Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where the family structure, or lack thereof in Billy’s case, prove pivotal to their development. For Billy, the selfishness and anger he displays is a mask to hide his insecurities and feelings of abandonment. While he may not accept it at first, it’s the loving attention of his new family (including precious kid sister Darla Dudley played by scene-stealer Faithe Herman) that sets him on the right path.
On the wrong path is villain Thaddeus Sivana, played by Mark Strong. Sivana is someone who knows all too well the gifts the wizard Shazam can bestow or deny, having been tested once himself as a child. As an adult he’s sworn to get those powers, and eventually calls for the Seven Deadly Sins, grotesque creatures bent on destroying the Earth and all humanity. It’s strike two for Strong in playing DC supervillains, after his Sinestro in Green Lantern was so lame. Sivana is pretty bland, overall, and by far the least interesting aspect of Billy Batson’s adventures as Shazam. To be fair, Marvel hasn’t quite nailed the villain thing, either, with only Killmonger, Thanos, and Loki measuring up as complex characters. Sivana does take the story into some truly dark places, though, which can be jarring considering the tone for much of the film is the opposite.
Having never watched Chuck I wasn’t as sold on Zachary Levi in the role of Shazam, but it didn’t take long to convince me. His boyish persona preceded him, of course, and it fits him as perfect as Shazam’s muscle-suit. He has terrific chemistry with Grazer, whose Freddie Freeman is a jumbled mix of sarcasm and resentment, but also loyalty which he shows to Billy and the rest of his family on multiple occasions.
I could complain that far too many of the funniest scenes were spoiled by trailers, but there are plenty more that haven’t been shown yet. And the film runs long, clocking in at 132 minutes which is absurd for a movie geared towards kids. You feel that runtime, too; there are definitely momentum issues when director David F. Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden try to embrace too much of the Shazam mythos. It’s not necessary and the pace drags as a result. Easily about 30 minutes could’ve been cut to make a leaner, more accessible movie that won’t have the kids restless in their seats.
The final battle with Sivana is fast, funny, and full of great surprises. Don’t let anybody spoil it. You won’t have seen a fight between superhero and supervillain quite like it, that much I can promise. With heart and imagination to spare, Shazam is the real deal and you shouldn’t miss it. All you have to do is say his name.