Did an executive at DC get summoned to a mysterious cave, meet an ancient wizard and gain the ability to produce straight-up entertaining movies? Because somehow, the standard-bearers of the Modern-Day Grim Superhero Movie have made what may be one of the most fun, dare I say best, comic-book flicks of all time. I’ll shout it: Shazam!
In recent years DC has made a rather-wide course correction, turning away from self-serious, dour films like Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League and churning out fantastic stand-alone fare, starting with the phenomenal Wonder Woman in 2017 and continuing with the big-dumb fun Aquaman in 2018. Shazam! is the best of the new bunch, an irreverent-yet-heartfelt movie that’s both a sendup of superhero movies and a great adventurous superhero movie in its own right.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old orphan, spends his free time searching the greater Philadelphia area for his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since he went missing as a toddler. His hijinx land him in trouble with the law, and a social worker assigns him to a new group home. Despite being taken in by some of the warmest people imaginable — Cooper Andrews as Victor Vasquez is one of the most likeable characters I’ve ever seen onscreen — Billy rejects his new family as a true capital-F Family. Despite his reservations, he does befriend his new roommate, the nerdy, wise-cracking Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). Billy is adjusting to his new life when he’s suddenly transported to the Rock of Eternity, a magic temple in an alternate dimension. There waits an ancient wizard named Shazam who has been searching for someone pure of heart to imbue with the powers of the “champion.” The wizard grants Billy this power, which turns the scrawny teenager into a full-grown, brawny superhero, portrayed by Zachary Lev, when he shouts the name “Shazam.”
This is where the film finds its footing and the comedy soars. Billy’s now mega-powerful — he runs at lightning speed, shoots lightning bolts, deflects bullets as if they were spitwads — but he’s still just a kid underneath that glowing costume, and does what any 14-year-old would do in his situation. Instead of fighting crime, Billy shows off his superpowers for YouTube views and money, which leads to a lot of laughs. Not all of the jokes land, but most do, and it’s refreshing to see DC not take itself so seriously. It’s probably been since the 90s Batman movies that we’ve seen this side of DC.
But while Billy’s living it up as Shazam, trouble is brewing elsewhere. See, another kid, Thaddeus Sivana, was transported to the Rock of Eternity back in the 70s, but the wizard deemed him unworthy of the powers and sent the boy back to reality empty-handed. Thaddeus has held a grudge for 40-plus years and has used his time and resources to find a way back to the temple to take the power for himself. When he does, he doesn’t get Shazam’s power but instead steals the Eye of Sin, which grants him the power of the seven deadly Sins, a band of seriously terrifying demons that look straight out of some Lovecraftian horror movie. And from there on our, it’s a Thaddeus/Shazam! showdown.
David F. Sandberg is best known for directing horror (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) and his scary-movie chops shine through, especially in the depiction of the Sins. But more importantly, he’s a child of the Eighties and as a result Shazam! perfectly captures the magical, adventurous, earnest spirit of that era: from Spielberg/Amblin movies like The Goonies, the Superman movies, and, most noteworthy, Big. The humor is more modern and edgier than those fantasy classics, but it’s not Deadpool-edgy. There’s a lightness of touch here. Shazam! isn’t coy; it’s not marred by too-cool-for-this ironic detachment. Sandberg really goes all-in on the wizard stuff. I haven’t seen a movie like this in some time. It’s not only goofy fun but one of the most-grounded, human superhero movies out there. Billy’s relationship with his foster family and his search for his mother give the film an emotional depth that’s lacking from most movies in the genre. He’s not some alien from Krypton or the heir to Atlantis — he’s a “real” kid searching for meaning, for family.
Angel is effective as Billy. An emotional scene at the end of the second act almost had me in tears. But Levi is an absolute treat as his alternate ego. He’s got a youthful energy and enthusiasm that just leaps off the screen. You can tell he’s having a hell of a time, enjoying the role, and why shouldn’t he? He’s playing a superhero without all the deep, dark, tortured stuff you normally see in these movies — he gets to shoot lightning bolts and crack jokes. Freeman is another standout. He’s charming as a fast-talking uber-geek and has great chemistry with Levi. Every time they’re onscreen together, the movie soars — sometimes quite literally.
From an eye-candy standpoint, Shazam! isn’t that different from your standard modern superhero film. Sandberg is competent at shooting action and the CGI is fine, but the film offers some unconventional visuals that set it apart from the pack, from the ethereal Rock of Eternity to the aforementioned Sins; Shazam! deviates from the standard setpieces and costumes of the average superhero movie. It’s closer to an adventure film at times: at other times, a horror movie.
All in all, Shazam! is a DCEU movie like no other: fun, hilarious, heartfelt, scary, whimsical. I had a smile on my face for a good portion of the movie, whether I was laughing at Levi and Freeman, or cheering for the foster family (just wait for that third act). Shazam! is simultaneously a wonderful throwback and a great leap forward for DC. It’s pure of heart, a true champion.