Directed By: David Sandberg
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer
What a time we live in. Mere weeks after Marvel Studios introduced the world at large to Captain Marvel, Warner Bros. is unleashing Shazam! As you may know, the character of Shazam was originally named Captain Marvel when he made his comic book debut eighty years ago. When DC Comics decided to revive the character in the '70s after a long absence, he was rebranded as Shazam due to the trademarks in place surrounding Marvel Comics' own Captain Marvel, and has held that title ever since. That both the recent MCU film and this film have arrived so soon together is fascinating considering their history with one another, and it's a sign of just how far comic book movies have come that – despite their fundamental differences – both films turned out highly entertaining.
Even better, Shazam! – as the seventh film in the DC Extended Universe that began with 2013's Man of Steel – proves that Warner Bros. and DC are continuing to move in the right direction with their troubled franchise. I've covered the topic enough before, most recently in my review of this film's predecessor, Aquaman, earlier this year, and while I won't dive back into the subject all over again, I have to make clear right off the bat that Shazam! is a real win for a franchise that's been staggeringly hit or miss to date.
As usual, before we go further, let's tee up the film itself: In Philadelphia, a young orphan named Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has spent years bouncing from foster home to foster home, constantly in search of a mother he was separated from as a child to the point of refusing to get close to any of his new families, adamant that he and his mother will be reunited and life will go back to normal. After a failed attempt to find her, Billy is relocated to the home of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans), a lovable duo who welcome him with open arms into their family, which also consists of five other foster kids, among them the disabled, superhero-obsessed Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer).
After defending Freddy from bullies at school, Billy winds up finding himself in the presence of Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), an ancient wizard who gifts all his power to Billy, allowing Billy to become a costumed superhero (Zachary Levi) at will simply by saying his name. As Billy embraces his new abilities, the wicked Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) comes calling, fueled with vengeance over having been denied the same power by Shazam when he himself was a boy, forcing Billy to sort out whether he can let go of the past he so desperately clings to as destiny lays out his future.
Perhaps Shazam!'s biggest strength is the fact that it leans heavily into its goofy premise. It's hard to believe that this franchise had such grim beginnings in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, which so often seemed to be afraid to embrace the light and dark sides of DC – particularly in its representation of Superman – when Shazam! goes in the complete opposite direction. It's lighthearted and peppy, with nary a single mean, gritty bone in its body to the point of feeling rather quaint (in a good way). It has no shame in just being funny where and when it can, and some of the best moments in the film stem from Billy and Freddy simply goofing off with the former’s new abilities, whether it's using Shazam's adult body to buy their first beer or get them out of school so they can go test the limits of his power, or by poking fun at genre conventions, such as a moment that had my audience in stitches involving Shazam's reaction to a standard villain spiel delivered by Sivana in the final act.
That's not to say that it doesn't have any meat on its bones, though. For as funny as the film can be, there's also some genuine heart on display, whether it be in Billy and Freddy's growing friendship or how Darla (Faithe Herman), the youngest member of the foster family, interacts with and reacts to characters and events within the film. And a scene where Billy finally gets the answers he's been longing for – even if they may or may not be what he wants to hear – is pretty stunning in how it grounds the film, subverting expectations in a way that doesn't feel at odds with the overall tone of the film itself.
Of course, much of why it all works can be attributed to its great cast, particularly Grazer, whose Freddy more than holds his own against everyone else, though it's ultimately Levi that shines the brightest. He's always been an actor whose charisma elevates whatever he’s in, and arguably one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's more unfortunate failings was that it wasted what they had in him by sidelining him for good in the Thor sequels. With Shazam!, he finally gets the chance to headline a superhero film all his own, and own it he does. He effortlessly captures the idea of "teen in a grown man's body" right down to the smallest of mannerisms without losing sight of the character's budding heroism, his performance pairing well with Asher's, even if the latter's may be overshadowed in discussions of the film simply because Levi gets to memorably engage in so much more.
As for the film's villain, I hate to say that Mark Strong feels somewhat wasted here. Sivana's backstory actually opens the film, and it's certainly – ahem – strong, but there's a sense here that the character is less a pivotal figure in Billy's life as a superhero as he is a stepping stone we have to hurry over for the future (one that will undoubtedly feature Shazam's longtime comic nemesis Black Adam, a character Dwayne Johnson has been attached to portray for years). He certainly gets more to play with here than he was given when he brought Sinestro to life in 2011's failed Green Lantern, a film with many sins, one of which was truly wasting Strong's pitch-perfect casting, but I simply wanted more out of Sivana.
Strong is more than capable, and clearly has a blast in the film with what he’s given, but despite the initial focus on the character, he sort of gets lost in the shuffle, shedding any character growth and depth suggested in the first act by the third for the sake of giving Shazam someone to punch. Considering that one of my major complaints about the film also happens to be how bloated the third act is – it feels as though it could've been trimmed by at least ten minutes to avoid the fact that the final conflict starts to drag on – it's unfortunate that Strong gets a bit shafted along the way.
That said, it's not the end of the world that another comic book movie doesn't have a top-tier villain. It happens, often simply because so much else has to be established about a headliner's origins so that sequels can be free to go nuts. And if Shazam! clicks with audiences, which it certainly will, the series has quite a future ahead. There are many surprises here that touch upon Shazam's comic history that had more in-the-know members of my audience go wild in ways that blow up the scope of where we can go next, and fans who still lament the fact that George Miller’s Justice League film never got off the ground get thrown a fun bone in the process. Even a post-credits scene teases the machinations of a surprising character whose mere existence and appearance suggests we shouldn't expect anything less than even weirder, gleefully goofy adventures going forward.
And in terms of the film's role in the DCEU, it seems that Shazam! is serving as bit of a reset for the franchise as a whole. The film doesn't shy away from the fact that characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman are out there – in some cases, closer than you think – but it also doesn't anchor itself to events of past films. It's no secret that certain failings of the past have changed the course of the franchise's future, whether it be Ben Affleck's departure, the incoming soft reboot that'll be James Gunn's The Suicide Squad, and the seeming abandonment of Justice League's larger plot threads, and Shazam!, for its part, comes across as a bit of a slate cleaner, reminding audiences what DC could (and should) be capable of achieving with these films while promising that maybe, just maybe, they've continued learning lessons from their mistakes.
Shazam! is – at its core – an entertaining slice of superhero cinema that aspires to please without pretense about what it is, and despite being part of a larger picture, it doesn't require that you've done your homework and seen all its predecessors to enjoy what it has to offer. As I said earlier, it's quaint, harking back to the type of good-natured, charming heroics that defined Superman: The Movie all the way back in 1978, proudly wearing its good intentions on its sleeve. Though it makes some of the same mistakes these types of origin stories tend to make, it's a film defined by its goofy charms and the performances that keep its heart beating strongly, loaded with laughs and Easter eggs, and I guarantee you it'll be the only time you get to see a superhero shooting lightning from his hands to an impromptu cover of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger". If Warner Bros. and DC can continue to take away why their films like this or Wonder Woman work so well and resonate with audiences, then the DCEU's future can only keep getting brighter.
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