Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Foulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews, Adam Brody, Michelle Borth, Meagan Goode, Ross Butler, D.J. Cotrona, John Glover
It feels like the world of cinema is being dominated by superhero movies. In fact, it’s been feeling that way for probably the past five years or so. And with the way things are going, this isn’t going to change any time soon. Whether we’re getting good, top-level action movies with heart or bottom-of-the-barrel, has-anyone-actually-heard-of-this-character-before scruff, studios will keep churning them out that way until the demand weakens (if it ever will). Shazam! Is DC’s latest cinematic offering, an official member of the DCEU that dares to make its debut just a couple of weeks before that of the MCU’s much anticipated (and now record-breaking) Avengers: Endgame. It goes without saying that most superhero movies, no matter what studio they’re from, will be compared to MCU movies, however with Shazam! being something rather tonally different to many superhero-based movies, does it stand on its own two feet in a universe all of its own, or does it fail to reach the heights expected from the genre?
Billy Batson (Angel) has been running away from foster homes since he was very young. Now, at age 15, he finds himself bundled into yet another foster family that he refuses to bond with. His new foster brother Freddy (Grazer), however, has other plans. After yet again finding himself in trouble, Billy is somehow transported to a mystical realm in which a wizard (Hounsou) grants Billy with his own power, a power that turns Billy into a superhero (unnamed within the film, but generally known to the audience as Shazam) whenever he shouts the word ‘Shazam!’. Billy asks Freddy for help in navigating his new-found persona and abilities, and in doing so he reveals himself to the villain of the piece, Dr. Sivana (Strong), an evil guy who released the seven deadly sins when he failed to secure the wizard’s power, putting Billy and his new family in danger.
As easy as it is to compare DC and Marvel movies in reviews, it’s probably best to leave Shazam! out of the majority of comparisons, as it’s really got it’s own thing going on. Where DC have gone all-out in the past to unnecessarily darken even the lightest of their characters (Superman), quite likely in an effort to create needless depth and to keep up with Marvel, Shazam! maintains a lightness to it that allows comedy to take the lead while also giving depth to characters through multiple themes, mainly that of abandonment, bullying, the meaning of family, love and, of course, the seven deadly sins, amongst others. It’s almost like DC threw caution to the wind with this movie and went, ‘f**k it, let’s just have some fun’, finally. But not without some substance.
The beginning of the story itself is a little confusing. Unless you’re familiar with the comics already and/or surrounding characters, it’s all kind of thrust upon audiences from the off, with nary a moment to go ‘wait, what!?’. If Shazam! didn’t come from a long comic-book history, then it would be far easier to shrug this off as a loose plotline with a hurried backstory. If there was to be an MCU comparison, it’s that, in true DCEU style, the origin story has been rushed, with no time to really build a character and gain much in the way of audiences’ empathy and support. The themes, as previously mentioned, do help to bring us onboard, but we’re not going to feel as tight with these characters as we were with, say, Tony Stark after Iron Man or Steve Rogers after Captain America: The First Avenger, or even Clark Kent after Superman: The Movie or Bruce Wayne after Batman Begins, as their stories were written and built far more eloquently. This could all change, as we don’t really know DC’s full plans for the character beyond Black Adam as a sequel, but it would be very difficult to bet on Shazam as a character going as far as Iron Man, Captain America, Superman or Batman.
Zachary Levi was certainly great casting as Shazam. His comedy is spot on, though a bit over the top at times, and his performance is reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Big, though far more exaggerated (and, as harsh as it might sound, much less likely to be nominated for an Academy Award). Some may also recognise his voice as that of Flynn Rider in Disney’s Tangled (also a great performance). Asher Angel’s performance as Billy comes off as rather wooden for the most part, making it difficult to empathise with him a lot of the time, however when it really counts he manages to evoke enough emotion to trigger something within viewers, allowing us to understand Billy better as a character. He’s supposed to be rather closed off, but sometimes that tends to include the audience rather than just other characters. Jack Dylan Grazer, on the other hand, is just as entertaining and talented in his performance as he was in It. He balances comedy and teenage anguish very well, always succeeding in his second-lead roles. Mark Strong isn’t the hardiest of villains here, partly because he’s always so likable as the good guy in other movies that it’s hard to accept him in an antagonistic role, and partly because Dr. Sivana isn’t the most gruesome villain, because without giving too much away, he has no genuine power. As an origin-story villain he plays the part, but he’s no Joker or Lex Luthor. Strong performs as well as he can as a character that doesn’t provide much (though if there is to be another Shazam-based movie, it’s likely this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Dr. Sivana).
Shazam! sets itself apart from other DCEU movies in that it really doesn’t take itself too seriously (though that can come off as detrimental at times) but still provides some things for audiences to grasp onto, even if those things are slippery and hard to keep a hold of. Three stars is probably a little generous for it, but the last fifteen minutes is probably what earned it the third star. It also may remind people of a certain generation of Bananaman, a cartoon from the 1980s in which a young boy becomes a Banana-themed superhero whenever he eats a banana (up there with Popeye in trying to get kids to eat healthily. Good luck with that in this day and age). The ridiculousness of it is felt occasionally within Shazam!, but the tone allows it to get away with some absurdity. It’s either a sign of DC changing their ways or leaning towards giving up all together. It’s hard to tell which it is at this point, with the future of their prominent characters such as Batman and Superman hanging in the air. We still have some movies in the pipeline, such as the as-yet unnamed Jared Leto Joker movie, Suicide Squad 2 and Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – not yet sure what to make of that last title. Shazam! is something of a welcome breather; it’s not DC’s best offering yet – that title still belongs to Wonder Woman – but neither is it the worst, by far.