Synopsis – We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s case, by shouting out one word – SHAZAM! – this streetwise fourteen-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult superhero Shazam.
My Take – Debuting way back in 1939, the character of Captain Marvel (original name), created by artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker, for Fawcett Comics, always represented one of those weird outliers for the DC Universe. At his peak he even outsold the vaunted Man of Steel himself despite being a thinly-veiled rip-off.
While he was the first superhero to make it to the big screen with 1941’s Republic Serial named Adventures of Captain Marvel, in the comic book world, for all this years he has been treated more of a Superman spare, who could be mostly called in to hit things hard.
However, with the executives in the DC Films department finally finding a way to streamline their own properties rather than playing catch up with their now 22 film old rival, Marvel, things are finally looking hopeful for fans especially, a probable reason why this character has made his return to cinemas nearly 78 years later.
To my surprise, the end result makes it (in my opinion) one of the best comic book films to make it to the screen in recent years. Joining the ranks of Wonder Woman and Aquaman as a dose of much-needed levity for the DCEU, the film is an extremely fun ride where DC films have got off their usual track and come up with a superhero who is not just mighty and powerful but also funny, practical and close to reality. In fact, it lands nicely between the two: more light-hearted than the former, and more tightly plotted and focused than the latter.
Here, screenwriter Henry Gayden and director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation) lean into the cheese factor and wish-fulfillment nature of the character more than one would expect, but without going overboard. The result is a bubbly story with a hint of grit and a solid emotional core that earns its laughs as well as its emotional beats. Overall, we are offered a very entertaining, funny, dramatic and interesting ride, for a superhero film that is a great achievement.
The story follows Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a sullen 14 year old, who has been in and out of foster homes for several years mainly due to his crusade to find his mother who he lost in a carnival when he was younger. When his latest stint gets him into trouble again, he is transferred to a new home run by Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews), who provide loving parenting for a motley group of kids like the video game-obsessed Eugene (Ian Chen), the talkative yet adorable Darla (Faithe Herman), the ambitious student Mary (Grace Fulton), the quiet Pedro (Jovan Armand) and Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled superhero aficionado who convinces Billy to let down his defenses.
When an incident with a few high school bullies finds Billy reluctantly sticking up for his foster brother, he finds himself transported to the doorstep of an ancient wizard, Shazam (Djimon Honsou), who declares him a champion for good and bestows a gift upon him: By speaking the wizard’s name out loud he transforms into an adult (Zachary Levi), with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury at his disposal.
While Billy and Freddy decide to use the newly found powers to gain popularity and earn money to finance their antics, they unknowingly capture the attention of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), an outcast physicist from a very wealthy family. When Sivana was younger, he was deemed unworthy and rejected by the wizard to become his champion, as a result he spend his whole life finding his way back, but now with the assistance of otherworldly devils, the Seven Deadly Sins, he is more than willing to wield the powers of Shazam to rule the world.
What happens when a 14-year-old boy becomes a Superhero? This hilarious film is the answer to that question, which arguably also has the goofiest plot device in the long history of goofy superhero plot devices. Directed by David F. Sandberg, this latest in the DC Extended Universe mixes throwback earnestness ripped from the funny pages with the sensibility of a wisecracking 21st century teen, wrapping all that up in a touching coming-of-age story.
Given the relative obscurity of the hero, expectations for his solo picture were essentially non-existent, so the film easily ends up rocketing past whatever hopes there are and landing in a place of pure delight. As one could have guessed this is not the most serious film, but it is also weighted in enough realism that, say, being told your superhero name is “Shazam” is met with laughs from start to finish.
While the exposition in the start by come as a problem for a few, but as soon as Billy first morphs into Shazam, it’s full steam ahead. Freddy becomes Billy’s superhero coach and personal DOP as they test out his various powers, seeing whether he can fly, punch through walls, and resist flames.
The film doesn’t pretend that two teen boys suddenly dealing with superhuman abilities would suddenly gain some sort of moral imperative to fight crime. There’s a little bit of that, sure, but it’s mostly coincidental. Mostly they use Billy’s newfound powers to create what are essentially the superhero equivalent of skate videos, posting their exploits online for all to see. For a film that clearly operates on a heightened plane, it actually feels relatively realistic. However, it is the film’s fidelity to childhood joy, tenderness in exploring feelings about family and parenthood, and loyalty to its seemingly silly source material that make it soar.
Yes, the film is a character piece more than a super-hero film, and is more interested on exploring its Superman-meets-Big conceit, and also dives deep into Billy’s story of a lonely kid with abandonment issues trying to wrap his head around the concept of family. The story isn’t about a boy who turns into an adult super-hero battling evil, it’s about a boy learning to grow up and accept the things he’s ignored his whole life. Billy must realize he must pursue what he needs, not what he wants, and he comes to understand that everything he believed to be true is wrong. It’s fantastic, and it’s what makes the entire third act land.
Here, writer Gayden pulls heavily from Geoff Johns’ update of the character, giving him an expanded foster family and wringing every bit of pathos they can without beating the viewer over the head with it too much. It often skews surprisingly dark, but without drowning out the film’s slapstick humor, carefree goofiness, or heartfelt earnestness.
Which is slightly surprising knowing that this winsome flick comes from director Sandberg, who’s more well-known for menacing horror flicks, like Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation that made you afraid to check under your bed. But here he finds success by shrugging off the typical cumbersome grimness and ignoring a need to fuse together with other films for a future team-up epic, all that stuff that weighs down most superhero films.
Instead, for large parts of the film, it unfurls like a holiday film spin on the genre. And in embracing earnest glee and heartfelt tenderness, it allows us to fully appreciate the magical excitement and wonder that superheroes can supply.
As much as I enjoyed this film, there were still things that bothered me. For starters, the school scenes weren’t nearly as engaging as the scenes taking place in the foster home. The best part of the school scenes was the sly comic reference in the name of the school. The school pretty much just existed to propel the plot and show these characters were children.
Another issue is with the villain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. As wonderfully as Mark Strong portrayed him, he wasn’t fleshed out very well. Sure, he gets a tantalizing back story, but there’s little to him or his quest beyond power for power’s sake. He has neither the nuance nor the flamboyancy of a memorable menace.
Nevertheless, the strongest aspect of this film by far is Zachary Levi. Known previously for his stint as the titular lead in Chuck, an action comedy spy drama television series, Levi brings here the energy, charm, and humor required to make the character believable as a young teen, a factor he not only bods well, but eerily convincingly so. Levi also shares excellent chemistry with Jack Dylan Grazer, who is also quite great.
The film gives Grazer the film’s funniest lines, knowing that humor and comedy are ways to approach sensitive ideas, like children talking about feeling unwanted after being abandoned by their parents, or what it’s like to live with a disability. Grazer shows glimmers of vulnerability, sometimes it’s just a small slowdown in delivery or a tense lip, beneath his character’s scrim of sarcasm and irreverence.
Asher Angel, however, got the short end of the stick here, as he’s given a character who hides his emotions. So while he still feels like Billy, he’s the less entertaining half of Billy. Nonetheless, he delivers a great performance, and the film lands because of him. Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Jovan Armand, Ian Chen and Faithe Herman play out their supporting roles well. In smaller roles, John Glover, Adam Brody, Meagan Good, Michelle Borth, D. J. Cotrona and Ross Butler are really good. On the whole, ‘Shazam!’ is a grisly, wholesome, funny, and action-packed superhero adventure that treads a bright direction for future DC films.
Directed – David F. Sandberg
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 132 minutes