Shazam! is a genuinely joyous and refreshing comic book wonder
If you had to provide a diagnosis for what caused the ails of the early films of the DC Extended Universe, it would likely boil down to a lack of fun. DC has always been the edgier of the two comic book superpowers, sure, but they seemed to take that too literally when setting up their increasingly dour, uninspired slew of first phase films. As Marvel has slowly taken over the world with the MCU and subsequently fallen deeper and deeper in the trap of focusing too much on setting up future installments, DC has finally figured out that standalone stories are what work best for them. In the course of reaching that realization, it seems they’ve clicked on to the fun part as well.
The much-needed sense of joy has arrived in the form of Shazam!, a breezy and rollicking superhero origin story that stands out from the increasingly stuffed comic book movie crowd. Like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse before it, Shazam! works so well because it’s keyed into the unabashed wish fulfillment of its source material, in which a young, charismatic hero is gifted with superhuman abilities he’s not quite ready for. While Spider-verse mostly milked that premise for some intelligent drama, here it’s used for some cheeky fun straight out of the height of the 80s blockbuster era.
The film follows Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a rebellious orphan constantly in and out of foster care and desperate to find the mother he lost when he was a child. Batson is a kid who keeps his heart of gold locked away from the world, uninterested in adhering to the rules of the foster care system and steadfast in his belief that he can take care of himself. Even the charms of the loving new family who takes him in can’t crack through his rigid exterior, including the snarky but charming disabled boy he rooms with, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). That all changes when he’s suddenly chosen by an aging wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) to take on his powers, giving him superhuman strength and speed, invulnerability, flight, and the ability to shoot lightning from his hands. The catch? To use those abilities he has to yell “Shazam!” and transform into an adult version of himself (Zachary Levi), red spandex and all.
Egged on by the superhero-obsessed Freddy, Batson begins to test the limits of his newfound power and soon finds out what we’ve all imagined all along: having superpowers rules. Here’s where the movie really starts to click, as it takes the honest, human route by making Batson a reluctant, almost selfish protagonist. Unsure of himself and harboring more demons than the cares to admit, he’s not ready to play hero. Instead, he opts to do the sorts of things any kid would do if they suddenly had the pleasure of being a superpowered adult: trying beer for the first time and skipping class to shoot YouTube videos showing off those sweet lightning skills.
It’s the kind of self-awareness that propelled films like Deadpool into the stratosphere, but it’s not in any way dampened by the smugness that has soured that superhero property for some. This is first and foremost a family film, and in this case that’s not just a classification, it’s a compliment. The film’s immense heart lies in Batson’s desire for a family, and how years of that wish never being granted has buried him in insecurity. The character development he undergoes is surprisingly one of the most relatable, emotionally resonant arcs of the modern superhero era, and it’s ultimately what makes the film morph from an already pretty enjoyable comedy into an instant comic book movie classic.
It helps that the thing is stuffed to the brim with great characters, from the dynamic personalities that make up Batson’s new foster family to the more mythical characters that fill in the film’s edges. Batson himself is of course the main attraction, particularly Levi playing him in his superhuman persona. Levi is a frequently undervalued comedic talent who excels at playing men who act like children, and with Batson/Shazam he gets the role of a lifetime. He plays the hero as if Tom Hanks in Big went mad with power, bringing to life all the humor and drama of his character’s predictament with aplomb. He has excellent scene partners in Grazer and Mark Strong, who stars as the film’s complicated, surprisingly dark villain. Grazer delightfully brings back the twitchy energy he brought to his star-making role in It, making Freddy a mirror to Batson that hides his pain and soul underneath a veneer of wise-cracking instead of superpowers. Strong is as excellent as ever in his stereotypical bad guy role, proving his unfortunate typecasting as sinister maniacs isn’t without its merits.
Despite a silly premise and DC’s largely bad track record working against it, Shazam! comes out on top as a genuinely riveting superhero blast. It’s a film that’s smarter than it looks, filled with great gags and even greater surprises. The sometime obvious story beats and a strict adherence to the DCEU visual style may hold some back from fully jumping on the Shazam! hype train, but if the unabashed joy of this wildly entertaining and refreshing bit of popcorn magic can’t convince you to hop on, it’s likely that nothing will.