Ever since the Dark Knight Trilogy concluded and the attempt to create a DC Cinematic Universe began, the DC brand has diminished in the wake of multiple mediocre superhero films and the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Warner Bros. had a lot of catching up to do in terms of content quality, and after critical failures like Justice League it seemed like they’d never get there. However, Aquaman seemed like a bit of a promising start for a possible comeback, and their new offering, Shazam!, is a breath of fresh air for DC fans everywhere. As it turns out, all that DC needed to do to catch up to Marvel was embrace the comedy in these inherently absurd superhero stories, which they do in spades with Shazam!.
The audience is introduced to Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an orphaned foster kid who is still in search of his mother after getting separated from her at a carnival as a small child. After locking two police officers in an appliance store and embarking on another unsuccessful trip to find his parent, the foster care system finds him and sends him to a tightly knit group of foster children who treat each other as if they are real family. Soon after his arrival, Batson is transported to another realm while escaping from some local school bullies on a subway train. There he meets a wizard called Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who transports his powers to Batson, changing him into an adult version of himself (Zachary Levi) and beginning the hijinks that come with being a superhero.
Running parallel to the main storyline for the first half of the narrative is that of the villain–Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). He was always treated terribly by his father and older brother, and was rejected by the wizard when he was a child for not having a strong will. This has made him an obsessive and lost gentleman who takes control of the Seven Deadly Sins in order to eventually gain the power that Shazam holds. Strong’s villain is very well set-up and has a fully-fleshed-out backstory, but unfortunately he is the sole cause of a few random tonal shifts that seem quite jarring. The film flashes between Batson and his “sidekick” Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) cracking jokes, to Sivana murdering rooms full of people. Fortunately, Shazam! is fun enough to supercede the tonal shifts and come out the other side an entertaining and hilarious superhero entry from the DC Universe.
The plot/tone of this movie could be described as derivative (it’s somewhat of a cross between Big and Deadpool), and my biggest fear going in was that it would feel like a knockoff of other superhero movies that have attempted to strike this same balance between comedy and adventure previously. Fortunately, director David F. Sandberg, who had only helmed horror movies up to this point, knows how to strike that chord while also creating fresh perspectives on common superhero tropes.
For example, one of the main threads that runs through most of the film is how Batson refuses to conform to other people’s expectations of him. This theme extends to when he actually gains his superpowers. In most, if not all, superhero movies the main character immediately attempts to solve crime of some sort or do some sort of good in the community. Not Billy Batson. He uses his powers to have fun with his friends and make money as a pseudo-street-magician, and the first fight scene in the movie includes Batson fleeing from the villain instead of attempting to fight him at all. Sandberg explores an instinct that most of us would probably have if given the chance to be a superhero, and does it with the same sharp sense of humor that runs through the rest of the film.
Many aspects of Shazam! could have gone wrong in retrospect, such as including child actors in such an important role. However, the film is never bad at anything even though some things, like plot and tone, ride the middle of the road as far as superhero tropes go. The end in particular seems to adhere to many expectations that this genre typically has, and I could see the last thirty minutes coming beat-for-beat a considerable amount ahead of time. This doesn’t ruin the movie-going experience simply because the film is so entertaining, and it never lets up on the fresh and funny sequences.
The most conflicting part of the narrative for me is the villain, even though it is easy to tell that Sandberg’s intention was not to focus on him. Even so, Strong’s character is a missed opportunity due to the potential of the backstory they give him in the first act of the film. For the entire first act, the narrative has the audience believing that his personal struggle has significance in the long run of the story, but near the end the film forgets about his motivation and treats him as a forgettable villain as opposed to completing his story arc. It would have been adequate if they had initially made the villain be a campy foil to the protagonist, but they don’t commit to any single way of portraying him which confused me as an audience member.
This movie reflects the early and inexperienced Marvel Cinematic Universe films in that the villain isn’t the strongest, but the movie supersedes the limitations of just one character. The fact that I can even compare Shazam! to the MCU in this manner shows that DC may have a bright future ahead of them when it comes to building their own repertoire of films. They’ve learned from their mistakes before, and if they already struck this nice of a chord, then it isn’t too unreasonable to think they would do it again in the near future. Yes, Shazam! is another “funny” superhero movie, but it manages to make the genre feel fresh in a time where all society seems to be seeing is varying degrees of a similar story, which is an accomplishment worthy of praise.
I give Shazam! a B+.