This review first appeared on TVMovieFix.
Call it what you want, but David F. Sanberg’s Shazam! is a joyful superhero origin movie that tells it all without having to be peppered with subtexts. Most of its core cast are pre-teen and adolescent lads, so it doesn’t shy away from being overly cheesy and formulaic in terms of laughs and gags.
But the thing is, despite the blatant display of no-holds-barred jokes, it works well into the fabric of Shazam!’s simple narrative. Where Aquaman had a bit of an awkward tone (remember the desert scene with Pitbull’s “Africa” cover blaring in the background? I know. Ugh.), Shazam! owns up to it, cementing its identity as a comic book movie that wants you to have a good time in the theater.
I remember reading my first comic book where Superman just rose from the grave after being “killed” by Doomsday in “The Death of Superman.” I still feel the juvenile rush and excitement seeing him in his black suit and long hair, ready to kick Doomsday’s ass. This is the same feeling that invaded me throughout Shazam!’s 127-minute runtime. The movie perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to be a kid whose ultimate dream is to become a superhero.
It also disconnects from the tone established in the DCEU’s early naughts. The drab and dark landscape is replaced with an amazing spectacle of magic, monsters, and child-like wonder. For what it’s worth, Shazam! is a film that’s made for both kids and adults alike. After all, there’s no age limit when it comes to experiencing joy and wonder.
Be warned: minor spoilers might strike you like lightning from here on.
The Super-Life in the Eyes of a Child
Man of Steel was a fresh, welcome take on Superman. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was a grim representation of a superhero’s darkest desires, notwithstanding the various social constructs of truth and justice. Wonder Woman restored the elegant notion of a superhero with a mission to save the world. Justice League was, well, let’s not talk about that. Aquaman was a shining beacon of how the DCEU wants to be from the get-go.
Shazam!, on the other hand, perfectly sums up our childish beliefs and aspirations. It banks on a kid’s purity despite the various challenges that life throws at them. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a young boy who spends the rest of the movie looking for his real family—ultimately finding it right in front of him the whole time. Because of his internal issues as an abandoned kid, he engages in minor hiccups like trapping two police officers in a store so he can ransack their police car database and committing random acts of foolishness. But no matter how much Billy tries to ignore the fact that he’s inherently good, it ultimately shows when he is brought into the home of the Vasquez family.
When Billy transforms into Shazam (Zachary Levi), his first act as a superhero directly mirrors what he wants in life—to have fun and make the most of his newly-found coolness. Thanks to Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), he also discovers the scope of Shazam’s powers and uses it to try (barely) to fight small-time crime.
Scenes between Freddy and Shazam are one of the strongest aspects of the movie. You can feel the genuine connection between the two, and it’s a distinct friendship that’s built on the foundations of magic, curiosity, and wonder.
A Hero Film Done Just Right
Shazam! is a standard superhero film that has it all—an origin, discovery of powers, a vengeful villain, and a moral in its story. If you strip it down to all its components, you’d think of it as a formulaic superhero flick that goes with the usual tropes of the genre. But the problem is that it works to its advantage. Yes, it’s utterly basic but also unique in its own right. It never uses the spandex-and-cape tandem as a crutch. Instead, it enhances the trope to make it become more of a giddy ride WITH the characters of its story. It sheds some light into the complicated mess of the adolescent ordeal and marries it into a world where it’s full of attainable what-ifs.
Sandberg, in all his creative expertise as a dynamic director, expertly sprinkles dumb humor and awe throughout the movie. There are some low points, but it’s nothing that could take your concentration away from the colorful scenes at hand. It never loses traction, and it also makes you feel positively encouraged and notably melancholic at times. That’s why Shazam! works. It never lost sight of what it wanted to be and how it wanted to deliver its message. One thing radiates in the movie’s core—a very big heart.
Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) as a villain made for a simple conflict that firmly clicked the pieces in place. Where Billy is pure and innocent, Sivana is full of motives and deceit. It’s the true balance of the black and white. It wouldn’t have worked if Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam was the villain, because that would erase the values and conflict that an introductory superhero movie should have. Sivana gives depth to Billy’s character, although it doesn’t add much to its overtones. His motives are pretty simple—Sivana was supposed to be the wizard’s champion but didn’t make the cut because of his corrupted ideals. This puts him on a mission to seek out the wizard and demand power for his selfish gains. He’s had enough of being the underdog, so he enforces this need negatively.
As I’ve said, it’s fairly typical. But it’s not a problem at all.
The premise sounds ludicrous, but it’s not ashamed of being so. It strips the superhero narrative down to its core qualities—some dude with powers who just wants to have a good time, help people, and become famous on the sides. And if you’ve got lightning spurting out of your hands, that’s definitely a ticket to superstardom.
‘Shazam!’ Overall Verdict
Gone are the days when the DCEU would anxiously wait to see crowd reactions following the movie’s tone. We used to sit and wait for consensus that would support the film’s direction. That’s exhausting and counter-productive. Shazam! doesn’t need the affirmation that the previous DCEU movies under Zack Snyder clamored for. It stands on its own and proudly flaunts its power to everyone who wants to see it. It’s confident, bold, fun, boisterous, and carefree. With all its feats and jokes, one is surely bound to have a “holy moly” time. Shazam! brings back the wonder of seeing flying people in spandex suits as amazing spectacles and role models.
It’s a superhero romp with a big heart.