Shazam! is the latest entry into the DC Extended Universe and stars Asher Angel as a young high-schooler named Billy Batson, a down-on-his-luck foster kid continuously searching for the mother that lost him as a child, running away from home after home to no avail. After yet another run-away from the foster home in which he was placed (the 6th by Child Services’ estimation), Billy is transferred to a new home with new foster parents and siblings, all of varying ages and ethnicities, with the most vocal among them being new foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). One day, after a small rescue encounter involving some school bullies who are picking on Freddie for being a cripple, Billy is transported to the lair of a powerful wizard who chooses him as “champion” (because he’s pure of heart and all that), and imbues him with a grown-up body which possesses superhuman powers. The catch? All Billy has to do is say the wizard’s name: Shazam.
DC had a pretty rough go of it there for a while, and while most of their films have been commercial successes (with the notable exception of Justice League), none except Wonder Woman really had much clout in the way of critical praise, and even that movie didn’t earn as much money as Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad. It may have eventually made its money back over the long haul, but it took a little while to get there, and as a result, DC’s answer to The Avengers flopped so badly, they basically decided to start over. There’s a whole lot of behind-the-scenes news I won’t get into here, but suffice it to say it seems to have been a good decision all around, and post-Justice League, DC’s been having a pretty solid go of it lately with both the critical and commercial success of Aquaman propelling that movie to a $1 billion profit tag and making it their highest grossing feature to date. With Shazam!, DC looks to capitalize on that success with Shazam! taking a more family-friendly, lighter tone approach to the property (notice I said tone, not aesthetic). So, just how far did their efforts take them? As it turns out, just far enough for this turn-around to be worthwhile…for the most part.
For a start, Shazam! is a real charmer of a movie, for many reasons, but not the least of which is that it truly leans into its “gritty” feeling without sacrificing tone or quality; it recognizes that in order for something to be “gritty,” it doesn’t need to be dark; all it has to do is show the world around the characters to be less than pristine, and it does this with a real respect and reverence shown to both the city of Philadelphia and its working class (also it’s just nice to have a superhero that’s not from somewhere made-up or overused like Gotham or New York). In short, the world of this character isn’t gritty because the tone is dour, it’s gritty because these characters are poor and aren’t living under the most ideal of circumstances.
Much of Shazam!’s charm is also baked into the material it chooses to show on screen without calling much attention to it as having been put on screen for the first time in a major-profile superhero blockbuster. Billy is part of a foster home, but unlike a lot of foster homes as portrayed in mainstream cinema, it’s not a place where he’s trapped or symbolically held captive; this home is filled with really good people who want him to accept them at his own speed, but won’t force him to do so if he truly doesn’t want to, and for all the praise this movie is getting regarding its main characters, the supporting ones within Billy’s foster family are just as good, with every performer pulling out top notch work (although some get more development than others and Darla – the little sister – steals the show more than a few times).
That being said, the main characters in the film are all truly great, particularly Zachary Levi as the titular hero. I know it’s somewhat of a cliché at this point to say this is the role that Levi was born to play, but all I can do with that point is echo it. Levi not only completely understands what makes this character click (he said once in an interview that Billy is one of the only superheroes who’s genuinely stoked to be a superhero), his mannerisms, voice affect, and facial expressionism seem exactly that of what a fourteen-year-old kid in an adult superhero body would be. Considering that Shazam! is essentially Big, but for superheroes (something the film makes a pretty clever direct reference to), Levi’s performance can be understood as not just one of the best in superhero leading characters, but also one of the most fun to watch. His relationship to Freddie is the film’s most compelling thread, and watching him grow from an (at first) pretty selfish kid to someone whose first concern is the safety of his family, all while boasting some of the best comedy and creative solutions to problems in superhero films, gives one a sense of pride at having been there to watch it happen.
While the film is overall pretty strong though, there are a few things that drag it down a bit from being a truly masterful superhero film, even for all the charm and fun it lays out. One of those things is simply the accessibility of the material to the audience. On first watch, some scenes may seem cut short or even not properly developed all the way through, but upon further research, it becomes clear that this is largely due to elements from the comic book source material simply not being very understandable to people who haven’t read the Shazam! comics beforehand. While reading some source material can be helpful in understanding more fantastical elements of a story, reading it shouldn’t be required to understand the story playing out on screen, and while most of the material in Shazam! is overall pretty straightforward, there are some elements (namely to do with our hero’s mythology) that aren’t very clear up front and so feel foreign on first viewing. It’s not too much of a detriment, but it does sort of end up feeling like homework one has to do later in order to fully appreciate certain elements the film chooses to throw in there.
And, of course, if there were going to be any other weakness in a movie where the focus is one giving proper development to the hero, it would be on the villain. I’m doing my best to not compare this entry in DC’s catalog to the Marvel films too much, but they do share some of the same weaknesses, namely where the villain is concerned. Mark Strong puts in a proper turn as the sinister Dr. Sivana to be sure, but his development feels generic and pretty lackluster overall. His main motivation is that he was told he’d never be good enough for…something, I guess? It’s never a thread that’s in any way explored with much nuance, and the creatures or…entities (?) his power comes from are pretty much just large CGI monsters with only the barest amount of differentiation to make sure they look distinct.
In the end, there’s not a lot to say about Shazam! that hasn’t already been said better or with a more nuanced/thoughtful take by other critics, but I wanted to put in my two cents nonetheless since this is, after all, what I do. This may be DC’s greatest superhero success since Wonder Woman, and is full of the charm, wit, and uplift that informed the old Christopher Reeve Superman films, but it’s not quite as amazing (or at least wasn’t to me personally) as you’ve probably been told it is by other critics who’ve seen it. That’s not to say it’s without merit, just that that merit does come with a bit of an asterisk. Still, charming characters, a genuine world, diversity galore, positive depictions of foster care, and a perfect performance from your leading character will go a long way towards a positive result.
I’m giving “Shazam!” an 8.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.