Depending on where you stand, the DC Extended Universe films have either been fumbling around in the dark with wildly inconsistent results or they’ve been successfully forging their own path. If you’re in the latter camp, well I don’t know what to tell you, but if you’re in the former I’m happy to report that Shazam! is one of the good ones. It’s not nearly as affecting as Wonder Woman (2017) and offers a mere sliver of Aquaman‘s (2018) ridiculousness, but pound for pound the film delivers more laughs than most studio comedies achieve. Its success as a heartfelt superhero movie, though, isn’t quite as assured.
A young boy in the 1970s finds himself magically transported to a stone statue-lined cave looked over by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou). The old man is searching for someone pure of heart to take over his magical powers and role as protector of the innocent, but young Thad is not that someone. Four decades later, though, the wizard finds what he’s been looking for in Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an orphan on a quest of his own spending every day searching for the mother he accidentally wandered away from as a toddler. Now, simply by saying the name “Shazam,” the teenager transforms into a costumed, caped, and excessively muscled adult man (Zachary Levi) capable of flight, shooting lightning bolts from his fingers, and feats of incredible strength. The sky’s the limit on fun and games, but it all comes crashing down when a now adult Thad (Mark Strong) returns with super powers of his own.
As a superhero origin story, Shazam! has all the expected beats out on display, and it’s not shy about embracing the character’s goofier elements. From the bearded wizard to the almost garishly bold costume, this hero’s conception as a late 1930s creation feels unchanged for modern times. Dropping those antiquated ideas into the modern world brings big laughs, big fun, and yes, one killer Big-themed gag. Not all of it translates, though, as tone and content frequently fall out of sync.
Director David F. Sandberg and writer Henry Gayden both zero in on the character’s comedy potential and deliver more often than not on that intent. The requisite training montage is turned into a series of giddy successes and painful pratfalls as Shazam and his superhero-loving foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) go through a checklist determining his newfound powers, and both Levi and Grazer excel in their banter and joyous reactions. They’re kids given the keys to the toy store, and their playful enthusiasm is infectious fun.
They dabble in minor acts of heroism while focusing most of their energy on acquiring cash to buy video games, electronics, candy, and more, and they even shop around for a superhero lair. The details may be fantastic, but the behavior is wholly believable as the young teens’ excitement overrules common sense. The silliness is also evident in Shazam’s origin, his appearance, and the threat posed by the seven deadly sins — the beasts turned to stone in the cave but brought back by the villainous Thad. They’re nonsense monsters built on out of date concepts, but they fit the simplistic nature of it all (even if one of their scenes features the fairly frightening slaughter of a group of people).
So far so good, but while Shazam’s antics are entertaining throughout the movie grinds to a near halt when focusing on Billy Batson. He’s the least interesting character here, one not helped by Angel’s relatively flat performance, and his being picked as the new Shazam is never fully justified. Not only is he a frequently selfish and disinterested teen — something he continues to show even after attaining the powers — but unlike everyone who came before him he isn’t challenged in the same way. It feels as if Billy just walks into the powers and gets to use it as a training ground, and while bland and uninteresting on its face it’s made worse when you see the rest of his foster family. A disabled boy, an overweight kid, two tiny nerds, and a girl heading off to college. Any one of them feels more deserving than the perfectly healthy and otherwise average white boy who’s gifted with superpowers. Oh, he misses his mom? Cool. Get in line with the rest of DC’s superheroes.
Attempts at plucking heartstrings feel rote and obvious as Billy learns about family and love and blah blah blah, but happily the film rarely strays for too long from the more entertaining elements. While occasionally hampered by sketchy CG effects, the film’s action builds through fun antics, minor destruction, and a reveal that kicks things up a notch during the big finale. It’s a lot of super punching, super throwing, and lightning bolts, but Sandberg and company craft the sequences with life and flair which helps keep them vibrant and even thrilling at times.
The themes at play here include lessons against bullying, dealing with rejection, and how a family is only as strong as its members, but they all feel like obligatory steps rather than real character moments. And while the ideas are one-note and simple they pair fittingly with the script’s odd blend of mythologies both Greek and Christian. The details don’t exactly gel leaving us with a hero whose place in the world lacks definition — why wasn’t the previous Shazam out fighting crime? which god is actually overseeing all of this? since god created the deadly sins *and* temptation isn’t he the real asshole here? Still, from the character to the tropes there’s little new here, but it succeeds in feeling fresh anyway thanks to its welcome embrace of humor and personality.
Shazam!‘s heart may be hollow, but it’s an old-fashioned piece of pop entertainment that will keep both kids and adults engaged throughout, and that’s more than many superhero films can say these days.