The DC universe gets its best movie since Wonder Woman with Shazam!, a fun—and sometimes shockingly dark—blast of comic book superhero fantasy. While a little sloppy at times, the movie works thanks to its central performances and warmhearted core.
Zachary Levi proves an excellent choice to play the title character, the net result of a 14-year-old boy being handed super powers by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou). That boy is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster child in search of his real mom. When he yells “Shazam!” a lightning bolt blasts him in his melon, and he becomes the glorious, red-suited, white-caped superhero, albeit a superhero with a 14-year-old’s brain. This gives Levi the chance to do a Tom Hanks-in-Big kind of shtick, and he’s good at it.
Adults in my age group might remember the Shazam! TV show from the ’70s. Batson would actually transform into Captain Marvel, not the Marvel Captain Marvel but the DC Captain Marvel. There’s a convoluted legal history behind how Brie Larson eventually wound up playing a character named Captain Marvel. We won’t go into it here. In the TV series, Billy got his powers from an animated Zeus and his family, so it was a combo of live action and cartoon on Saturday mornings with your Frosted Flakes. It was kind of badass, but I digress.
The new Shazam, who goes by various names, including Captain Sparkle Fingers, gets coached by his superhero-obsessed sidekick and foster brother, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Freddy is one of the big reasons this movie works despite its flaws. Grazer employs the same kind of whip smart line delivery that made him one of the more memorable kids running away from Pennywise.
While the movie doesn’t always work due to some abrupt tonal shifts and subpar CGI, it’s refreshing to see DC go a comedic, shiny superhero route after the gloomy blunders that were Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Justice League and the goofy bombast of Aquaman. Shazam! has some of the joy that’s missing from the latest Superman flicks.
Director David F. Sandberg is an interesting choice to front what is essentially supposed to be a family fun blockbuster. Watch out. Sandberg helmed the creepy horror films Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, and his horror ways do creep into a couple of genuinely frightening scenes. Sivana (Mark Strong), the film’s villain, is accompanied by monster personifications of the seven deadly sins, and they tend to bite people’s heads off and throw them through windows making some of Shazam! nightmare fuel for young children.
As an adult, I appreciated the chance be scared—albeit in way that feels slightly out of place—but I imagine some parents might sit shocked as monsters bite heads off while their kids recoil in terror. The scary stuff is countered by a sweet family message involving Billy and his foster home. Faithe Herman steals scenes as Darla, Billy’s blissfully optimistic little foster sister who will make you laugh and break your heart. Still, the violence is just short of R-rated, so be careful.
Some screenplay choices take the action to all-too-familiar places, like a convenience store robbery and a villain attack at an amusement park. (“Uh oh, someone’s still up there in the Ferris Wheel!”) Sivana doesn’t register all that much as a bad guy, other than his propensity towards extreme violence. He’s serviceable, but nothing extraordinary.
Shazam! doesn’t feel like a DC movie, or a Marvel movie for that matter (although it does use a Ramones song for its credits, as did Spider-Man: Homecoming; this actually bugged me a little bit and felt like stealing).
Batman and Superman live in the same universe as Shazam, but those roles aren’t necessarily cast at the moment (Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill are out). The movie still finds ways to include the characters that are fun nods, and maybe DC will do some legit crossovers in the future. I’m thinking they have at least one more Shazam! in them.