David F. Sandberg’s ‘Shazam!’ is an ode to all those kids (and kids at heart) who have wild dreams of becoming a superhero.
It seems that DC Extended Universe really takes these two constructive criticisms to heart: 1.) Most of their movies are too dark and brooding; and 2.) There are no shortcuts in finding both commercial and critical success for ensemble films (ehem, Justice League), other than banking first on stand-alone origins. Coming after Wonder Woman and Aquaman – two origin films that use a lighter approach compared to Zack Snyder’s style, Shazam! turns out to be the most amusing and most family friendly DCEU offering to date. Oddly enough, it features the best aspects of a Marvel film: the maturity that comes with great responsibility in Spider-Man, the groundedness and familial bond in Ant-Man and the meta-humor of a PG-13 Deadpool. Who would’ve taught that such combination can be a key to combat superhero fatigue?
In it, an orphan teenage boy named Billy Batson (Asher Angel) gains the ability to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) upon uttering the titular incantation. Technically, the premise sets up to saving the world (again), but when you’re a kid who’s bestowed with a full spectrum of superpowers, do you go on and do it immediately? Of course not. You get to have some fun first. The best thing about Shazam! is that it’s buoyant, innocent and unpretentious in nature. At its centerpiece is a hilarious montage of Billy, along with his geeky friend Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), testing out his newly acquired powers in a series of YouTube videos – all set to the tune of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” If you’re that kid who has (or once had) a wild dream of becoming a superhero, I can guarantee that you’ll be “having such a good time” here.
Channeling the enthusiasm of a thrilled teenager, Zachary Levi (of Chuck TV series) is a perfect fit in this role. Most viewers are quick to judge on how downright cheesy his costume looks and it’s quite true – his red spandex suit pops like a sore thumb, his cape looks like a tablecloth, his physique seems slightly over-inflated, and his hair is ridiculously dark and lacquered. But the film quickly tells what we are clearly missing in that presumption – Shazam has to look that way for he is the embodiment of a superhero in a kid’s eyes. Levi is an electrifying and magnetic movie star who fully owns the absurdity of his act. By now, I’m expecting that Shazam! will skyrocket his movie career, much like what Guardians of the Galaxy did for former TV star Chris Pratt.
Also, thanks to IT’s casting discovery, Jack Dylan Grazer is sensational here. Freddy never gets defined by his disability alone, rather he’s a snarky idealist who has deep scars to hide. The heart here rests in Grazer’s natural and irresistible rapport with both Levi and Asher Angel. Likewise, Angel’s Billy, despite being a slightly morally ambiguous child, is an appealing and root-able protagonist. The rest of his foster siblings are also memorable enough to elevate from mere background characters. As they band together to stop the threats against their family, the mission feels deeply personal. Saving the world refreshingly seems like a side objective now.
Director David F. Sanderg, whose previous works include Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, uses his horror sensibilities to bring out the film’s nightmarish themes into fruition. Sometimes his propensity for terror escalates to a fault: for a PG-13 film, there are shockingly violent scenes here and the monsters (a.k.a. The Seven Deadly Sins) can be terrifying for younger audiences. Leading these grotesque looking minions is Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a misunderstood kid with daddy issues himself. He’s also into world domination, but the film paints him more than a standard cardboard villain by rooting his motivations to a childhood traumatic experience. Strong brings pathos and a sense of wounded vulnerability to the character.
While Shazam! has plenty of fantastical action and visual gags, it also has a lot of heartfelt stuff to say on the notion of family and friendship – that such bond isn’t predicated by blood alone. In a time where Billy feels lost and alone, he finds solace in the company of a foster family who wholeheartedly accepts his flaws. He thinks that his journey is about finding her biological mom but along the way he is set up to profound realizations of acceptance and forgiveness. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.
With its bouncy pacing, goofy yet poignant theme, and a story that plays on an eye level, Shazam! is a solid step towards DCEU’s new direction. It serves as a powerful reminder that superheroes are created first and foremost for kids – that they should reflect their values, aspirations and wonder without the need to dumb down the narrative. It encapsulates the comic spirit – heart, humor and heroism. What a lightning bolt of joy.
4.5 out of 5 stars