What do you get when you throw together a horror director, a bunch of child actors, a silly superhero suit, and one of the cheesiest heroes in the history of comics? A really damn good superhero movie. Shazam! is the third in a string of good-to-great DC movies that buck the trend that stretched from Man of Steel until Justice League of grim, gritty, and over-serious superhero films that felt nothing like the legendary source material they were cribbing from. Shazam seems to understand its source material, it’s characters, and its own strengths as a movie, and the end product is one of the most genuine and fun DC movies in a very long time.
Shazam, known originally as Captain Marvel (a long time ago and before multiple lawsuits), is one of the sillier heroes in the DC canon. He’s incredibly powerful, but when it comes to self-insert characters he might be the king. By day, Shazam’s true identity is that of Billy Batson, an orphaned boy not yet old enough to drive or hold down a job. With powers given to him by an ancient wizard, Billy merely has to utter the word ‘Shazam!’ to turn into Earth’s Mightiest Mortal. It’s Big with magical lightning.
In other words, Shazam is a character that it would be almost impossible to take seriously on his own (though the legendary Kingdom Come comic book has a good go of it), and the movie doesn’t bother to try.
The first thing Shazam does right is to acknowledge that the brain in the superhero body is that of a fifteen-year-old boy and then play with that. The opening act introduces us to Billy first, a young man who has had a rough life in and out of foster homes. Billy lost contact with his mother at a young age and has since been searching for her, to no avail, in hopes that finding her might connect all of the separate dots in his life – to help him trust people again.
A heroic act puts Billy in the sights of the wizard Shazam, who has been searching for a successor to his guardianship of the power he wields. The movie lets us know it’s not taking itself too seriously here. When the two first meet, and the wizard reveals his identity to Billy, Billy snorts and raises an eyebrow.
“Say my name.” “What? We just met, I don’t know it.” “SHAZAM!” “Wait, really?”
From there, Billy has to figure out his powers and get distracted and pulled off the path by his newfound abilities. Each new emotion Billy experiences feels exactly like I imagine what a 15-year-old would go through. Even as the movie gets into the final act, though, it never forgets that Billy Batson is in Shazam’s body – his youthful attitude always informs Shazam’s actions and words. Whether he’s showboating, trying hard (and failing) to act like his preconceived notion of a hero, or standing up for ideals that would feel silly on the Superman and Batman of the most recent DC movies, it’s always clear a teenager is speaking, even when it’s Zachary Levi doing the talking as the adult version of Billy.
The next thing Shazam does right is to keep the story simple. I can sum up the whole plot, without spoilers, in one sentence: Billy Batson gets the powers of Shazam, and must learn to wield them in time to defend himself and his newfound family from the evil Dr. Sivana (played with proper intensity and righteousness by Mark Strong).
There’s one villain and a strong throughline of the strength in found family – no extra revenge subplots or desert adventures or the revelation that both characters’ mothers have the same name. I wouldn’t call it unpredictable by any means. Instead, Shazam does what it sets out to do, does a satisfying job of it, and delivers on the promises it makes.
One way it does this is through Billy’s origin story. Not the moment when the wizard imbues him with his powers, but when he figures out what those powers mean to him. Billy isn’t a character without tragedy by any means, but his strength comes from him gaining a new perspective on his life as he lets one version of his life go and embraces another.
Shazam is not an overfull movie. It’s a little long, maybe, but it takes just enough time to do what it has planned.
Third, it places itself in the DC universe without ever taking itself seriously. Billy views Batman and Superman from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old boy, not from that of a superhero, so when Shazam is running from a villain through a mall store and pauses to throw a Batman toy at the villain, it both makes sense for the character and pokes at the strange world he lives in. Billy’s roommate has a trove of knock-off superhero artifacts and sports shirts and other gear with logos of our favorite heroes. There’s even a moment where the characters pause to poke fun at Aquaman, which is especially funny now that Jason Momoa has made Aquaman cool in a way he never was before.
Director David F. Sandberg is best known for horror movies like Annabelle: Creation and Lights Out. Many superhero fans looked at his resume with trepidation – myself included. And there indeed are a few moments in the movie when Sandberg flexes his horror muscles, but that doesn’t stop the movie from being bright, funny, and joyous from start to finish. Some of the credit here belongs to the primary cast, which includes not just Zachary Levi as Shazam, but also Asher Angel as Billy Batson, Jack Dyan Glazer as his superhero geek roommate Freddy Freeman, and Faithe Herman as young Darla.
Herman especially steals every scene she’s in. She delivers already funny lines with a genuine earnestness that makes her mere presence on the screen an absolute joy. Glazer’s Freddy walks with the assistance of a cane and brings a surprising complexity to his character as he watches his friend become a superhero that can do all the things he’d only dreamed of. Zachary Levi stands out, too, for pulling off the boy-as-a-man act constantly. He’s just the right amount of silly, and he quickly came to inhabit the bright-red supersuit in a way I didn’t expect from the first photos.
It’s not that Shazam doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s that it knows how seriously to take itself. Shazam is a teenager in an adult’s body, and the movie never forgets that. It approaches the idea of superheroes with a childlike joy and straightforwardness that is refreshing. The movie isn’t afraid to be dorky. Unlike Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Shazam seems totally unconcerned with looking cool for its audience. Shazam is a dork. The Shazam story is silly, from the name to the powers to many of his adventures.
I had fun watching Shazam. I laughed and had real feelings with the characters. That’s three great DC movies in a row, from Wonder Woman to Aquaman to Shazam. That’s a pretty good run after the start the DC cinematic universe had. I’m excited to see what DC has next.