Film Review: Shazam!

The DCEU Takes a Giant Leap Forward

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The seventh entry in the DC Extended Universe, Shazam! continues Warner Brothers’ quest to find its footing among superhero features. Bringing in a remarkable sense of humor and fun, the film is the DCEU’s best installment yet. Shazam! coasts on the charms of its young cast plus the shenanigans of Zachary Levi in the title role, and is able to transcend its cookie-cutter villain and third act doldrums with an upbeat confidence. Mild spoilers ahead…

The DC Extended Universe, on its redemptive circuit of superhero filmmaking, has been steadily rebuilding its image after the grimy moroseness of the Zack Snyder era. If 2017’s Wonder Woman and 2018’s Aquaman are corrective steps in the right direction, then Shazam! is a giant leap forward. Helmed by director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation), the film is a bombastic exercise in child-fueled wish fulfillment that is less concerned with superheroics and the weighty responsibility of halting apocalyptic forces, and more in-tune with the kid appeal of receiving awesome superpowers - Big with capes, if you will. Add in a saccharine throughline of friendship and family, and Shazam! becomes the big ol’ softy of the DC lineup: a superhero film that carves out its own niche unoccupied by an increasingly crowded field of challengers.

The film centers around the alliterative Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a delinquent runaway whose run-in with the law places him in the care of the Vazquezes (Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans), saintly working-class parents with a house full of foster kids. After a brief period of adjustment and the requisite teenager angst, Billy becomes fast friends with the disabled Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer, It), his superhero-obsessed foster brother. When his first day of school ends with bullies chasing him onto the Philadelphia subway, the train makes a mystical pitstop in The Wizard Shazam’s (Djimon Hounsou) lair, where the dying guardian bestows his powers upon Billy before crumbling to dust. With the single utterance of “Shazam,” Billy can now toggle back and forth between his pre-teen self and his superhero alter-ego: a fully chiseled and grown champion of justice with a bevy of superpowers (Zachary Levi, Chuck, Thor).

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“[Shazam!] is less concerned with superheroics and the weighty responsibility of halting apocalyptic forces, and more in-tune with the kid appeal of receiving awesome superpowers.”

Shazam!’s biggest asset lies in the fantastic chemistry of its three leads. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi are perfectly simpatico - it’s easy to forget that they’re two actors inhabiting one single role - and Jack Dylan Grazer steals the show with his quips and one-liners. The film also steps into its greatest stride as Billy and Freddie work together to figure out Shazam’s powers; no one nails kid-speak better than, well...kids. When Freddie giddily proclaims, “You have bullet immunity!” it’s both accurate and hilarious, one observation in a long line of fun scenes testing superpowers. The film is also refreshing in its portrayal of its protagonist - while Billy-as-Shazam is kitted out with super-strength, lightning-based powers, and nigh invulnerability, he’s still just a kid. Shazam! is a superhero tale with no expertly choreographed fisticuffs or amped up brawls; in fact, Shazam spends much of the runtime fleeing from the big bad and shirking his responsibilities, like many teenagers would. Whether it’s busking on the streets, messing with ATM machines, or peeking into strip clubs, Shazam’s journey towards hero has some humorously grounded detours.

While Shazam! shines brightest when focused on its child stars, its villain is much more of a mixed bag. Both Marvel and DC films have a pronounced villain problem, a frustrating inability to find the equilibrium between an interesting antagonist and relatable stakes; and unfortunately, DC’s latest is no exception. It’s curious to note, however, that Shazam!’s big bad, Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong, chewing through his villainy), is actually given an intimate and compelling motivation. A jaded and obsessed researcher that failed The Wizard’s test as a child, Sivana is consumed by his missed opportunity to harness godlike power. When, as an adult, he finally rediscovers Shazam’s lair, he is lured and corrupted by The Wizard’s opposing evil force: The Seven Deadly Sins. It’s a refreshingly personal and nuanced backstory that extends beyond world domination, one rarely seen in superhero film, so it’s a shame to see its potential squandered in such a dull fashion. Do-nothing CGI trolls, The Seven Deadly Sins make for a painfully rote adversary while throwing a wrench in the narrative’s pacing, particularly with Mark Strong doling out the tired bad-guy posturing and platitudes. The computer-generated baddies end up being an enervating presence in the film, serving as a reminder that the best and most entertaining parts of the story are elsewhere. When it comes to Shazam! ’s mess of a third act (genuinely excellent plot twist notwithstanding), it boils down to another generic zappy and swirly light show that’s become a genre staple.

Shazam! generates a lot of goodwill with its Big-inspired antics and the easy chemistry among its youthful leads. Even when saddled with a forgettable villain and some wonky pacing, the film is a great time sure to put an ear-to-ear grin on your face. It may not reach the inspiring heights of Wonder Woman, or the flamboyant spectacle of Aquaman, but Shazam! has heart and laugh-out-loud humor in spades. DC’s new trajectory is promising, and its latest effort chalks another tally in the win column for the fledgling cinematic universe.

GRADE: B