Review: Shazam!

Big meets Superman is another step in the right direction for DC movies

I really loved this movie, it is charming as hell and really fun with unexpected darkness and edge as well as a surprising amount of heart. Not all of the jokes work, but I really enjoyed the playful tone and found it brought some new ideas to the overly familiar tropes of super-hero movies. There is some corn and some cheese but I laughed and I even had tears in my eyes at times.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a mildly anarchic 14 year-old foster child who has bounced from home to home since being lost by his mother in a crowd. He is taken in by Rosa and Victor Vasquez, the interracial couple at the head of a wonderfully multi-racial family of five other foster kids. The film has a really beautiful through-line about family and the importance of love transcending blood, as the villain of the piece, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), though the biological son of a privileged family, is unhappy at his father’s lack of love and motivated to evil acts by the demonic embodiment of the seven deadly sins, which are entombed and guarded over by a dying wizard called Shazam (Djimon Honsou) until released by Sivana in his quest for power and revenge. The wizard, too weak to take up the fight, magically finds his champion of good in Billy Batson and transfers his power to him so that he can stop the forces of evil.

I love stories about misfits and outsiders, and the thing I think I liked most about this movie was its emphasis on family and responsibility, which I find a bit lacking in many super-hero films. Asher Angel is quite relatable and likable as the young Billy whose personal quest to find a family is initially all about finding his mother, only to ultimately learn his foster family, though they aren’t blood, represent more of a home. Zachary Levi is very appealing as Billy’s alter-ego Shazam and watching him come to terms with his powers a well as his full-grown adult body is a big part of the fun, but he also manages to give the weightier moments their emotional due. Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman, the foster child closest in age to Billy and thus his friend (and coach when he discovers his super-powers), is very good as the sarcastic but good-natured disabled kid who idolizes super-heroes and would give anything for the kind of power Billy quickly comes to take for granted. Mark Strong is always a welcome presence and I liked watching him make the villain’s scenes work. I thought Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews were wonderful as the Vasquez parents, who are a bit too perfect on paper yet played with charm, but I think my favourite character has to be Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman), an adorable little black girl with glasses and the youngest of the foster kids.

The film is a tad overlong and I think it cold have been a little tighter. The villain’s plot is simple enough, with Sivana seeking to claim Shazam’s power from Billy, so a lot of the film depends on Billy’s story and the supporting cast, most of whose scenes work really well. The film has a handsome design aesthetic with bright colours and bold silhouettes for the hero bits and a kitchen-sink domestic drama look for the more mundane moments. That constant alternation between the super and the down-to-earth reminded me pleasantly of the exceptional Spider-Man 2 (2004). I think some of the attempts at humour are a bit forced and some didn’t land for me, but others work really well and I laughed out loud many times during the film, so it’s a little uneven but still a great time. And the usual super-heroic CGI climax has some surprises, one in particular that I was genuinely tickled by. I don’t want to spoil it but it’s one of those rare moments of fan lore that works as both an easter egg for those in the know as well as a major plot device for those less familiar with the comics. The film is also peppered with homages to other super-hero films and properties ranging from subtle to overt which made it a lot of fun for me to watch.

Shazam! is definitely a step in the right direction for Warner Brothers and the DC universe films, following the examples set by Wonder Woman and Aquaman. It’s playful, colourful and ultimately optimistic with enough novel ideas to give the genre a little more spin. What really matters most to me, though, is the emphasis on family and responsibility which gives the movie a tremendous heart that shines through like the glowing lightning bolt on Zachary Levi’s chest. I loved Shazam! and will certainly be seeing it again.

DC versus Marvel

I like comics books. I generally love visual storytelling, so it’s a natural. I’ve never been an obsessive fan, but I’ve been buying on and off since I was eleven. Super-heroes are what comics are best known for, of course, and both DC and Marvel have legions of fans. I have a more casual interest and am not exclusively devoted to one or the other. However, on balance I would have to say I lean toward DC more.

I have loved Spider-Man for as long as I can remember – the Ralph Bakshi cartoon was my gateway when I was too young to read. I was crazy about the Hulk tv show with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno when it was on the air. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was flying high in the movies, but my first exposure to super-hero comics was issues of Amazing Spider-Man my brother had lying around. It wasn’t until I was eleven that I bought my own: a copy of issue #281, October 1986. I was an avid reader for the next 4 years but lost interest after Todd MacFarlane’s run as artist ended.

I drifted in and out of comics for a while after that, guided by the principle of buying them solely for their art because I had a very low opinion of the writing (except for Alan Moore who was light years ahead of everyone else with Watchmen). What really drew me back in was the Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee team-up on Batman with the “Hush” storyline in 2002. It blew me away. I felt the writing was compelling and the art was spectacular. I began buying comics regularly again and have stayed fairly faithful ever since, but Spider-Man and the X-Men are the only Marvel properties I’ve ever really related to. I loved the Hulk tv show as a kid, but for some reason the comics just never kept me engaged. DC, for me, just has a more interesting pantheon of heroes who seem somehow more iconic.

Really, however, the biggest reason I prefer DC is simple: better female characters. I’m too old and too straight to be looking at men in tight costumes, for one thing, but I’m also more interested in different perspectives. I already have a good idea of the value system of male characters because I am male and even though the writers of female characters tend to be male, I usually read comics primarily for the art and want to look at somebody unlike me. Outside of the X-Men, it’s not as easy to name a half dozen major characters who are also female as it is when you look at DC.

Being a movie buff, I can’t help mention the state of the competition there. Obviously, Marvel Studios is killing DC in terms of box office. Wonder Woman has been the only real victory for DC since they launched their cinematic universe with Man of Steel in 2013 (so that disqualifies the superior Dark Knight trilogy which concluded in 2012). However, I’m personally not that keen on Marvel’s movies either; the only one I loved without reservation was Doctor Strange in 2017. I quite like some of the X-Men movies, but technically they belong to 20th Century Fox, not Marvel Studios. I am a very hard audience to please when it comes to film.