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.