This is a spoiler-free advance review. Shazam! opens April 5 in the US and UK and April 4 in Australia.
Shazam! is DC’s most joyful and sweet movie since the days of Christopher Reeve’s Superman, a funny yet earnest coming-of-age story about a boy who learns that, well, with great power comes great responsibility. So obviously, Shazam! doesn’t reinvent the superhero movie, but it’s an undeniably fun time that left me wanting more big-screen adventures with these charming characters.
Where Wonder Woman bore the weight of expectations as the first major modern female superhero film and Aquaman had a load of world-building (and redemption) to do, Shazam! is saddled with no such heavy, external burdens. It’s thus able to be as carefree as a child, to just have fun despite having to inevitably grow up and confront some very adult concerns along the way. Namely, how streetwise orphan Billy Batson must accept responsibility for his behavior if he’s going to prove truly worthy of the magical gifts bestowed upon him.
Ably played as never too obnoxious nor too earnest by Asher Angel, Billy is a good kid at heart who’s largely been mistreated by others. This shoddy treatment speaks to the very important moral at the heart of this particular story (and its villain’s motivations). The key message of Shazam! is that it’s gravely important how adults treat children, whether it’s through remarks or rejections or the choices adults make that impact a child’s emotional development. At the same time, it’s ultimately up to the child to decide whether they turn out kind or unkind.
Billy is a flawed character who screws up, but it’s in watching him learn from his mistakes that we grow to legitimately care about him. The film largely avoids the maudlin and manipulative when it comes to this story of a 14-year-old boy seeking answers, his way in the world, and finding the true meaning of home among a misfit foster family.
The movie nicely provides a rarely seen positive depiction of foster care, as the most recent family to take Billy in are legitimately good people who truly want the best for him. Of this family — which includes the adorable, but not overly precocious younger sister Darla (Faithe Herman) — the character with the most development is Billy’s foster house roommate Freddie (wonderful scene-stealer Jack Dylan Grazer), whose skills as an in-universe DC fanboy help him fill the mentor role for our fledgling and decidedly ungeeky superhero. Freddie and Billy/Shazam’s friendship is the heart of this movie and it doesn’t squander their often hilarious interactions as two kids playing with fire taken from the gods.
But none of the above would matter if the center of the movie, its key performer, was weak; thankfully, that isn’t the case here. Zachary Levi is perfect as Shazam. He’s hilarious, heartwarming and completely believable as a 14-year-old boy trapped in a muscle-bound superhero’s body, excelling in both the action scenes as well as in the more vulnerable moments. I could never imagine anyone else in the role after watching Levi here, and his comedic chemistry with Grazer is spot-on.
They make for a great buddy act, with each — as real friends or brothers might — complementing the other’s strengths while also schooling them on their weaknesses. For those unfamiliar with Levi’s past work, Shazam! will prove a revelation (and potentially a very hot ticket to bigger stardom for the former Chuck lead). Levi/Shazam’s arrival is the point where the movie firmly clicks into place after some awkwardly sluggish sections that feel perfunctory in setting up Billy’s life and central conflict. But the chemistry of its leads and the earnestness of its “Big but with superheroes” premise definitely papers over the weaker areas.
This isn’t an action movie per se but a coming-of-age comedy with some action in it. There are some very funny, very knowing superhero moments to be had as Billy/Shazam, documented by Freddie, discovers the range of his newfound powers. These are the scenes where the movie shines brightest, poking fun at all the superhero movie tropes even if nothing much of consequence happens. But once Billy/Shazam realizes he can use his powers for more than just cheap tricks, his true hero’s journey begins.
Mark Strong wisely underplays his role as the villainous Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, and his character has a sympathetic, relatable motivation for his fall from grace, but Sivana’s master plan proves underwhelming. While it’s appreciated that there wasn’t an overtly (and overdone) “save the world” plot in play here, Sivana is basically a villain from a Mummy movie, right down to his monstrous minions, whose retrograde visual effects quality is almost forgivable given the throwback nature of the movie. Sivana serves his purpose (and the film’s larger thematic point) as Billy’s foil well enough, but you’ll likely be hard-pressed to recall him when mulling the great comic book movie supervillains.
Shazam! is as liberated a comic book movie for DC as Deadpool was for Fox-Marvel, not in the latter’s profanely meta way (though Shazam! very cheekily acknowledges its place in the DC film universe established with Man of Steel) but in a similarly hilarious, lovable, and oddly sweet manner. The movie makes you understand why Shazam — while never an icon on the level of Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman — has endured for eight decades. The film relishes in the wish fulfillment appeal its mythos offers, drawing particularly from Geoff Johns’ New 52 revamp but also dipping into much older DC Comics classics for some very fun, geeky moments of fan service.
Shazam! is a lot of fun and it further proves how, in the wake of the success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, DC’s movie future is indeed bright. Zachary Levi was born to play this superpowered man-child, delivering lots of laughs alongside sarcastic but amiable co-star Jack Dylan Grazer. After an awkward and obligatory opening, the latter three quarters pack some big surprises for comics buffs and offer enough mainstream appeal to win over new fans. While Dr. Sivana ties in nicely with the themes of how adults can influence children, this villain is ultimately little more than a means to an end for the story of a boy who must learn what it takes to be a (super)man.
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