You never get a second chance to make a first impression, but you really canít
fault the DC Extended Universe for trying. After all, it got off to a pretty
shaky start with dark, angsty films like
Man of Steel and the punishingly
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Martha. While
Wonder Woman, the first DC
film shot in color, looked like a reversal, DC doubled-down with the schizotonic
Suicide Squad and the hollow, self-important
League. Thatís probably why
Aquaman, its overdone and bombastic sixth film, seemed like a rebootóa conscious
effort to distance itself from the franchiseís past. The trend, however
solidifies with Shazam!, a film so bold, campy, and old-school that it has an
exclamation point right in the title.
The hero of our story is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a troubled, 14-year-old
foster kid. Through a series of random events, he meets an ancient wizard (Djimon
Hounsou), who gives Billy the ability to transform into an adult superhero
(Zachary Levi) when he says ďShazam!Ē While Billy tries to figure out his new
powers with the help of his comic book geek foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan
Grazer), heís being hunted by the villainous Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), who wants
Billyís magic for himself.
There really isnít much more plot to Shazam! than that. Thereís no world-shaking
catastrophe. Thereís not really a city to save. Nobodyís trying to become king
of anything. There isnít even a giant, mystical laser shooting up into the sky.
WaitÖis this even a DCEU movie at all?
It is, but not in the ways you might think. Shazam! makes off-handed references
to events in prior DCEU films. And based on the memorabilia in Freddyís room, we
know that Bats, Supes are real characters in the filmís universe. Otherwise,
though, the film is largely unconnected to any of the movies that came before
it. This works entirely in the filmís favor, unburdening it of the DCEUís past
baggage and allowing it to thrive on its own merits.
If anything, the closest analog Shazam! has to other superhero films is, of all
Deadpool. Both films have only a tenuous connection to shared universes,
and both are admirably devoted to the tone and feel of their source material.
Both have the lowest but most efficient budgets of any film in their franchise.
And both are focused entirely on personal stakes that help to speak to the
nature of their characters in ways larger films often miss. (Both heroes wear
red suits, too.) Of course, one is a profane, R-rated slice-and-dice-fest while
the other is a more family-friendly adventure about flying men in capes. But,
you know. Similar otherwise.
The most notable thing about Shazam! is how much fun it is. Even when heís
transformed into a handsome brick wall of a man, Billy is still a 14-year-old
boy playing with all the classic superpowers. There is a heavy degree of giddy
wish fulfillment in nearly every scene with Billy thatís more than a little
infectious. Itís almost too easy to imagine ourselves into that muscle suit.
Even in the filmís weaker moments, thereís an undeniable four-color,
page-turning energy to the story.
A lot of this energy comes from Zachary Leviís performance as the adult Billy, a
perfectly cast role if ever there was one. Asher Angel is great as the teenage
Billy, but itís Levi who truly makes the film glow with all his overblown
swagger and innocent, exuberant charisma. Itís clear heís having the time of his
life, and he carries the part like he was born to play it. Between Leviís own
juiced-up physique and the padded contours of the retro-leaning supersuit, he
cuts a delightfully exaggerated figure, truly like a classic comic book hero
come to life. He has a perfect sidekick in Jack Dylan Grazer, who geeks his
heart out in every scene, a very logic-focused counterpoint to Billyís
Every hero needs a villain, and Mark Strongís Dr. Sivana gives as good a
performance as Levi does. Casting Mark Strong as a villain might be typecasting
at this point, but casting him as this particular villain is genius. Sivana is
evil. Like legitimately cold, cruel, stoic evil. Strongís tempered approach to
the character helps sell the menace he has, and his lack of pomposity makes him
all the more terrifying. Sivana is responsible for some shockingly dark moments
in the film, but also some of its most amusing. An epic villain speech he tries
to give in the filmís climax fails to register because he says it when Billy is
too far away to hear him. Itís a moment that allows Strong to stay completely
true to both the established character of Sivana and the more comedic tone of
the overall film.
Shazam! gets a little greedy towards the end, and it could probably stand to
lose 15 minutes from its noisy finale. But hey, it gets the job done. The filmís
technical aspects falter slightly from time to time, although overall, things
are very competently handled. Chalk it up to the relatively tiny budget, but a
few of Billyís flying sequences look downright sloppy, and glowing objects like
the energy bolt on Billyís chest or the wizardís staff look like store-bought
props. Thereís so much charm built into the picture, though, that these kinds of
things are easy to overlook for the most part. They come off more as endearing
flaws than unfortunate mistakes.
And endearingly flawed could describe a lot of the movie. Shazam! certainly
means very well, and that attitude goes a long, long way to helping make the
film as enjoyable and fun as it is. Thereís no pretension here, no posturing.
The filmís campy, but it never winks at the camera. It has a sense of humor
about itself while also taking its source material very seriously. It contains
some strong, highly accessible emotional arcs that are never overplayed. It
proudly lives up to its heroís nickname, the Big Red Cheese, without making
apologies for it.
Shazam! is the magic word that turns the DC Extended Universe into a
super-charged good time.