There is a point in “Shazam!” when one of Batman’s batarangs is dropped to floor, harmlessly pinging out of site. This can be seen as a metaphor at this moment for the entirety of the DCEU – oh sure, the Dark Knight and Superman will come back one day and stun audiences with new feats of derring-do, but the last few films we’ve seen from DC have been almost a complete repudiation of the start of this shared universe. The movies are, gasp, in full color; the characters laugh; there is a lighthearted sense to it all. This course correction which began with “Wonder Woman” offers movies that are, for lack of a better word, fun. Oh sure, lives are still at stake and mothers remain a big part of it all, but there’s no more moping around in desaturated supersuits.
A blend of “Big” and a traditional superhero origin story (yes, it even references “Big”), the David F. Sandberg directed “Shazam!” stars Zachary Levi as the titular character (who, at one time in comic history, was known as Captain Marvel, but that’s a story for another day). The “Tangled” and “Chuck” actor brilliantly encapsulates the phenomenon of a 14-year-old boy saying a magic word and turning into a superhero. Shazam’s alter ego, Billy Batson, is equally well portrayed by Asher Angel. The two actors are able to seamlessly blend into the same character, avoiding any horrible jolts to the movie as Billy transforms into Shazam or vice versa.
The vision Sandberg offers us does not, but could easily devolve to earlier DCEU woe-is-me entries as Batson is a foster kid whose mom, quite purposefully didn’t search him out years ago when they got separated at a carnival. However, not only is her name not Martha, but the movie never allows itself to wallow in despair. Billy is, of course, heartbroken and confused by his mom never finding him again, and he has sought her for years, but it is just one facet to his personality as we learn when we see him come to live with a new foster family and find a friend there in a fellow teenage boy in the house. A superhero nerd, this new friend, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), guides Billy as he learns all about his powers and his purpose.
Although much of the experimenting about Shazam’s powers is enjoyable, there are moments when the movie feels as though it drags a little because of it. This is a superhero origin story after all, and it comes with all bits of baggage that usually accompany such films. Billy has to learn to control his powers as Shazam, figuring out how to best deploy them, how to protect his foster family, and how to defeat someone else new to the superpowered world – Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). Unlike some other origin efforts, Sivana is a well-written character whose desires are understood, and Strong offers an undeniable sense of menace in the role.
That said, “Shazam!” never seems to spend enough time on the supernatural aspect of it all, on Sivana’s using the seven deadly sins and the in-depth history of the wizards from where Shazam’s powers originate (the wizard we do meet is portrayed Djimon Hounsou). Some of it is present, but never quite enough to satisfy. It isn’t that there are wholly unearned moments, but some fleshing out is missing. The film, which has a screenplay by Henry Gayden based on a story by Gayden and Darren Lemke, just doesn’t have enough time to do it all.
It does, however, do more than enough. Billy’s foster family and their interactions with one another are a joy to watch. Played by Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton, Cooper Andrews, Ian Chen, Marta Milans, and Jovan Armand, this group helps keep the story small and (to whatever extent it’s possible) normalizes Billy’s problems. Simply watching the film, the audience immediately feels at home with this group and wants to be a part of it.
The world of “Shazam!” is a world where, yes, Batman and Superman exist, and where they are thought of with awe and reverence. But, it is not a movie which allows awe and reverence to denude everything of life. This is not a dark, gritty, reboot. It is a wonderfully lively, fun and funny, engaging movie; something that was missing from early entries in the DCEU.
A whole lot of people—young and old—are going to leave the theater uttering the magic word and hoping against hope that they, too, have the power. What could be better than that?
photo credit: Warner Bros.