After their biggest success to date with last year’s “Aquaman”, Warner Bros. and DC are taking things down to a much smaller scale with the hero, “Shazam!”, formerly Captain Marvel… I know, it’s confusing.
Shazam! is a different tone compared to what we’ve seen in the DCEU thus far. Even with the cooky, manic fun showcased in “Aquaman”, “Shazam!” fully embraces it’s whimsical, Amblin-era inspirations while also wearing its heart on its sleeve.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a rebellious foster kid. Billy bounces from foster home to foster home in search of his estranged mother, from whom he was separated from at a very young age. When he runs away from his newest foster home, Billy is summoned by the ancient wizard, Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who grants him powers and a new body (Zachary Levi) whenever Billy utters the wizards name.
“Shazam!” is a fun and breezy adventure, but it’s at its best when it focuses on the smaller stuff. A 14 year-old discovering new abilities and powers within a new body is ripe for humor and we get plenty of it here.
Instead of going out and combing the streets for crime, Billy initially seems more interested in buying beer, taking selfies with crowds, showing off his ability to shoot lighting from his hands, charging people phones; nothing of great importance, but often laugh-out-loud funny. It isn’t until he is confronted by another individual with similar, but evil abilities, Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), where Billy is forced to learn to use his powers for the greater good.
Having to play the same character has proven to make-or-break films in the past, but Asher Angel and Zachary Levi feel wonderfully in sync with one another. Levi in particular, is clearly having the time of his life reveling in such a fun character. Joining the ranks of Ryan Reynolds, Robert Downey Jr., Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa as actors seemingly born to play their on-screen counterpart. What helps Levi shine is just how well-written and delightful his character is. Billy is a flawed kid, but has a warm heart and wants to do good, but he loses his way sometimes.
Helmed by “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation” director David F. Sandberg, “Shazam!” blends many stories we’ve seen before, but manages to still feel fresh and exciting. Particularly taking the blueprint from Sam Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” along with “The Goonies”, and of course “Big”.
Like many kid-oriented films of the 80’s, Shazam! also features some rapid tonal shifts, including a few sequences in which Sandberg flexes his horror muscles. It would be acceptable on its own, but in a film this wide-eyed and heartfelt, the darker sequences feel misguided and out of place.
As the evil, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, Mark Strong is quite good. The character does get a fleshed out backstory and his motivations are always clear, but apart from Strong’s performance, there isn’t much separating him from most generic Superhero baddies. I actually had to look up the character’s name in writing this, just so I could remember.
“It” standout, Jack Dylan Grazer provides much of the films best one-liners as Billy’s physically disabled foster brother, Freddy. Freddy is geeky and socially awkward, but has an attitude that makes him a target for bullies in his school, laying the groundwork for some satisfying moments between Shazam and the bullies. Grazer has fun chemistry with both Levi and Angel, making for numerous memorable sequences. The sequence in a party store is a notable stand-out.
At the heart of “Shazam!” is a boy searching not just for a family, but for a purpose. The family aspect is what separates “Shazam!” from most superhero flicks of recent. If you show up for superhero action and pizazz, you’ll surely find it. You’ll also be rewarded with some of the funniest set-pieces in the genre since 2016’s “Deadpool”. What you won’t be expecting is just how grounded and down-to-earth the film is.
Like the character, “Shazam!” is bright, joyful and full of heart. With some fun surprises along the way and enough clever jabs at fellow DC heroes to keep the fanboys happy, this is a slight, but fun ride. This new hero in the DC Universe is sure to make his mark over pop culture in the next few years.