Ever since the Dark Knight Trilogy concluded and the attempt to create a DC Cinematic Universe began, the DC brand has diminished in the wake of multiple mediocre superhero films and the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, their new offering, Shazam!, is a breath of fresh air for DC fans everywhere. As it turns out, all DC needed to do to catch up to Marvel was embrace the comedy in these inherently absurd superhero stories.
The audience is introduced to Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an orphaned foster kid who is still searching for his mom. After locking two police officers in an appliance store and embarking on another unsuccessful trip to find his parent, the foster care system finds him and sends him to a tightly knit group of foster children who treat each other like-as a real family. Soon after his arrival, Batson is transported to another realm while escaping from some local school bullies on a subway train. There he meets a wizard called Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who transports his powers to Batson, changing him into an adult version of himself (Zachary Levi) and beginning the hijinks that come with being a superhero.
Running parallel to the main storyline for the first half of the narrative is that of the villain–Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). As a child, he was treated terribly by his father and older brother, and was then rejected by the wizard for not having a strong will. This turns him into an obsessive and lost man who takes control of the Seven Deadly Sins in order to eventually gain the power that Shazam holds. Strong’s villain is very well set-up and has a fully-fleshed-out back-story, but unfortunately, he is the sole cause of a few random tonal shifts that seem quite jarring. The film flashes between Batson and his “sidekick” Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) cracking jokes, to Sivana murdering rooms full of people.
Fortunately, Shazam! is fun enough to supersede the tonal shifts.
The tone of this movie could be described as derivative, and my biggest fear going in was that it would feel like a knockoff of superhero movies that have attempted to strike this same balance between comedy and adventure previously. Fortunately, director David F. Sandberg, knows how to strike that chord while also creating fresh perspectives.
For example, a main thread that runs through most of the film is how Batson refuses to conform to other people’s expectations of him. This theme extends to when he actually gains his superpowers. In most, if not all, superhero movies the main character immediately attempts to solve a crime of some sort or do some sort of good in the community. Not Billy Batson. He uses his powers to have fun with his friends and make money as a pseudo-street-magician.
Many aspects of Shazam! could have gone wrong in retrospect. However, the film never fails at anything even though some things, like plot and tone, ride the middle of the road as far as superhero tropes go.
The most conflicting part of the narrative for me is the villain. Strong’s character is a missed opportunity due to his potential back-story. For the entire first act, the narrative has the audience believing that his personal struggle has significance in the long run of the story, but near the end, the film forgets about his motivation and treats him as a forgettable villain as opposed to completing his story arc.
This movie reflects the early and inexperienced Marvel Cinematic Universe films in that the villain isn’t the strongest, but the movie supersedes the limitations of just one character. Shazam! is another “funny” superhero movie, but it manages to make the genre feel fresh in a time where all society seems to be seeing is varying degrees of a similar story, which is an accomplishment worthy of praise.
By Joel Alexander – Entertainment Editor