It’s official: the Zack Snyder era of the DCEU is over once and for all. The dark, brooding, nihilistic tone that the director tried to surgically graft onto the entire breadth of characters he’d been given to work with has been dispensed with. Starting with Wonder Woman — which partially escaped his grasp — and continuing with Aquaman, viewers began to see DC superheroes who actually relished their roles as protectors of humanity. And now Shazam! has brought the franchise a complete 180 degrees from where it started, creating a fun, heartfelt, occasionally soaring adventure as far from the likes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as you can imagine.
Shazam! is based on the comic book character formerly known as Captain Marvel and launched in 1940 by writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck at Fawcett Comics. We can dispense with the complicated history of the character’s original name (and how it was eventually acquired by Marvel Comics for a completely different creation) since the film does as well, and it’s not necessary to have read the books to grasp the simple architecture of this character’s mythology.
Other than that and some necessary modern updates, Shazam! stays more or less true to the origin story, as troubled teen orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is chosen by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to receive his powers and gain the ability to turn into a powerful, almost indestructible being simply by reciting the wizard’s name: Shazam (which stands for the deities it invokes and the powers it imbues: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury). Imbued with his newfound abilities but unsure how to use them, Billy begins to experiment with the idea of being a living, breathing superhero while continuing on a personal mission of his own.
Shazam is played by Zachary Levi (Chuck), whose pumped-up physique and chiseled appearance are a perfect front for why this movie works: for the first time in years on the screen, the main character is not a reluctant champion but, once he finds out what he’s capable of, an excited and highly enthusiastic one. Levi effortlessly channels the spirit of a 14-year-old boy as he lumbers about in his new body while awkwardly trying to talk to women or gleefully charging people’s cell phones with lightning blasts from his fingertips. Without ever descending fully into camp, Shazam! reminds us that flying around in tights and a cape, knocking down bad guys or saving busloads of people, can be fun. Levi, a fan himself, indulges those fantasies in a child-like, endearing, and instantly charming fashion.
Other superheroes exist in the film, both as real-life entities and pop culture figures; it is part of the wider DC Extended Universe established in previous films, although the references are kept to a minimum. Billy’s friend Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer from It) is an expert, so Billy/Shazam gets a semi-meta crash course in what it’s all about as the two sneak out of their warm Philadelphia group home and its diverse collection of engaging foster siblings to test-drive Billy’s new body. And of course there is a supervillain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (a glowering, tensed-up Mark Strong), who had his own brush with the wizard decades ago and has been looking for him ever since, for reasons both a bit vague and straight out of the nemesis playbook.
Directed by David F. Sandberg, known for stylish if unexceptional horror yarns like Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, Shazam! is about as different from the director’s previous work as it is dissimilar from most of the earlier DC offerings. While the script (by Henry Gayden) touches on all the largely predictable beats of the traditional origin story, it comments on them at the same time, and the witty interplay between Levi and Grazer as well as Levi’s own self-awareness keep everything moving with a light touch and a genuine, sweet sincerity that we haven’t seen in a DC film since perhaps the original Superman in 1978.
There are a number of references and Easter eggs in the film that longtime fans of the comic will jump on automatically, and a moment that is not just a delight for diehard followers but an authentic crowdpleasing moment that drew a round of applause from the preview audience we saw the movie with. Shazam! is unabashedly a family film, packed with punch-ups but light on the bone-crunching violence of the Snyder era, and it’s bursting with color as well, from Levi’s marvelously (no pun intended) designed suit to the brightly lit neon bath of amusement park in which the movie’s finale takes place.
In a strange way, Shazam! feels and looks like the kind of superhero movie that Steven Spielberg might have directed in his heyday, or at least produced through his Amblin banner. That makes it not only completely different from most of its own company’s own recent offerings (it’s far superior to the overstuffed, sloppy, headache-inducing Aquaman), but lets it stand apart from the movies of the competing Marvel universe as well (although Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Billy/Shazam share some common ground). Sweet, full of heart, in love with its source material, and viewed almost entirely through the eyes of a child, Shazam! is a family superhero adventure in every sense of the word.
Shazam! is out in theaters on Friday, April 5. The full schedule of upcoming DCEU movies can be found here.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye