Remember when superhero movies were a load of fun for the whole family and didn’t involve 50% of the cast being annihilated or our favourite heroes becoming moody and violent? Shazam! definitely does.
The most purely feel-good film of the year so far stars a 14-year-old in a man’s body, plays like Big meets Superman (or Bananaman meets SuperTed, if you like) and channels the ‘80s vibes of Ghostbusters and The Goonies. It’s comfortably one of DC’s best so far, set squarely in the DCEU and yet it feels like nothing that’s come from DC before.
Asher Angel plays Billy Batson, a wayward teenager who’s been in and out of foster care since he was a kid. Transferred to yet another home, Batson gets in a fight, and flees to the subway only to find himself in a mystical dimension faced with a wizard who commands him to “lay your hand on my staff and let my power flow through you”. Which Batson sniggers at.
Imbued with superpowers and transformed into the adult Shazam (Zachary Levi), Batson uses his newfound abilities to get money, buy beer and bunk off school with his new foster brother, superhero nerd Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). That’s until an equal and opposite force appears on the scene: Doctor Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). Suddenly, Shazam has an arch-nemesis. The trouble is he’s still a 14-year-old boy inside, doesn’t really know how to use his powers, and would rather be dicking around shooting lightning from his fingertips to the Rocky theme than saving the world.
A dual origin story for both Shazam and Sivana, the two play as perfect parallels. Shazam is a child in a man’s body, Sivana a man stunted by his experiences as a child. Strong plays Sivana deadly serious and straight, which works perfectly against Levi’s Shazam, who struggles to take anything seriously at all. The movie is consistently funny throughout, even in moments of peril, but it’s also not afraid to go to the dark side, balancing the two tones expertly. Director David F Sandberg, who’s best known for Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, brings his love of horror with him too, so there are some genuinely brutal scenes as well as some fantastical sequences involving a variety of monsters.
Levi is perfect as Shazam and you absolutely believe he and Angel are versions of the same person, but the supporting cast is excellent, too. Grazer as Freddy carries comedy and pathos and, after his great turn in It: Chapter One, shows he’s one of the most interesting actors of his generation, while Faithe Herman as young foster sister Darla is adorable.
Definitely a part of the DCEU – Freddy is obsessed with all the characters in the Justice League, while various Batman and Superman memorabilia appears throughout – Shazam! also works perfectly as a standalone. Anyone with superhero fatigue needs have no fear, Shazam! is as much a fantasy action romp as it is a comic-book movie.
For comic-book fans, though, there are plenty of Easter eggs, and the movie’s mid- and post-credits scenes should have audience members in the know whooping with delight. Even the credits themselves – Freddie’s drawings of scenes of Shazam interacting with members of the Justice League, racing The Flash, chatting up Wonder Woman etc – are a delight.
Shazam! is massive fun, but it’s the film’s emotional heart that’s the real triumph. With strong messages about families of all shapes and sizes and the importance of supporting and nurturing young people, it really does feel like the movie we need right now. It’s a slight shame then that one subplot strand relating to Billy’s background, which absolutely works emotionally, doesn’t actually make any sense in real-world terms. It’s a pity, since Shazam’s script, written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke, is otherwise extremely clever and tight, with the movie coming in at a tidy 132 minutes. But by the end of Shazam, which comes with a euphoric climactic twist, small things like plot holes aren’t likely to bother anyone.
Family friendly but not childish, skewing younger than Wonder Woman but with just as much charm, DC has knocked it out of the park with Shazam!. We only hope that good word of mouth will help it to do well at the box office and prove that massive expanded universes and super serious themes aren’t the only way for superhero movies to build audiences. Sometimes a big heart and a sense of humour is enough.