Earlier this year Marvel debuted its highly anticipated female-led project, “Captain Marvel”, but what you may not know is that Marvel’s character was not the first to hold the Captain Marvel title. That name originally belonged to a character from DC who today, thanks to copyright limitations, is known as Shazam. As Marvel continues to shine DC has been working towards increasing their relevance on the big screen with fun films like “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” and it seems to be pure coincidence that their next offering is focused on their own Captain Marvel. I was one of many who got to enjoy Fandango’s early access screening of DC’s latest offering, the seventh film in their extended movie universe and I’ve gotta say right off the bat DC is finally finding an identity it can be proud of. But just how good is DC’s newest hero flick? Let’s take a look. This is my review of “Shazam!”. If you’re interested in seeing the movie for yourself be sure to check it out when it gets its wide release on April 5.
“Shazam!” takes place a year after Steppenwolf’s invasion in “Justice League” and focuses on troubled 14-year-old orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel). Billy moves in with foster parents the Vazquez’s (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) and meets disabled superhero enthusiast Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) who quickly becomes Billy’s closest friend in the household. Meanwhile, a twisted industrialist named Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) finds his way to the lair of the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) and embraces the power of the seven deadly sins before setting out to wreak havoc on the world. After defending Freddy from school bullies Billy is chosen as the “champion” to inherit Shazam’s powers giving Billy the ability to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). As Billy explores his abilities with Freddy as his trainer he is forced to come to peace with his new responsibilities and stop Dr. Sivana from stealing the power of Shazam and spreading destruction across the world.
It’s good to see that DC has finally learned its lesson that dark and gritty isn’t always the best direction. After launching the DC Extended Universe with “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman” it looked like the franchise finally found footing with successful films like “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” that fit into the continuity while also successfully establishing their own identities. That trend continues with “Shazam!” which brings a much lighter spin to the superhero origin story. Where “Wonder Woman” balanced feminist themes with a story of self-discovery and “Aquaman” took inspiration from the stories of King Arthur to explore the ideas of unity among worlds and one’s inner hero, “Shazam!” follows suit with its own moral core by exploring the concepts of maturity, the true definition of heroism and the responsibility that comes with being thrust into greatness. It juggles themes that are rarely explored by superhero movies because Shazam is actually a kid and thus a lot of his growth involves his literal maturation into a hero. “Shazam!” offers an effective and entertaining blend of self-referential humor and emotionally driven storytelling that feels like a breath of fresh air after seeing a God and a King find their way in the world of superheroes. It’s nice to see DC take a step back and explore something a bit more grounded.
I think one of the coolest things about “Shazam!” is that while watching it I remembered being a young boy wanting to be a superhero myself. It’s a common childhood dream and one we never realized would carry so much responsibility if it were to ever come true. “Shazam!” captures that mentality perfectly giving us a delightful look at a young teenager who suddenly has greatness thrust upon him and how someone his age might actually act in the modern world especially where social media fame tends to be everyone’s goal. Asher Angel, who plays the young Billy Batson, and Zachary Levi, who plays Billy’s adult form Shazam, are a perfect match creating one united personality that feels consistent between them. Levi fittingly steals the show but both performances are impressive with Asher capturing the nuanced life of a troubled orphan while Zachary Levi is downright charming and hilarious as “Shazam!” especially since he’s acting like someone more than half his age.
The villain on the other hand is a pretty middle-of-the-road entry in DC’s lineup, but that doesn’t make him bad. Mark Strong hams it up as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, a disgraced former prospect for the Wizard Shazam’s powers who embraces the power of the seven deadly sins to become Shazam’s evil equal. We do get some backstory into what makes Sivana tick and why he is the man he is, but overall I felt that Sivana was just a typical, generic villain with similar powers to his heroic opponent to test Shazam in his first adventure. Even then, the important thing here is that Sivana isn’t boring. He’s a full-on megalomaniac whose motives and powers are well defined and possesses as a legitimate threat to the hero that requires a bit of creative thinking and strategy for Shazam to overcome. Overall I’d put him below Areas, Ocean Master, and General Zod but he’s much more interesting than Lex Luther, Steppenwolf or the Enchantress. So he’s a middle of the road villain at best, but he’s enough to provide some real stakes and challenges to Shazam that force him to mature fast and embrace his inner hero.
One character that bothered me though was Freddy Freeman, Billy’s best friend and foster brother as well as his trainer when he obtains the power of Shazam. It’s not that Freeman is a bad character, far from it. In fact, Jack Dylan Grazer of “It” fame does a fine job, but while Freddy is a fun and charming companion for the hero part of his story arc betrays the film’s deeper themes of responsibility as a hero. Without spoiling too much there’s one moment where Freddy asks Billy to use his Shazam powers to do him a favor. This evolves into a conflict between the two that ends with Billy being subject to criticism for using his powers selfishly, but when you realize the conflict stems from Freddy literally asking Billy to use his powers to benefit Freddy’s own selfishness you realize how hypocritical these criticisms are. I was hoping the film would come back to that scene and course correct but it actually doubles down and rewards Freddy for being the same selfish kid he accused Billy of being in the first place. I get why this conflict is here because it’s supposed to be a moment of revelation for Shazam, but there are a hundred better ways that this movie could have worked this out. This easily became the most frustrating aspect of the movie for me and it’s not the only aspect of the film that feels like it could have benefitted from better attention to detail. While these moments don’t spoil the film they serve as further proof that as fun and engaging as “Shazam!” is it’s far from perfect.
Looking at the overall product I’d say “Shazam!” is definitely one of the best films in DC’s modern lineup. “Wonder Woman” still remains the series’ best movie although “Shazam!” certainly continues the upward trend with a deeper story, a more human and relatable hero and a more lighthearted and balanced script and screenplay that seems to understand not only the source material but also what the fanbase has been loking for the last few years. I was seldom bored watching this movie and had a lot of fun experiencing the evolution of the hero and the superpowered battles that Shazam and Sivana engage in. “Shazam!” does borrow from almost every origin story that has come before it and yet it feels like something all its own. There are plenty of clichés and formulas that prevent it from feeling like anything too original or unique, but it has so much of its own flair and charm that it stands as a solid superhero movie that brings out the best in its formula. Sure, we’ve seen it all before, but “Shazam!” puts a new spin on the same old song and dance which is all we can really ask for from most comic book adaptations nowadays. It’s far from spectacular or revolutionary, but “Shazam!” is everything it needs to be to continue DC’s renaissance as a source of quality escapism and big screen entertainment.
As basic and predictable as “Shazam!” can be I still had a lot of fun with it and would highly recommend it. This isn’t the spectacular over-the-top epic that DC and its fans deserve, but it’s certainly the fun, lighthearted and charming origin story the series needs right now to continue to establish itself as more than simply diet-Marvel. This is a film with personality, great humor, memorable characters, and a decent if generic villain that doesn’t necessarily push the envelope but it fits right in with the more entertaining comic book adaptations of recent years. “Shazam!” is pretty much everything you need from a good superhero movie even if it’s nothing truly new or revolutionary. If you like superhero movies and have always wanted to be a superhero as a kid “Shazam!” explores these fantasies perfectly and satisfies on most levels of expectation. It’s just one more step in the right direction for DC and I honestly can’t wait to see more from Shazam in the future.