Shazam! | David F. Sandberg | April 5, 2019
During the early stages of the DCEU, a common complain about Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was the dark tone (and color grading) that was completely absent of lighthearted humor and fun nature that viewers have found so charming from rival studio Marvel. This has slowly started to change, with DC slowly embracing this idea and injecting films like Wonder Woman and Justice League with glimmers of this and going all in on this approach with Aquaman last December.
In comes Shazam!, and it’s clear that DC is all in on this newfound approach and it’s hard to argue with the results. Directed by David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation, Lights Out), Shazam! is the film that fans have been waiting for, finding a good balance of humor, high-flying action, and all the elements that fans of the superhero genre come to expect.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) spends his time bouncing around foster homes in Philadelphia, never sticking around. It’s hard for him to find a “forever home” after being separated from his mother after he accidentally got lost at a carnival and has been desperately looking for her ever since. After an encounter with the police, he finds himself in the loving hands of the loving Vasquez family, headed by good-hearted foster parents Victor and Rosa (The Walking Dead‘s Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) and his new siblings, Freddy (It‘s Jack Dylan Grazer), Mary (Grace Fulton), Darla (Faithe Herman), Eugene (Ian Chen), and Pedro (Jovan Armand).
Things change for him when he stands up for the disabled Freddy at school and escapes from the school bullies’ wrath onto the subway. Only it doesn’t let off at any old stop, but instead at the Rock of Eternity where the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) awaits Billy, having found Billy to be pure of heart and transfers the magical abilities of Shazam to the teen, in order for Billy to fight an evil force threatening global destruction as a fully grown Superman-like figure (played by Zachary Levi).
That evil force is Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong returning to DC after Green Lantern), aided by the anthropomorphized demon-like CGI Seven Deadly Sins acting as his goons. Instead of opening Shazam with Billy, it instead opens with a 1974 flashback to a young Sivana encountering the Wizard Shazam, where we find that he is not true of heart because of the unloving relationship he shares with his father (John Glover) and brother. Sivana nurses this grudge all the way into adulthood and, after spending years of his life searching for a way back, he is determined to carry out his plans of destruction, no matter who gets in his way.
At its core, Shazam! is a film about the power of family and the pain and suffering that can come as a result of being unloved. Both Billy and Sivana are essentially orphaned but they find themselves on very different paths, due to the impact that the inclusion of a loving family has on Billy. One of the best parts of the film is seeing his relationship develop with Freddy, who becomes his best friend and brother, and to see the different dynamic that arises from his taking the adult Shazam form, with some great chemistry shared between Grazer and Levi. That’s not to mention the rest of the young children who make up Billy’s new family and all have an eccentric lovability and charm to them that makes it just as delightful to spend time in the Vasquez house as it is to see Shazam discover his powers and fight off an evil supervillain.
It’s these heartwarming emotions that the screenplay written by Henry Gayden takes care to curate that allow Shazam! to rise to the occasion. This helps it survive during some of the clunkier moments of the final act where we see Billy as Shazam taking on Sivana and the Seven Deadly Sins. It’s a bit unfortunate that the film relies on a climax featuring a fairly predictable and routine final epic battle full of less-than-stellar CGI. It’s par for the course for the genre, and although there are a few surprises that help alleviate some of the blandness, it’s not enough to derail everything that Sandberg got oh-so-right beforehand, and it often feels like Batson and Sivana’s stories are two separate movies forced into one.
The film rests upon the shared weight of Levi, Angel, and Grazer, and it’s actually Grazer who ends up stealing a lot of the thunder right alongside Levi. Grazer, who had his fair share of scene-stealing moments in It plays the role so well and it feels like a real star-making performance. Equally delightful is Levi, who plays the role of Shazam with all the child-like wonder and awe, with a believable amount on naivety that he sells with ease. Angel is able to dig into the more subdued heartfelt moments that the film calls for and makes it seem natural and completely genuine. All of the kids play their foster roles well and have their time to shine, as do Andrews and Milans. While it’s always welcome to see Mark Strong, it’s a shame that this role just feels so tailor-made for him that it actually seems like he’s just going through the motions. Considering that the film began by giving shape and dimension to this villain, it’s too bad that he ends up becoming just as unremarkable as the next.
But Sandberg finds a way to make nearly every second spent in this world a complete and total delight. This is the sort of film that probably would have been your favorite film as a young kid or pre-teen, which is not a knock in the slightest. It’s good-natured, has a good message about what it means to truly be family, and is just a good time from start to finish – which is exactly what I wanted from it. While the third act doesn’t totally bring it all home, the final sequence is pitch-perfect and enough to allow you to leave the theater with a smile on your face knowing that DC is finally on the right path.