“Shazam!” could have been bad; it could have been really bad. The new DC Comics and Warner Bros. film is about teenager Billy Batson who is transported to a magical cave and endowed with the power to become a superhero by a dying wizard named “Shazam!”. Now, I know the average superhero origin story isn’t exactly the most serious or grounded story: alien falls into Kansas and is raised as human boy, teenage nerd is bitten by a radioactive spider, boy’s parents are shot in an alley and he’s scared of bats so he dons a cowl and leaps around roofs and punches clowns, etc. Unlike those tales, something about the story of “Shazam!” is especially corny, and that’s where it thrives.
As previously stated, the film centers around a teenage foster kid, Billy Batson (Asher Angel). Billy has been bouncing around from home to home his whole life, until he settles into a new house in Philadelphia that is run by two former foster kids and is filled to the brim with a diverse, fun cast of siblings. Chief among them is Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a superhero-obsessed nerd about Billy’s age who is crippled and bullied at school by some older kids but manages to make jokes about it to cope. Billy takes the train home one day only to find himself transported to a cave where an old wizard named “Shazam!” declares that he is the last hope for the world and bestows him with the power to turn into a full-grown superhero (Zachary Levi) whenever he yells “Shazam!” Now, he has to use his powers to take down Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who has spent his whole life trying to hunt down the powers he was once declared unworthy of holding.
That plot synopsis does not do justice to how tightly the plot of this movie is actually written. Despite not taking a fresh narrative path, the movie does a lot to make itself feel genuine and fun.
The premise of the movie knows how ridiculous it is, and director David Sandberg (“Lights Out,” “Annabelle: Creation”) and screenwriter Henry Gayden do too. Sandberg draws on his horror roots and takes what can only be described as the Sam Raimi approach. Much like Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy of the early 2000s, there is an intentional fun and corniness to “Shazam!” that takes it to the next level. Part of the problems that the DC Extended Universe films have had is that they take themselves too seriously, but the events transpiring on screen, and the visuals stand in stark contrast to that. Nothing has impact, everything is grim and annoying, but that just isn’t the case with“Shazam!”.
The movie goes all out with its premise of a kid in a superhero’s body. It hits all of the expected beats of trying to buy beer, going to a strip club and even a little homage to the 1988 film “Big.” There’s something really nice about these moments. This is a big superhero movie that doesn’t shy away from some pretty dark material, also similar to Raimi’s work with “Spider-Man.” The monsters in the movie are actually scary, there are jump scares, the teenage characters say “s–t” and they even drink beer, although, they do spit it out immediately afterwards and go back in for a haul of junk food instead.
The performances from this primary cast of Angel, Grazer and Levi carry the film. Especially Grazer and Levi’s performances. Grazer’s comedic moments hit, and Levi managed to perfectly capture the essence of a 13-year-old turned superhero. The comedic elements of the movie greatly stood out and not only hit like they do in most big actions movies right now, but seemed to be the primary focus. This felt like an old-school ‘80s adventure comedy where the action took the back seat but was still cool and solid.
The soundtrack was fun and the script was comedic and clever. It took itself seriously in the narrative moments where it needed to, but it was light-hearted enough to remain entertaining throughout. “Shazam!” is a huge accomplishment for the DCEU, and hopefully its continuing titles take notes from its successes.