The superhero genre has become the most popular and bankable thing to take over movie theaters in the past decade, and I believe it’s because it lends itself to the most ideal forms of escapism that we seek at the movies. We’re living in a period of extreme uncertainty, debilitating trust in authority, and overall existential depression, and so we pack the theater every weekend to escape the chaotic world outside and immerse ourselves in fantastical ones; ones that can look and feel similar to ours but hold much more hope, optimism, and heroism.
Marvel Studios has nailed this down to a science, but rival competitor DC has struggled to crack the formula that can make their films as universally beloved. Recently, they have thankfully moved away from the doom and gloom that their now-defunct cinematic universe was built around, and in doing so have started to restore good faith in audiences with inspiring origin stories like Wonder Woman and wacky, bombastic epics like Aquaman, and now, with Shazam!, they’ve learned to finally cut loose and have deliver pure, unbridled fun. Superhero movies can certainly be dark and gritty, but I think, at least at the moment, what people really want and need to see right now is joy, and it’s hard to stop smiling while you’re watching Shazam!.
Billy Batson, played by Asher Angel (what a name), is a 14 year old orphan who keeps running away from foster homes. He’s been searching for his mother his whole life after he was separated from her at a fair when he was a toddler, but hasn’t had much luck. He’s eventually placed in a home with a loving family that includes five other children, one of them being Freddy Freeman (It’s Jack Dylan Grazer), who’s obsessed with superheroes like Superman and Batman, who actually exist in this world. One day Billy is transported to a temple by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who bestows Billy with all of his powers. By shouting the word “Shazam”, Billy is able to transform into the titular superhero, a full-grown man with a bright and goofy costume (played by Zachary Levi), and has to quickly learn what it takes to be a hero, with help from his new brother.
It’s completely silly, but that’s the whole point. Shazam! is unapologetic in how wacky it wants to be, and that helps turn the film into one of the best family-friendly movies to hit the big screen in a long time. Zachary Levi’s finally been given the kind of roles he’s deserved for a long time – his portrayal of a kid suddenly trapped in an adult’s body is full of life and energy, recalling films like Big (and there’s definitely a nod to that film in there) and really capturing the magic and wonder of it all. His chemistry with Grazer is also tremendous, the two bounce off of each other the way real brothers would, and their dynamic is one of the film’s strongest aspects.
What Shazam! has more than any other superhero film is a huge heart – so much of the movie is incredibly sweet and not clouded by any sort of underlying meanness or cynicality. It’s a family movie about family and how it can come from anywhere and anyone, a theme that hasn’t been handled with such care and love since Guardians of the Galaxy. Billy rejects his foster families because he doesn’t consider them to be real, so he sadly keeps looking for the family that never wanted him while keeping the family that does at arm’s length. He has to discover what he’s had all along, and his adoptive brothers and sisters are what lift him up and help give him true purpose.
Of course, even with the sentimental, feel-good tone, Shazam! still finds room for a little bit of darkness with its villain, Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). Director David F. Sandberg comes exclusively from a horror background, having directed Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, and he unleashes that scarier side of his filmmaking just enough to put some menace behind his villain. Sivana comes from a much uglier family dynamic, considered to be the runt by his rich and powerful father and older brother, who constantly berate him and blame him for any misfortunes. The film’s opening shows Sivana as a child, and the verbal and psychological abuse you witness almost makes you feel like you walked into the wrong movie at first, but thankfully Sandberg knows when it’s time to dial it back. A scene where he crashes his father’s boardroom meeting is just plain terrifying, calling to mind the hospital scene in Spider-Man 2, which was also directed by someone with a horror background, Sam Raimi. The scarier parts of the movie are balanced out by its excellent sense of humor though, so anything that scares the kids too much will quickly be forgotten once they see Shazam doing the floss or crashing into things as he tries to figure his powers out.
Spending equally as much time with the villain as the hero of the story is a smart move, but unfortunately, once Sivana gets his powers and goes full supervillain, he becomes a lot less interesting. It would’ve been nice to see some dialogue between he and Billy where they could come back around to the themes of family or the lack of one, but no such conversations are had. Instead, Sivana turns into a one-note bad guy who just talks about the end of the world and growing stronger, and it feels like a waste after the first half of the film built him up so nicely. Shazam!’s other problem is its pacing, which feels like it keeps stopping and starting again, especially in its lengthy third act, which is almost entirely one long fight. The final confrontation between Billy and Sivana gets dragged on for a bit too long, but a genuinely surprising turn near the end saves it. No spoilers here, but it’s one of the most joyous and exuberant moments you’ll see in a superhero film, and beyond simply saving the third act, it elevates the entire film into something far greater than even the highest expectations were set to.
Shazam! is just a ton of fun, plain and simple, and it’s obvious that it’s happy to be so. It captures the magic, wonder, and humor of the best classic children’s movies, the action-packed excitement of the best superhero movies, and the heartfelt sentimentality of any movie about family. It’s a great reminder of why we keep going to these movies, and how anyone, from anywhere, can step up and be a hero, but also how no one can do it alone. DC has a real winner on their hands (and they seem to know it), and I welcome it. It’s entertaining escapism at its purest, and one of the best in the genre for children, which to me, is never a negative thing.
Shazam! is a pure, fun delight that has a lot of laughs, a lot of action, and a family-centric story that’s unapologetically sweet, and all the better for it.