Before I talk about Shazam! let me be upfront about something: I’m actually a fan of the Batman vs Superman and Justice League movies. I’m in the minority group of those who like the darker-themed color palette of the first DCEU movies. To top it off – I think the character of Shazam is silly. The idea of a kid who transforms into a Superman rip-off when he screams Shazam in the same world as the dark and brooding Batman just doesn’t resonate with me. It’s silly on paper and even more so on screen. So this movie already had many things against it when I went to see it. And on these fronts it pretty much delivered what I expected.
Shazam! was cheesy, full of bright colors and “borrowed” heavily from iconic films like Big, Goonies and even the Matrix Revolutions. That said, it was still entertaining, though never impressive the way other non-Batman starring DCEU blockbusters like Aquaman or Wonder Woman have been. Yes, I realize that Aquaman was pretty colorful and ridiculous, but that movie had giant crab monsters and a drum-playing octopus. The audience I saw the movie with loved it more than I did, so I’m in the minority once again.
Shazam! starts in 1974 with a young Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto) in the backseat of his father’s car playing with a Magic 8-ball as they drive through the snow at night. During the drive, Thaddeus is magically teleported to a mysterious realm where he meets the Wizard (DJimon Hounsou), a crinkly old fellow searching for a champion that is “pure of heart” so he can pass his power on to a new generation before he’s too old to do so. The last of his kind, the Wizard keeps at bay the Seven Deadly Sins – evil monstrous entities imprisoned in stone who are also looking for their own human vessel to instill power. Succumbing to temptation offered by The Sins, Thaddeus fails the test and the Wizard sends him back to the normal world where tragedy befalls his family soon after.
The story shifts to present day where we meet teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster kid who’s run away from many homes in his quest to find his birth mother. After getting himself into trouble he is relocated to a packed group home where there are five other foster kids already – Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton), the soon to be college student, Pedro Peña (Jovan Armand), the one of few words, Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), the technology guru, Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman) the talkative hugger, and Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), the disabled jokester, comic book fan and Billy’s main partner in crime for the remainder of the story.
This household of eclectic personalities is watched over by the loving foster parents, Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans) who were themselves foster kids. So they have a special level of patience with the children – particularly the troublesome Billy – as they understand what it means to grow up while struggling to find your place in the world.
While Billy settles into his new family, little Thaddeus Sivana has grown up to be Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) who has become obsessed with finding a way back to the Wizard’s realm. And he manages to do just this, taking the power offered by The Sins and becoming a super villain for self gain and revenge. Realizing that time has run out, the Wizard chooses Billy Batson to take the mantle of champion and transfers all his magical powers to the boy – instantly transforming him into Shazam (Zachary Levi). Billy finds that he is now an adult with incredible power, perfect hair and teeth, a ridiculously buff costume and no idea of how to use his powers or how to turn back into being a kid. Then he gets sent back to the normal world. Thanks, Wizard.
Finding himself in an awkward wardrobe situation, Shazam turns to the comic book-obsessed Freddy to learn how unleash this new caped crusader’s potential with comical consequence through trial and error – and a YouTube channel. Time is against Billy, however. While he learns to use his power and gives in to selfishness, Dr. Sivana is on a mission to discover who the Wizard chose as the champion and take that power for himself.
The acting in Shazam! is pretty cheesy, but that seems intentional. This is meant to be a fun and adventurous movie designed to make you laugh, cheer and forget that Batman and Superman recently beat each other up. And that’s just fine because it’s clearly trying to be the exact opposite of the early DC movies and in this regard, it works – even if they ripped of Big and the Goonies to get there.
Zachary Levi is perfectly cast as the life-size action figure looking Shazam. He looks ridiculously perfect and simply dominates the screen with his positive energy and humor. His over-the-top facial expressions help deliver the comedy and he’s fantastic to watch portraying a teenager inside the body of an adult superhero. If you love Tom Hank’s 1988 classic Big then you know what I mean, only “bigger”. Scenes where he realizes he can buy alcohol, only to discover he doesn’t like the taste or discovers he can visit a strip club, are genuinely hilarious.
Asher Angel completes the second half of the Shazam character as Billy Batson, the troubled boy “behind the mask” so to speak. Angel has the most difficult character to play and for the most part he does a good job. Billy Batson is suffering and so much of Angel’s performance is internal. He is a boy trying to find his mother, a boy who feels that the only way to deal with the world is to look out for number one. He thinks he doesn’t need anybody but as he painfully learns, he needs all the help he can get. The most moving scene in the film – which is really at odds to the rest of the film – is when he finally finds his mother. I’m pretty sure many people in the cinema audience shed a tear and it’s not just because the scene is well written or directed, but because of Angels compelling performance.
And what would a superhero be without his sidekick? Jack Dylan Grazer delivers the goods as Freddy Freeman – Shazam’s friend who helps him on his journey. His onscreen chemistry with Levi is impressive with the two of them complimenting each other’s performance. Witty and a troublemaker in his own right, Freddy plays the crippled boy who desperately wants to be seen and liked by other kids and makes up for his insecurities through humor. Despite the uplifting vibe of the overall film, Grazer delivers some impressive moments when his jovial nature gives way to reveal the suffering, jealousy and anger he hides behind his wit.
Director David F Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation, Lights Out) has made a hybrid superhero film aimed at a wide audience. There’s something for everyone and I think that’s what made it a weird experience. The idea of a kid being in an adult’s body is very much like Big. The group of foster kids – complete with the typecast Asian technology guru- is straight out of Goonies. The Seven Deadly Sins add a horror element as they are quite horrific and would scare young children. Then the messy and overly dragged out fight sequence between Shazam and Dr Sivana is heavily borrowed from the fight scene between Neo and Agent Smith from The Matrix Revolutions. While I appreciated the homages, all these smashed into one film made the film feel unfocused, like it couldn’t decide what type of movie it wanted to be.
Despite its comedic, colorful and silly style, Shazam! does have a heartfelt theme about the importance of family – even if it’s not blood family. We all need to belong to something and no matter how strong we may think we are on our own, we are stronger when we have the support of those who love and care about us. Billy learns the hard way when he goes on his search for his birth mother, and when he tries to face the bad guys on his own. In a world where superheroes (and supervillains) exists, our loved ones are often our biggest weakness to exploit. But, as Billy learns, they can also be the backup you need to put that bad guy back in his place.
I thought Shazam! was too long and a little messy, but I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it, either, though I suspect I’ll be in the minority here. This is a bright, colorful entry in the DCEU that feels very different from the darker, more broody Batman and Superman films, like it’s trying hard to be more like a Marvel movie instead. Maybe this was the reason I came away slightly disappointed as the DC movies have tried to offer a mature counterbalance to the more predictable, albeit popular, Marvel Cinematic Universe. I can still be objective enough to say that Shazam! is still very entertaining – even if it does drag on about 30 minutes too long.