Directed by David F. Sandberg.
Starring Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mark Strong, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Adam Brody, Michelle Borth, Meagan Good, Ross Butler, and D.J. Cotrona.
We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s case, by shouting out one word – SHAZAM! – this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult superhero Shazam.
During the climactic battle between Billy Batson/Shazam and manipulator of the seven deadly sins, Thaddeus (a fight utilizing much flying and hovering and powerful punches across large distances, the only Zack Snyder tendency that exists here but is also executed less aggressively than in past DC offerings) there is a shot of a child inside his home having his Batman and Superman action figures go at it. It’s hard not to be reminded of the absolute fumble that was Dawn of Justice while also marveling at the notion that Shazam!, in its final moments, is delivering something similar on a much smaller scale yet leaps and bounds more captivating and exciting.
For clarification, Zack Snyder is not credited anywhere on Shazam!, (the film is directed by David F. Sandberg who has had a successful run in horror with Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation before now switching gears with a drastically increased budget) which will come as no surprise to anyone that watches this lighthearted and refreshing interpretation of superhero origin stories; the humorous banter between the teenagers is old school and reminiscent of such classics as The Goonies, the Christmas setting is not overbearing and reinforces the consistent and well-handled theme regarding what makes a family, and there’s a playful deconstruction of the genre that functions as a family-friendly but equally smart version of the Deadpool series.
It’s also plain different from any superhero movie out there, as 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) acquires his powers from a sage-like wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who is having his power depleted daily as he searches Earth for a champion of 100% moral soundness with zero chance for corruption to transfer over his magic. Upon saying the name of the wizard (Shazam), Billy Batson transforms into an adult embodiment of himself (played by Zachary Levi with perfectly calibrated humor channeling the teenager-in-a-grown-body dynamic for all it’s worth) granted with a number of superpowers that range from control over electricity, superspeed, superhuman strength, and more. This is a unique case where it would be a disservice to explain to the reader all of and everything about Billy’s powers, as the fun comes from learning what he can and can’t do, exactly as you imagine a 14-year-old boy would go about stumbling across such amazing gifts that bear responsibilities someone so young can’t possibly comprehend yet.
Luckily, he has a newly met group home acquaintance in Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer of It notoriety) containing massive superhero knowledge (including a replica Batarang and bullet that was once fired at Superman). This budding friendship also adds another intriguing dynamic to the mix, as Freddy is disabled and relies on crutches to maneuver around, and tries to live vicariously through Billy’s superpowers. It would be incorrect to refer to him as a sidekick or manual on how to be a superhero; his character is much more defined than that with their friendship hitting expected but nonetheless effective beats (credit screenwriter Henry Gayden for seamlessly weaving themes into the nonstop hilarity).
Expanding on that thought, Shazam! wonderfully succeeds in giving the other group home children distinct character traits and personalities, all with their own charm. There’s a little girl named Darla that never stops talking (going as far as explaining the obvious about anything and everything), often saying and doing some of the darndest and cutest things. Even though we don’t learn much about her, there is genuine emotion when Billy pushes her away from being a legitimate sister immediately after they meet. She is so welcoming, warmhearted and good spirited that she might be the film’s secret weapon. That’s not to take anything away from the rest of the kids (they all vary in age and ethnicity, making for a diverse bunch that is a brilliant creative decision and investment for the franchise), which include a college-aged girl conflicted on whether or not to leave the home and state entirely to attend a prestigious school, the Fortnite obsessed child that many of us probably have in our household, and a heavyset school-struggling but well-meaning boy teenager. The parents running this loving home also score a few laughs, containing winning chemistry as a couple that was once foster children and runaways themselves.
Wisely, Shazam! is fixated on teenage camaraderie, utilizing superpowers for all kinds of ridiculous reasons that add to the wish fulfillment element of the narrative (what young child wouldn’t use an adult body to purchase alcohol or enter a gentlemen’s club), and observations on family (including why some abandoned children might tirelessly and endlessly seek out a parental figure that clearly has no interest in reuniting). Again though, there is a villain named Thaddeus (played by Mark Strong who is having a blast uttering silly one-liners that are often callbacks to his flashback sequence as a child) that actually kicks off the story, as decades ago in the 70s he was once offered the Shazam powers before being assessed and told he was not pure or good enough, especially after becoming enamored with the mischievous promises from the nearby seven deadly sins. Now, this is an obvious exaggeration of what can happen when children are made to feel inadequate or insignificant, but it does give Thaddeus a better villain motive than most superhero bad guys. Eventually, the film runs out of interesting things to do with them and turns him into another generic power-hungry villain hell-bent on extinguishing his counterpart champion, but Mark Strong certainly uses his own charisma to mitigate those shortcomings.
Shazam! also goes about the whole extended universe situation cleverly, referencing figures such as Batman and Superman (Freddy actually wears an Aquaman shirt at one point) as real people currently impacting not just the world, but the very behavior and thought processes of the children living through such a scarily awesome time. There is also a surprise cameo (mainly surprising considering the apparent disarray of the DCEU) there is no doubt going to have moviegoers talking. In a lesser movie, it would be the only thing people would talk about upon leaving the auditorium, but Shazam! is so sincere with its message of family and flat-out fun with its premise of a teenager obtaining superpowers, there is enough to overcome special sightings and post-credits teasers.
Admittedly, the lengthy third act of bombastic action at a Christmas themed carnival somewhat wears out its welcome, but it’s also surprising just how much storytelling Shazam! competently accomplishes in just over two hours without the experience itself feeling necessarily too long. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi shine portraying the same individual with wildly different personalities (for reasons that definitely make sense narratively) that inevitably begin to synchronize once Billy accepts his responsibility as a superhero. However, the journey there is loaded with amusing gag after amusing gag and a perfectly measured lighthearted approach with just enough emotional resonance. It’s an energizing kick that will ensure superhero fatigue does not become a real thing. You will wish you were a kid again and could stumble across superpowers of your own.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com