Released: April 2019
Director: David F. Sandberg
Distributor: Warner Brothers
Budget: $80 to 100 million
Stars: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, and Jack Dylan Grazer
Bill Batson (Angel), an abandoned boy searching for his missing mother, is suddenly bestowed with magical superpowers, transforming him into an adult superhero (Levi) with the mindset of a teenager. When Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Strong) attains equal power through possess of the seven Deadly Sins, Billy is suddenly faced with putting aside his personal issues and becoming a fully-fledged superhero.
Created by Bill Parker and C. C. Beck way back in 1939 for Whiz Comics, the character originally known as Captain Marvel (no relation) and now known simply as Shazam has been a staple of DC Comics since 1991. Advertised as the “Big Red Cheese” and the “World’s Mightiest Mortal”, Shazam has long been considered the equal or better of Superman, depending on his portrayal and writing. A throwback to a simpler bygone era, Shazam is both the ultimate in wish fulfilment (a child able to transform into a superhuman Demi-God with only a simple word) and a formidable character in DC lore when he is allowed to display his full potential.
Shazam! represents the first attempt by Warner Brothers to produce a purely comedic and kid-friendly superhero movie, something far from the grim-and-gritty DC Extended Universe we have seen so far. Despite this, there is a heart and warmth at the centre of this movie, as it is ostensibly about a young boy finally finding acceptance with a new family after being separated from his mother.
Having been in and out of foster homes in a desperate attempt to track down his real mother, Billy is a distant and troubled boy when he is taken in to Rosa and Victor Vasquez’s (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews, respectively) group foster home, where he meets his new foster siblings. The most prominent of these is Freddy Freeman (Grazer), a disabled and overly-friendly boy who becomes Billy’s confidante after he is endowed with the powers of Shazam.
While family is at the heart of Billy’s story, it also forms the basis of Dr. Sivana’s character; constantly berated by his father and brother since he was a child, Sivana was offered the magical powers of the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) but proved himself unworthy of the power by being tempted by the seven Deadly Sins. Once he obtains the power of the Sins as an adult, the first thing he does is seek out his family for vengeance to display his newfound power, while Billy wants only to be reunited with his mother in an interesting parallel. The only real issue is that Mark Strong is so good in this (and every) role but he is hampered by a disappoint lack of screen time; when he is on screen, he commands every scene, but he does vanish for a large portion of the movie so we can see Billy explore his abilities and that’s a trend I long to get away from in superhero films.
Ostensibly, Shazam! is an amalgamation of the classic movie Big (Marshall, 1988), in which a young boy is magically transformed into an adult, and Superman. As Billy’s adult form, Zachary Levi is amazing at portraying a child with the powers of a superhuman; he has a child-like charm and boundless enthusiasm about him that really makes you believe that he is a child in an adult’s body. Probably the only issue I had with Levi’s performance is that he acts far more aloof and carefree as Shazam than he does as a child and doesn’t really seem to be drawing from the “Wisdom of Solomon” much throughout the film (until the finale, anyway). Going into Shazam!, I was unsure as to how the film would fit into the increasingly unstable and fractured DCEU as, given the trailers, it seemed Warner Brothers were aiming for a more metatextual, non-canon movie along the lines of a more kid-friendly Deadpool (Miller, 2016). However, Shazam! goes out of its way to beat you over the head with its place and canon in the DCEU; by the end, there’s no question that Shazam is a character in the same world as the rest of the Justice League.
This is best exampled by Freddy Freeman, who is constantly wearing Justice League t-shirts, showing off his Superman memorabilia, and rattling off Justice League statistics and abilities as Billy explores his new powers. Billy’s other foster siblings all have recognisable personalities and traits as well and are all great supporting performers who rally to Billy’s aid whether he wants their love or not. At its heart, Shazam! is a child fantasy; a coming-of-age tale about understanding the true nature of growing up, home, family, and how to responsibly wield power. While it is fun to see Billy goof around while testing his powers, it is even ore cathartic to see him mature into a superhero and master his abilities for the greater good.
There’s not too much going on here in the way of spoilers, really, despite the usual world-building and setup for future DCEU movies and potential Shazam! sequels. In relating the story of the long-dead Gods, the wizard mentions having bestowed the power recklessly before, alluding to Black Adam (Dwayne Johnson), and the telekinetic worm Mr. Mime (Sandberg) makes a surprising, and welcome, appearance. There is a heartbreaking twist that occurs after Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), the tech-savvy member of Billy’s new extended family, locates Billy’s real mother and he is finally reunited with her…only to learn that she purposely left him behind and to go into care as she couldn’t cope with raising a child, which I didn’t expect at all.
As I haven’t read any of the New 52 stories revolving around Shazam, I was equally surprised to see all five of his foster siblings be transformed by his magic in the finale. I knew that Freddy (and Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton)) became Captain Marvel Jr/King Marvel and Mary Marvel, respectively, apparently Billy’s entire siblings form the Shazam family in the New 52 and we get to see that here. Seeing the kids become similar magical superheroes was a blast as all the adult actors equally conveyed the thrill and excitement of the kids at their newfound abilities, though it was convenient that they were all able to master their abilities in record time while it took Billy most of the movie to learn how to fly. The biggest criticism I had, in the end, was that Billy transforms into Shazam to improve Freddy’s reputation at their school and invites Superman to sit with them as well…however, since Henry Cavill wasn’t available (or is out as Superman, if you believe the rumours…), we only see Superman from the neck/chest down. It’s more awkward than exciting and I would’ve preferred to either see just the S-shield as he walked in the room, him floating down outside the school, or cut the scene entirely.
With superhero movies getting bigger and bigger and raising their stakes to cosmic proportions more and more each year, it’s nice to see a more down-to-earth take on the genre. Infused with comedy and heart, as well as some impressive action pieces and fantastic costume design, Shazam! was a pretty good time. I don’t agree with every decision the DCEU is making lately but infusing more comedy and action and a bright, light-hearted tone into their movies is a good step and Shazam! also opens the DCEU up to magical and supernatural territory but without bogging the film down in needless exposition or in a way that distracts or contrasts with the DCEU we’ve seen recently. It probably won’t change your life or blow you away but Shazam! is a nice slice of creativity and originality and another much-needed shot in the arm for the DCEU.