DC has had a bit of a rough go of it when it comes to adaptations of its properties. For every smash hit like Wonder Woman, there’s a Justice League or a Suicide Squad. However, hope arrives in the form of Shazam!, a complete revamp of DC’s approach to superhero cinema that’s special in so many ways.
Well, that isn’t quite fair. Many, myself included, lauded Aquaman for its gonzo comic-book colorfulness. Nevertheless, Shazam! has a big advantage over Aquaman: its huge heart.
Shazam!’s virtues start with its lead character. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a troubled foster kid having difficulty adjusting to his new family. His hellraising leads him to a chance encounter with a wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who bestows upon Billy the power to turn into a mighty superhuman (Zachary Levi) simply by saying his name- Shazam.
Asher Angel and Zachary Levi are downright electric as Billy/Shazam. The “14-year-old turning into a 30-something ubermensch” works because Levi brings pure joy and old-school charisma to the role. Billy is truly thrilled to be a superhero, a thrill that extends to his superhero-obsessed foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), with whom Angel/Levi have chemistry for days, constantly riffing off each other while testing out Billy’s newfound powers in all sorts of inventive ways. Grazer in particular brings a motor-mouth geek charm, always ready with a smartass quip.
Director David F. Sandberg knows that half the fun of origin movies is seeing the protagonist struggle to adapt to their powers. Through a series of gags and “power tests”, we get to see through the lens of average people just how bonkers (and awesome) having powers would actually be. Despite being such a ridiculous character to adapt, Sandberg and cinematographer Maxine Alexandre capture this character’s power set in a way that has a weight and tangibility to it. In many ways, it’s not unlike the first DC Extended Universe (DCEU) film Man of Steel.
Yet, as a wise figure in comic book lore once said, “without great power comes great responsibility”. Fortunately, Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden know that there’s a lot more to great superhero movies than fun. You need an emotional anchor, which for this film is Billy’s family drama. Asher Angel excels at conveying the angst that abandonment brings.
Billy struggles to accept that his foster family is anything more than other people in his life who will disappoint him, so he acts out and uses his powers irresponsibly. Throughout the film, he learns to be a better hero while also learning to love the people who genuinely care for him. It’s a wholesome hero’s journey that’s nothing less than heartwarming.
If the film were simply a coming-of-age story, it’d be a fantastic one. Sandberg, on the other hand, has different plans, utilizing his horror background to his advantage for the film’s villain: Doctor Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). Strong turns in a grisly performance as a man who was once denied the power of Shazam as a child, turning to an ancient evil to try and reclaim what he believes is rightfully his.
Sivana is a real nasty bastard, one that pushes Billy and his family to their absolute brink. He serves a constant moral counterpoint to Billy, leading to a third act that, for spoiler-related reasons, I can’t speak much on. What I can say is that the visually-stunning finale of the film brings everything together for a final stand that serves as one of the most inspirational superhero movie moments since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy.
On the whole, Shazam! pulls no punches. Through the combination of excellent performances and understanding of how powerful films about heroes can be, David F. Sandberg has made a truly special film. Shazam! marks a gleeful celebration of superhero stories and, without question, the best DCEU film yet. – James Preston Poole
Shazam! hits theaters on April 5, 2019.
The film stars Asher Angel, Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, and Cooper Andrews.