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Shazam! is a hell of a fun film. As a matter of fact, it might be one of the best of the newest DC films being rolled out by Warner Brothers. The miracle of all of this is found in the fact that the DC Extended Universe and Warner Brothers are in such a weird place right now.
On one hand, it’s currently running on a surprise hot streak, with Aquaman blowing up the worldwide box office and Shazam! being released on a wave of critical acclaim. On the other, their franchise stars are departing left and right, definitively losing Ben Affleck as Batman and potentially losing both Henry Cavill as Superman and Ezra Miller as The Flash, although both of their departures remain officially unconfirmed. We sit in a weird spot where some key members of the Justice League remain unchanged (Wonder Woman and Aquaman are sticking around), while others go through major transformations (there are no current plans for any new Superman films, and Matt Reeves’ The Batman is looking to cast younger than Affleck).
In an age where connected universes and serialized storytelling reign supreme, it’s hard not to look at the chaos of the DC Universe’s future and not be more than a little confused how it’ll all connect together, if at all. Which is what makes Shazam!, set firmly within the DCEU with its direct references to the members of the Justice League, such a surprising success.
Shazam! serves as an origin story for Billy Batson, a 14-year-old orphan who is bestowed the magical powers of Shazam, turning him into a muscle-bound superhero anytime he utters the word. Batson finds himself in a group foster home with 5 other siblings, acting up against his foster parents and the law in an effort to find his long-lost mother. Along the way, he has to confront the responsibility of having these new powers as well as contend with the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, who has a personal stake in Batson and his magical powers.
The joy of Shazam! lies not only in the setup of basically being a super powered version of Big, but also in the quality and diversity of the cast of characters within. Asher Angel is really good as the rebellious 14-year-old Billy Batson, managing to portray both youthful mischievousness and a good-at-heart nature that blends surprisingly well. Zachary Levi, of course, is an absolute blast as his adult alter-ego (known as Shazam in the credits but never given one true name in the film). The differences between Billy and Shazam are great, as Shazam often acts out with louder, bigger charactizations where Billy is more reserved. It’s easy to see, though, that turning into a adult superhero would remove many of the worries and limitations that a 14-year-old might have.
Maybe the best performance in the film comes from IT’s Jack Dylan Grazer as Billy’s new foster brother Freddy Freeman. Freddy is basically an audience conduit, a massive superhero fan who knows the rules of the world they live in. He’s a collector of Superman and Batman memorabilia, and he acts as a hilariously motor-mouthed guide and conscience for Billy. Mark Strong shows up as another super powered bad guy, this time bringing a surprising layer of depth as Dr. Sivana, who’s motivations and backstory manage to make this genuinely evil character a bit more three dimensional than I expected.
The rest of the cast is also great, with the kid actors making up the rest of Billy’s new foster family all filling their roles nicely. Special shout-out to Faithe Herman and her delightful portrayal of the youngest, most excitable sibling, Darla. Grace Fulton is also relatable and effective as the eldest sibling Mary.
Director David F. Sandberg brings a deft hand at the childlike wonder and humor that would come with kids being handed the powers of a superhero. The humorous moments play like gangbusters in the film, including Shazam’s first encounter with gun-toting robbers as well as a playful spin on a villainous monologue. Sandberg, for the most part, does a great job of letting the audiences remember that it would be FUN to have super powers. When it comes to the superheroics, the film manages to remain visually similar to other entries in the DCEU whilst also possessing a joy that those darker, dour films failed to capture.
Make no mistake, though, Shazam! does have dark moments, some of them surprisingly dark considering the general tone of the marketing. Dr. Sivana is pretty terrifying in his actions, recklessly murdering and killing with the aid of the Seven Deadly Sins, monstrous entities that take the from of gnarly creatures he can unleash at will. There are a couple of deaths in the film that border on frightening, where Sandberg maybe leans too much into his past as a horror director. That being said, the design work of the Seven Deadly Sins is pretty awesome, regardless of how scary may be to children. I know that myself as a 7-year-old would’ve loved them maybe even more than I do now.
That creepiness has to be in part because of the way cinematographer Maxime Alexandre frames Sivana’s villainous antics, and uses setups and visual more akin to his horror work. The film veers back into that superhero mood with a soar score by Benjamin Wallfisch, who’s background is ALSO rooted in plenty of horror films. Funny that so many people with background in horror have gotten together to produce arguably one of the funniest, wondrous DC movies, even if it does veer back into their comfort zones with some scary sequences that swing the tone back and forth.
One of the more difficult aspects of Shazam! is understanding how it fits into the DCEU as a film, if that’s something that even matters to you at all. There are numerous direct references to the Justice League as well as Affleck’s Batman and Cavill’s Superman, using props and other nods that are 100% from those specific characters. Yet, Affleck and Cavill’s versions of those characters are effectively over. Could that mean they just never show their faces again, but continue to live on in Shazam’s world? Or would they be recast? It seems that DC is planning on exploring more one-shot films rather than a larger connected universe, but Shazam! still fits within that failed connected universe containing Man of Steel and Justice League. I’m probably overthinking it, but it’s an interesting, somewhat confusing plan.
As previously mentioned, Shazam! as a character is essentially a superhero riff on Big, despite the fact that the Shazam character (back then known as Captain Marvel, I know), predates the Tom Hanks film. I enjoyed the way the film explored the ideas of a kid being granted superpowers in modern society, with an initial interest on going viral and making money taking precedent over actual heroics. Thankfully, the film uses those moments as teachable scenes for the characters, rather than asking the audience to deal with insufferable main characters.
It’s also a genuinely touching examination of orphanhood, foster families, and the concept of family in general. There are moments of profound, tough realization for Billy, Freddy, and more, and they help reinforce the family aspect of the film in ways that are satisfying. It doesn’t hurt that Billy’s new foster family is not only funny, but also diverse both inwardly and outwardly. Its refreshing to see a group of people of different ethnicities not ever mention their physical differences, but just treat each other with love.
Ultimately, Shazam! proves as proof that DC doesn’t need to go super gritty, that there can be a refreshing joy in celebrating superheroics. It continues the path of DC’s course correction, after Wonder Woman and Aqauman both turned directly against the grimdark nature that had started things. It’s child-like wonder and fantastic performances far outweigh the overly-dark moments, and it’s message of family and acceptance is one that proves to be effective and valuable. It’s getting more and more exciting to see Warner Brothers roll out their films as long as they have unique voices and approaches like Shazam!
The Final Pop
Shazam! is here to make superheroes fun again! Despite some overly frightening baddies and sways in tone, Zachary Levi and a wonderful cast fly high in a film that isn’t afraid to have a ton of fun.
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