The DC Extended Universe (is the DCEU still a thing?) has been compared unfavorably to Marvel. (See my review of Aquaman for more on this). But with every recent film entry into the canon, the narrative has been changing. Shazam! Initially looks like nothing more than DC’s answer to Deadpool. A superhero version of the Tom Hanks movie Big, maybe, and neither of these assessments is really wrong, but Shazam! knows this. It knows that expectations for whatever the DCEU churns out are decidedly less than what Marvel does. It takes the dark cloud overhead and kind of runs with it and transcends your expectations. Shazam! is a zany and gleefully meta-comic book crowd pleaser.
Troubled 14-year-old orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has run from town to town looking for his birth parents. He’s placed into a foster home with five other kids. One day, on the subway, he finds himself transported to a different realm with an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who offers Billy the opportunity to transform into an extraordinary adult superhero (Zachary Levi) after simply saying his name, ‘Shazam!’ As Billy and his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) discover and exploit his newfound powers, an ominous threat looms in the form of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who was not chosen by Shazam as a child, and now he wants revenge.
This is a deeply silly movie. It’s difficult to take any bit of it seriously, but the movie never expects or wants you to. It harkens back to a lovely pre-Christopher Nolan, pre-Zack Snyder time of superhero movies when the tone was bouncy and fun and it was about how the heroes save the day and not so much why. There’s visual and music nods to films that inspired this sprinkled throughout, including a reference to Big, as well as just random props from other DCEU movies being tossed into the frame. The doll from Annabelle is just sitting in a corner, a reference to director David F. Sandberg’s last movie. It’s self-referential, but not to the point of distraction or annoyance.
Exiting the Marvel movies after the second Thor film, Zachary Levi has found himself right at home in the more comedic world of Shazam! Like so many other actors in Hollywood, he has been put through the superhero-machine, and he was lucky enough not to lose what made him a charming and funny performer in the process. He’s still quite a gifted improviser and Levi’s performance does not let you forget that this is a dopey 14-year-old kid in an adult man’s body and that there’s a fairly high amount of uncertainty to the grand-scale action movie moments this character takes on, and that’s fairly important. Mark Strong as the villain is also excellent, but I don’t want to give too much away.
Director David F. Sandberg has directed two well-received films in The Conjuring universe, and this is the first time they’ve let him play with a budget this large. He captures the spirit of what makes superhero movies enjoyable in the first place. He takes the characters and story seriously to an extent, but he uses the superhero movie archetype as a joke delivery system. He reminds us that we’re here to have fun and you’ve got to laugh at these movies. They’re supposed to be big and magical and fun in a way that lets the audience just enjoy themselves and not be stressed out for the entire time. The film is well over two hours long, and it never feels like it. Be sure to stay for the not one, but two post-credit stingers that leave you wanting more.
In the end, lightning strikes in Shazam! It’s a reminder how fun superhero movies can truly be when they’re not taking themselves so deathly seriously. Oh, and it’s not DC’s answer to Deadpool. This is a decidedly wholesome affair. It’s a joyful fantasy adventure that will make everyone in the family laugh, scream and cheer. DC is healthier than ever, and the further it moves away from the Zack Snyder model, the better. Shazam! Is well worth the audience’s time and money, as we move closer towards the summer blockbuster season.