Director: David F. Sandberg
Screenplay: Henry Gayden
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou
Runtime: 132 Minutes
Created by Artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker in 1939 in the wake of the explosive success of Superman by Action Comics, Shazam (under his original title of Captain Marvel, but that’s a long story), is the alter ego of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a boy who is granted powers by the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), and by speaking the magic word "SHAZAM!" – an acronym of six "immortal elders": Solomon (Wisdom), Hercules (Strength), Atlas (Stamina), Zeus (Power), Achilles (Courage) and Mercury (Speed) – can transform himself into a costumed adult sized hero (Zachary Levi) with the powers of flight, strength and speed amongst many others.
It’s not really hard to decipher exactly why this suddenly had such mass appeal to an audience of young children. If superheroes are essentially embodied wish fulfilment power fantasies, then Shazam is possibly the best distillation and realisation of this conception ever conceived. A literal personification of the form, and throughout the 1940s the character became one of the world’s most popular superheroes, with outstanding sales that outsold even Action Comics’ own Superman.
There’re many reasons why it has taken this long for the character to make his way to cinema screens at a time in which superhero movies are one of the most dominant and popular genres, much of which is to do with the character not being all that popular or well-known to most mainstream audiences to sell an entire prospective film.
But it turns out the long wait has been well and truly worth it. Coming out amongst a slew of pictures greenlit in the wake of Warner Bros. course correction of the DC Extended Universe, Shazam! might be on balance the strongest single entry in the entire series so far – and much of that comes down to embracing the childish and inherently fun concept at its centre.
But while the film has been marketed heavily as a more family-friendly action-comedy in the vein of a mid-tier 90s genre exercise, the surprising shades of darkness that it does offer through it’s narrative might make this the “grittiest” film in the DCEU despite the pomposity of its angst-riddled early days.
This contemporary retelling of the story sees Billy Batson as a troubled 14-year-old orphan set to move in with the Vazquez family and their other five foster kids in urban Philadelphia, and it’s this very theme regarding the nature of family – surrogate or otherwise – where the film finds its strengths both figuratively and literally.
Batson’s arc sees him go from a disenfranchised runaway with fixations on finding his real family to someone who finds an acceptance in opening his heart to a group of people who have found each other in spite of losing everything and having no one, as well as coming to accept the nature of his own parents, which ends up being the film’s most genuinely upsetting and invested confrontation.
It’s these shades in Billy and his journey that colour the film so much, as well as seeing a dark reflection of himself in the requisite big bad Mark Strong as Dr Thaddeus Sivana. A physicist who had grown up as an outcast in his wealthy family, having himself been summoned by the Wizard Shazam as a child, but was not chosen as his champion, leading Sivana to spend his life trying to unlock the secret to return to the Rock of Eternity and failing to make emotional connections of his own.
There’s also the dynamic that Billy shares with the other foster kids, all of whom arrive with fully formed characters and are very well played by their young cast. Especially the bond that he shares with foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), himself an outcast and disabled individual who sees Billy’s new powers as an opportunity to bond with his resourceful superhero knowledge, while also something he can use to gain popularity with other people.
It’s this incredibly childlike perspective that the film takes in its stride that allows the comedy to land so consistently, as vast stretches of the film are dedicated to the two generally testing the limits of what they can get away with in wholly un-heroic manners before coming to terms with the responsibilities that they have on their hands, especially Billy.
The cast all help in selling the hell out of this entire crazy “what if?” situation. Angel has a lot of heart and dedication to the role but almost lowballs the performance to allow the broader strokes to be struck so much harder by Levi, who is an absolute riot in the role. Relishing the opportunity to skew his performance young and silly, while still managing to carry all the charisma of a silver age superhero captured on screen.
Director David F. Sandberg certainly has the chops for depicting said hero onscreen in a suitably heroic fashion while maintaining a laidback and easy-going atmosphere. Even with the significantly lower budget compared to its peers, the film looks pretty great with fun staging and shooting. Even though the action is mostly modest, by the time it comes around to its climax and the full bag of tricks the film has been hiding are being pulled out, it honestly transforms itself into the sincere, celebratory and heroic Superman film that we never had.
If there is a significant weakness, maybe it comes down to its length. As inspiring as the final stretch is, it does feel like it outstays it’s welcome just a little and might have benefited being a little shorter or more to the point with certain side stories and character.
Shazam! could end up being one of the biggest surprises of 2019, but given how strong the conceptual foundations it’s working from are, this could never have gone too far wrong by sticking to what best works about the character and approach. As funny, modest and well performed as the film ends up being, what lingers is the warmth of the heart at its centre.