The DC Cinematic Universe has struggled to find its footing in its (frankly) unwise attempts to rush everything, from introducing undeveloped characters to bringing all of them together, along with Warner Bros’ gut-reaction approach to what projects they will tackle next. However, the last couple of standalone films have begun to show promise moving forward, especially because they feel standalone. Wonder Woman (2017) had a very strong grasp of its titular character, even if its third-act became muddled and tedious. Aquaman (2018) embraced the weirdness of its conceit, and the filmmakers exploited it to visually dazzling, but narratively overstuffed, effect. DC’s newest film, Shazam!, goes in a fun new direction, injecting the cinematic universe with a much-needed dose of heart.
Directed by David F. Sandberg, Shazam! stars Asher Angel as Billy Batson, a foster kid searching for his mother, as he begins a new life at a foster home with some other quirky kids. One of them is Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a superhero geek with an abundance of superhero knowledge (he even has a replica Batarang, one of many nods to other characters in the DC lineup). After escaping the wrath of some schoolyard bullies on the subway, Billy finds himself transported to an ominous cave. There, a wizard (Djimon Honsou) grants him superpowers, and with the declaration “shazam!”, Billy transforms into a buff adult (Zachary Levi), clad in spandex, a cape, and a bright lightning insignia that does more than just glow. Simultaneously excited and unsure about what to do next, and with a power-hungry villain, Sivana (Mark Strong) out to get him, Billy has Freddy help him learn how (and what it means) to be a superhero.
Where Shazam! excels is in the very distinct ways it differs from what has come before in the DC Cinematic Universe. This is a very lighthearted, and full-hearted, film that looks at superheroes in the way that kids reading comic books see these characters. This angle on the superhero story comes through in the dynamic between Freddy Freeman and the adult, superhero version of Billy Batson, played with infectious energy by Zachary Levi. Their excitement about the prospect of Billy gaining superpowers provides much of the humor, but it’s also a welcome departure from the dour outlook on superheroes that Zack Snyder showed in Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). And the way Freddy eventually sees Billy’s selfish, unheroic behavior has an emotional truth to it that really resonated with me, and it all comes back to the focus on character.
Along with the humor, Shazam! has a big, beating heart. From Billy Batson’s search for his mother to Freddy’s wanting to be seen and heard by others, to the foster parents’ attempts to give their foster children a loving home, there’s this palpable desire to connect (or reconnect) with others that pervades what is, at its core, a superhero story. With so much attention paid to character and character relationships, the film had me more emotionally invested than any other DC film in the interconnected universe.
The script also provides quite a bit of meta commentary on the superhero genre, akin to an all-ages Deadpool. One hilarious scene sees Sivana giving a very cliché villain speech in the midst of the climactic battle, but the staging of the scene points out a crucial logistical error in how these conversations usually play out in films like this.
We do spend a great deal of time with the villain, which is ultimately disappointing once we realize the lack of depth to his character. In the opening scene, we see Sivana being introduced to the world of magic as a young kid, at a time when his father and brother look down on him for not having the strength and fortitude to make something of himself. Once he becomes an adult and finds the magical power he’s been searching for since that fateful night, his emotional conflict with his father and brother resolves itself rather quickly. With another hour left in the runtime, Sivana’s motivation becomes simplified and less interesting as the film goes on. Strong, who has played a villain many a time before, knows how to make a character like this more than what’s on the page, and he does his best with what he’s given here.
David F. Sandberg, previously known for horror films Lights Out (2016) and Annabelle: Creation (2017), injects some well-played horror elements in Shazam! that gives the film an 80’s-throwback vibe. Most of the horror exists in the form of the fantastical monsters personifying the seven sins, which aid Sivana in accomplishing his mission. There is a Guillermo Del Toro-esque quality to the creature design that stylistically contrasts the childlike, simplistic design of Shazam’s costume. These disparate styles highlight how this boisterous hero has come to lighten up an initially dark and self-serious universe. I do wish that Sandberg would’ve added a bit more color to the overall visual look of the film, which is dominated by a bland greyness that feels at odds with the lightness of tone that the film carries, feeling like an obligatory acknowledgment of the “dark” universe it exists within.
Shazam! is the breath of fresh air that the DC Cinematic Universe needs, providing much-needed laughs and, more importantly, well-defined characters and emotional payoffs. This film wears its heart on its sleeve, and that makes it all the more fun and enjoyable. If you are a fan of the superhero genre, this is a film about you and for you.
Rated PG-13, Shazam! opens in theaters next week!