Shazam! from Warner Bros. and DC Comics has a great deal of heart at the center of its thoughtful story. Its characters are the center of this coming-of-age story that represents the best of the movies to come from DC Comics.
There’s a moment in David Sandberg’s (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) Shazam! that makes us forget that we’re watching an already really well done film based on a comic book. I won’t necessarily spoil it, and perhaps for the younger generation, it might be lost, but it doesn’t make it any less memorable for those who won’t get the inside joke.
That’s the beauty of WB’s efforts with Shazam! due in theaters on April 5.
After trying to bring out the darker side of the comic book lore, admittedly, DC’s strength and not necessarily WB’s strength, we’re finally starting to see the lighter side of characters that have enthused and enthralled millions over the years; the lighter side that reminds us that it’s okay to be a kid. As long as we remember our responsibilities to one another.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has gone from foster home to foster home, in search of his mom. Henry Gayden’s script, based on the story written by Gayden and Darren Lemke (characters by Bill Parker and C. C. Beck) really focuses on what makes this kid tick. Much like Bruce Wayne, Billy harbors resentment, which really fuels his character. Angel and Sandberg are fully invested in this aspect of the character, which provides a strong foundation for his eventual transformation into Shazam!
But we need to take a step back before we get to our hero, and that is our eventual villain, Thaddeus Sivana. In an early scene in which the child Sivana is touched by Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), we learn just what this character will become. Much like the later Billy Batson, Sivana harbors resentment which amplifies the greatness he is destined for.
In modern Philadelphia, Batson is finally placed with a family full of foster children. Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans, respectively) have been involved in the system and are now paying it forward by raising foster children themselves. Once Batson is brought in to their fold, the true test of the family formed out of love really shines.
Batson is still resentful though as Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) tries to make nice with him. Sandberg and his team layer in DC lore, as Freddy longs for superhero powers himself. Grazer’s performance from both a humor and a humanist standpoint are highlights as his own physical struggles will come to bear later in the film. The best thing about Freddy is that those limitations don’t stop him as a character.
Eventually, Billy meets Shazam! You’ve seen the initial scenes in the trailer, so I’m not giving anything away by mentioning this. Billy learns the full force of his responsibilities as Shazam (Zachary Levi), but he doesn’t initially understand his own powers, something that he and Freddy discover together.
Like Marvel’s Spider-Man, as they learn what Shazam’s powers are, they’re creating havoc right in the public spotlight attracting the attention of the nefarious Dr. Thaddeus Shivana, played by Mark Strong. This isn’t the first comic book villain he has played, but Strong’s thespian background really prepared him for the dramatic side of the role, which pairs exceptionally well with his own comedic timing.
This raises the bar for Levi’s performance as the adolescent Shazam! His child-like wonderment really elevates the character, the dangers he and the world surrounding him face and his ultimate response to Shivana. The story, and thankfully the direction, don’ take themselves so seriously that the film’s stakes are sacrificed. The characters are first and foremost, their arcs are well defined and intertwined in such a way that we care what becomes of them.
WB is finally coming around to what makes DC tick, something Richard Donner grasped when I was a kid, Tim Burton grasped when I was a teenager and Christopher Nolan exemplified more recently. Much like Patty Jenkins and James Wan, David Sandberg is a part of the latest crop of directors who have graced the DC machine and grasped what made the comics popular.
That leaves me with only one thing left to say about this film.
Shazam is in theaters April 5, and has been rated PG-13.