I tend to think arguments about superhero over-saturation in Hollywood are a bit overblown (especially with some of the films we’ve had the pleasure of enjoying over the last 12 months). It does worry me though, that amongst everything else coming out at the moment Shazam! could get overlooked as a bridge too far for superhero movies instead of the joyous and charming family adventure that it is. With films like Ready Player One and The Kid Who Would Be King, directors seem to be trying to tap into that sense of wonder kids in the 80s and 90s felt when they’d go to the movies and see someone their age leading the charge in a big blockbuster. But where those films could sometimes feel a little artificial and nostalgic, Shazam! somehow manages to make that magic I grew up on feel effortless, making me realise just how much I’ve missed this type of movie.
Unfortunately there is a bit of work we have to get through before we get there though. It’s not quite as drawn out as the opening exposition dump in other DC movies (Wonder Woman, I’m looking at you), but Shazam! drops us into its goofy mythology headfirst and without the levity that offsets its wackiness for the rest of the movie. After some gloom and doom talk between a wizard and some kid that will grow up to call himself Dr. Sivana and get played by Mark Strong (so the bad guy, obvs), we jump forward to the present to meet our barely-pubescent hero, Billy Batson.
Which, as a quick aside, has to be one of the most fantastically comic-book names ever written.
Played (at first) by the young Asher Angel, Batson is a plucky foster child that’s been bounced from family to family as he keeps getting himself into trouble while searching for his biological mother. After (another) run in with the boys in blue, he finds himself in the care of the Vasquez family, along with 5 other foster brothers and sisters. Before he can really decide how he feels about it one way or the other, the previously mentioned magic mumbo jumbo catches up to him, and he is given the ability to say the titular magic word and transform into a fully grown, lightning wielding, and almost indestructible superhero (played in this state by an ultra-buff Zachary Levi).
As silly as it all sounds when compared to the po-faced tone of the rest of the DCEU, the elevator pitch of ‘Big, but with superheroes’ very quickly proves a winning formula for the big screen. While maybe a tad too much is given away in the trailer, there is so much fun to be had watching Batson and his new foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) delight in experimenting with his powers and taking them through a joy-ride of superhero movie conventions. As the film ticks off all the usual boxes for the genre, it refreshingly feels more like you’re watching two kids with a fake ID that can’t believe they are getting away with it, rather than the generic origin story that it kinda is. Even when comparing it to other movies that try to explore an already established superhero mythology, it feels so much more authentic when your young heroes are growing up in a world with Superman and Batman to idolize.
Also key to stopping it from fading into its tropes is the focus on family. While Freddy is clearly the MVP amongst Batson’s new homestead, all five of his siblings (not to mention his new parents) bring something to the table and feel fully realised. The question of whether Billy is going to throw it all away again or embrace his new home is handled much more deftly than one would expect. The Vasquez family wants him to stay, but they know it has to be his choice. This allows the audience (and Billy) to feel like his family isn’t on the sidelines, nor someone wise trying to make him see the light, but rather a group of peers on equal ground with him (something that feels almost unheard of in a superhero movie). Lightning-filled brawls and monstrous demons aside, the A-plot of this movie is about whether or not this kid can accept he’s found a home.
While the family side of the film is handled with surprising maturity and empathy (especially in dealing with one particular confrontation that really surprised me), the mechanics of the superhero plot (as well as some of the dialogue) are delivered with a little less delicacy. Dr. Sivana isn’t the worst conceived antagonist when used to reflect Batson’s character, but what’s not left to subtext isn’t much more than a bald, British super-villain who is working for a bunch of demons. The action isn’t bad, but it’s nothing particularly memorable, especially whenever punches are being traded with the very CG monsters. Aiming at a younger demographic and being so humour focused, it’s not too difficult to forgive some shortcomings here, but it’s definitely a shame director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) couldn’t inject the same fresh creativity into the action elements that he did the family drama and comedy.
While Mark Strong doesn’t get quite the room he needs to move, the rest of the cast receive plenty of chances to shine. Angel does a great job with his half of the character, quickly establishing Batson’s personality and carrying the more emotional burden of the two. But, as was probably expected, Levi steals the show as the uber-man-child Shazam. His nervous excitement and endearing-teenage dickheadary blend the two actors into the character seamlessly and alleviate any concerns the transition between them could be distracting. Aside from the baddies, the cast prove strong across the board (especially some fun last-minute inclusions), but special mention definitely has to go to Grazer, who makes Freddy feel like just as much a driving force for the story as his new brother Billy (except for the lack of super-powers of course). With the chemistry the two (three?) have throughout the film, you could almost do away with all the comic book hocus pocus and still salvage a fairly decent coming-of-age film.
While Shazam! is surrounded by a lot superhero noise (especially right now), that’s not the race it’s trying to win. As a comic book movie it’s not pushing the boundaries in the way that some of its competition is, nor working hard to turn the DCEU around (though it is probably my favourite inclusion into it). But as a throwback to the family blockbusters of yesteryear, it’s fun, inviting and full of heart.