Shazam isn’t the first DCEU movie that’s enjoyable, but it’s arguably the first one that’s truly good. I recognize in retrospect that my positive take on 2017’s Justice League put me in the minority, but even if you don’t count that big team-up, the DC film universe has been steadily rising in quality, from the decent Wonder Woman to the goofy, fun Aquaman. Director David Sandberg’s Shazam is the first movie in this shared cinematic universe with which I honestly have no major gripes–it’s just a good movie, whether or not you’re a fan of DC’s often gritty, dark films, or have any idea who or what Shazam is. Shazam is a movie for everybody, and it’s great.
Shazam is the story of Billy Batson, a troubled orphan with a heart of gold who’s granted magic powers by an ancient wizard. By saying the word “Shazam,” Billy (Asher Angel) can transform into a full grown adult (Zachary Levi) with the combined powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. I won’t spoil what those powers are, because several of the movie’s best scenes are spent with Billy and his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) as they experiment to find out exactly what Shazam is capable of. Naturally, because it’s 2019, this also involves the hero becoming a YouTube sensation, even as Freddy and Billy struggle to come up with a superhero name that sticks (highlights include “Zaptain America,” “Captain Sparklefingers,” and “Mr. Philadelphia,” among many others).
There’s been humor in DC movies before, including in Justice League (remember Aquaman sitting on Wonder Woman’s lasso?) and Aquaman itself. But Shazam is the DCEU’s first full-on comedy, and it’s incredibly funny. A lot of the humor comes from Zach Levi’s performance as a teenager who suddenly finds himself in an adult body. One of the first things he and Freddy do is buy beer–basically, they act exactly how you’d expect them to, and the movie doesn’t shy away from what teenage boys would do in this situation. Comparisons to the 1988 Tom Hanks movie Big aren’t just warranted, they’re inevitable–but Shazam fully leans into it, making nods to the classic while carving its own path.
It takes a ton of inspiration from the comics, as well, and embraces its roots rather than trying to make everything grimly realistic. The wizard is a wizard, with flowing robes and tangled grey beard. It’s silly, but the movie also has a 1980s Spielbergian adventure vibe–think Goonies, Labyrinth, or Neverending Story. It owns its campiness so confidently that the significant amount of Shazam mythology it occasionally info-dumps on you goes down fairly easily. It helps that Shazam is occasionally anchored by references to other DC superheroes in the live action universe, most notably Batman and Superman. Shazam definitely exists in the same space as the relative heavy hitters that have come before, but their presence in this world is handled in a natural way that doesn’t feel shoehorned in.
The other thing anchoring Shazam’s often cartoonish world is the diverse cast of characters, all of whom you’ll come to love by the end. Billy winds up at a foster home–one in a succession of many–also inhabited by Freddy, as well as Darla (Faithe Herman), Pedro (Jovan Armand), Mary (Grace Fulton), and Eugene (Ian Chen). These foster siblings are fleshed out to various degrees, and by the end you’ll be rooting for all of them–not to mention foster parents Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor (Cooper Andrews), both of whom have some funny and touching moments. Shazam has a great message about family, while also being a dope superhero movie, striking an impressive balance.
Mark Strong plays Dr. Sivana, a classic Shazam villain and a great choice for the big screen. The movie very smartly begins with a cold open from Strong’s perspective, injecting a small touch of empathy to what could otherwise have been a very black and white villain. He’s a jerk, for sure, but throughout the movie you’ll at least understand where he’s coming from and why he is the way he is.
Shazam is insanely packed with references to DC comics, movies, and characters. But the movie seems to genuinely love not just its own source material, but all nerdy corners of pop culture. Eugene is introduced with a gaming headset semi-permanently stuck to his head, and the young character makes tons of video game references, all of which land–at one point he shows up for a fight armed with a PlayStation Move gun controller, and at another he makes a hilarious Watch Dogs joke. It’s the kind of thing non-gamers might have to lean over and ask their friends about, but that attention to detail also makes the dialogue and characters ring true, and the gamers in the audience likely won’t mind explaining.
Shazam is the first DC movie that seems genuinely confident in its world and tone, with no major missteps of which to speak. It’s fun, heartfelt, funny, genuine, and surprising, while staying true to its origins and embracing what makes it great. It makes no attempts to be something other than what it is–a goofy, fun superhero coming-of-age story–and as a result it’s a movie anyone can enjoy. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come in the DC extended universe.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Zach Levi ably embodies a teenage boy||Occasionally verges on cheesy|
|Embraces its roots as a comic book movie|
|Balances humor, heart, and action|
|Great surprises throughout|
|Lovable cast and characters|