REVIEW — “Shazam!”
The DC Extended Universe gets a fresh, fun superhero in Zachary Levi’s Shazam, who headlines a good-hearted comic book adventure best described as Big meets Superman.
When streetwise 14-year-old foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) encounters an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) seeking a pure-of-heart champion to ward off the power-obsessed Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), the boy finds himself transformed into an adult superhero (Levi) when he utters a magic word: “Shazam!”
Endowed with the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury, Billy-slash-Shazam quickly turns to foster brother and superhero enthusiast Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) for help, tapping the excitable teen as his “manager.” As Billy struggles to fully assimilate into his foster family — even amid a desperate hunt for his birth mother, the loner teen argues families are for “people who can’t look out for themselves” — he quickly revels in his newfound superpowers, becoming more an adult-sized showboater than a superhero.
But Billy quickly learns family makes you stronger, not weaker, when he’s forced to step up and combat the scheming Sivana, who frees the goblin-like Seven Deadly Sins — Envy, Gluttony, Pride, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, and Lust — in a plot to steal the mystical power of Shazam and unleash it on an unsuspecting world, allowing director David F. Sandberg to indulge his darker side with tinges of the horror flourish he brought to Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation.
Set firmly within the DCEU — studio Warner Bros.’ shared universe home to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman — Shazam! is the first franchise entry to feel appropriately small-scaled, avoiding the at times overwhelming cacophony of Transformers-like action that plagued Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League.
Instead, the welcomely wholesome Shazam! has the kind-hearted goodness of Wonder Woman with none of the heavy-handed darkness or angst that has come to be so synonymous with the DCEU it was the center of an on-point gag in Fox-Marvel’s Deadpool 2.
Where Batman v Superman was miserable and joyless, Shazam! is practically a throwback to old-fashioned fun, at times feeling like 1984’s original Ghostbusters, other times feeling reminiscent of The Goonies when the adventure journeys into a wonder-filled cave. It’s simultaneously classic-feeling and modern, but is best compared to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man or Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man — in a good way — both movies that indulge in unrepentant superhero goodness and are charming in their quaintness, even if that wholesomeness is sometimes looked down upon as encroaching on the border of cheese.
While Levi’s hilarious Shazam is the standout — the 38-year-old star effortlessly captures and expresses the mentality of a 14-year-old who suddenly finds himself in the powerful body of an almost-god — he’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast, his “Shazamily,” comprised of foster siblings Freddy, Mary (Grace Fulton), Darla (Faithe C. Herman), Pedro (Jovan Armand), Eugene (Ian Chen), and foster parents Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor (Cooper Andrews). All shine in their own ways, and all are characters audiences will yearn to spend more time with when Shazam! emerges as the next hit superhero franchise.
If Shazam! falters, it’s with its lacking villain, who is portrayed menacingly enough by Strong — already well-versed with comic book bad guys, appearing in Kick-Ass and portraying fellow DC Comics almost-supervillain Sinestro in the Ryan Reynolds-led Green Lantern — who is unable to fashion a memorable villain out of feeble material.
It continues the lingering antagonist problem of DC, who has yet to crack its bland villain problem: though Sivana is an adequate enough first foe for Shazam — who spends much of the film learning to be a superhero instead of performing Superman-like superheroics — the character is neither compelling nor interesting, and is primarily there to get punched in the film’s especially spirited third act. No matter: Shazam! is strong enough and funny enough to withstand being tanked by a villain who does little and quotes from a Magic Eight Ball before hurling a victim out of a skyscraper window.
Though audiences may be wary of a prolonged origin story — Shazam! comes at a time when rival Marvel Studios, who is setting the industry pace for superhero fare, has mostly moved away from lengthy origin tales — Shazam! makes up for what it lacks in big superhero action with heart and humor, practically daring you not to enjoy this first adventure of an infectiously energetic superhero whose magic should have reached the silver screen years ago.
Shazam!: ★★★½ / ★★★★★
Warner Bros. releases Shazam! April 5.