Shazam stars Zachary Levy in the story of a boy named Billy Batson. Billy is 15 years old, young Billy is played by Asher Angel, and an orphan. Years earlier, Billy was separated from his mother at a carnival in Philadelphia. She disappeared and young Billy is convinced that he simply needs to find her again so they can be reunited as a family. The reality that his mother never looked for him after that day is something he is eager to overlook.
Since he was 4 years old, Billy has been shuttled from several foster homes that he has abandoned to hit the streets searching for his mother. The latest home is one filled with a diverse group of kids that are Billy’s age and younger and who seem open to welcoming him to the family. That can only happen however, once Billy opens himself to his new family and that is part of the plot journey of Shazam.
The plot of the movie kicks in when Billy saves his new brother, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) from some school bullies and winds up impressing the wizard known as “Shazam” (Djimon Hounsou) with his bravery. For years, Shazam has kept the spirits of the seven deadly sins locked away while he searched for someone pure of heart to take over his magical powers. He chooses Billy despite his misgivings about Billy’s selfishness in his search for his mother.
With the power of Shazam, Billy grows into a more than 6 foot tall, red-suited, white caped, gold-booted, superhero. It takes a while, but eventually, he realizes that he can switch between his superhero persona and his kid persona by saying the name Shazam. This leads to a legitimately charming sequence, overly familiar from just about every superhero debut movie, in which he and Freddy begin to test his superhero powers.
We should be put off by this sequence as we’ve seen the same thing in Iron Man, Captain America, Batman, each iteration of the Spider-Man movies, Ant-Man, et cetera. And yet, despite the cliche, these scenes do work in Shazam. I didn’t mind the cliche this time because Zachary Levy and Jack Dylan Grazer are having such a good time with these cliches. The fun they are having doing these scenes is palpable and I had fun because they were having so much fun.
It turns out, much to my surprise, that Zachary Levy was perfect for the role of a childlike superhero. My personal bias against Levy for his dimwitted performance on TV’s Chuck and his dreadful role in one of the more recent Chipmunk movies had blinded me to the legitimate talent he has for silliness. That talent for silliness is exactly what Shazam needed to separate it from the otherwise dour and glowering D.C movie universe.
D.C has a reputation for being grim, especially under the direction of Zach Snyder.This universe needed something like Shazam to force the universe into a more of a fun place to be. That vibe began with James Wan’s Aquaman, but Shazam is the first real exploration of a comedic place within the D.C universe. It’s a course correction for D.C where director-auteur Snyder seemed to believe that the only way to escape the shadow of Marvel was to go almost absurdly serious.
If D.C ever brings the Justice League together again, Shazam will provide a strong leavening force, a lightheartedness that may be the key to bringing this to a place where the Marvel movies have been from the beginning, an entertaining and fun and exciting place. The all or nothing, apocalyptic vibe of the D.C Universe was the worst part of the Superman movies and while Wonder Woman made that tolerable, we needed a movie like Shazam to bring a little light into that darkness.
This is rather ironic coming from Swedish born director David F Sandberg whose previous features were the horror movies Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation. He’s not exactly the guy you would expect to bring lighthearted fun to the DCEU but that is exactly what he’s done. Shazam has a lot of laughs, a lot of big laughs. Laughs in which we are more often than not laughing with the movie and not at the movie.
That was a major concern for me based off of the trailer for Shazam. I was concerned that I would find the movie pathetic and laugh at things that perhaps were not intended while not laughing in places where laughs were sought. I didn’t laugh much at the film’s trailer which wasn’t embarrassingly bad but was definitely awkward and leaned far too heavily on the immaturity of the character of Shazam.
The movie leans heavily on that same immaturity but given a little more room to breathe, Zachary Levy makes it work. And when it is time for the movie take on a modest amount of seriousness in the final act, Levy makes that work as well, he earns enough of the needed weight for us to genuinely care about him and his newfound family and the peril posed by the film’s big bad, played by Mark Strong.
Here, unfortunately, is where I must talk about the flaws of Shazam. Mark Strong is unquestionably the weakest part of this movie. His Dr Sivana is remarkably unremarkable. Strong is a fine actor but I didn’t buy into his charisma free, whiny villain. We spend far too much time on his uninteresting backstory and he’s further undone by the underwhelming special effects that make up both the Seven Deadly Sins and the rubbery CGI Strong in the flying scenes.
Sivana’s backstory is part of why Shazam’s runtime is way too long. As enjoyable as the movie is, it is terribly bloated at more than 130 minutes. The film repeats a little too much of Billy and Shazam being frightened and incompetent and while the idea of a learning curve for a kid superhero makes sense, the film could have used a device to speed things up so that the middle didn’t sag so much. Losing a few minutes from Sivana’s dull backstory would have been a good first step.
Nevertheless, even a bloated runtime and underwhelming villain didn’t prevent me from enjoying Shazam. The film has way too many good laughs and way too much fun for me to dislike it. Shazam is joyously silly and yet still a movie that can fit nicely into the overall DCEU. The dour franchise needed a lighthearted shot in the arm ala Ant-Man in the Marvel Universe, and Shazam is a terrific comedic fit.