It hasn’t been a big secret that DC has been struggling to play catch up with its chief rival in Marvel. The problem is that DC was trying to create its own interconnected universe of characters. Attempting to mirror the Marvel method has underserved the movies featuring their expansive roster of iconic comic book characters. The best DC movies – Wonder Woman, Aquaman – succeeded because they were unconcerned about tying separate franchises together and focused on their own fantastical worlds and mythology. Now comes the most unusual entry in DC’s growing stable of movie characters with Shazam!, a wildly entertaining comic book film from director David F. Sandberg. Gone are the overly serious and overly dark takes that have dominated DC’s films in the past. Shazam! is unabashedly goofy as it embraces the character’s unique mythology while retaining a child-like joy about the powers of superheroics.
Shazam! is the story of how Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old kid trying to find his place in the world, becomes an all-powerful superhero through a chance encounter with a reclusive wizard (Djimon Hounsou). Whenever Billy utters the name “Shazam” he’s transformed into Shazam (Zachary Levi), a superhero with the ability of super-speed, super-strength, flight, and blasts of lightning. While this young outcast has acquired his own array of superpowers, so too has Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a power-hungry villain who wants the powers of Shazam after encountering the wizard in his youth. Of course, unlikely hero and lifelong villain will meet in an epic showdown for super-supremacy.
Beyond just being a superhero movie by way of the 1988 comedy Big, Shazam! is also a film with strong familial themes. In this case, Billy is a teenager in search of his long lost mother, and he’s roamed from foster home to foster home for years. Billy’s misadventures include numerous run-ins with the law, all of which has him winding up in the home run by Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor (Cooper Andrews), a loving couple who were formerly foster kids themselves and have dedicated their lives to helping kids just like them. In this household, Billy encounters what’s to be his adoptive family. There’s the superhero obsessed Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), the videogame obsessed Eugene (Ian Chen), the dedicated student Mary (Grace Fulton), the bulky and indifferent Pedro (Jovan Armand), and the sweet young girl with absolutely no filter Darla (Faithe Herman). Billy is reticent to embrace his new home after living his life with a loner mentality, but it’s once he begins to understand the new powers gifted to him that he’s able to understand that heroism is so much more than superpowers and spandex. It is this genuinely surprising and effective emotional component that takes Shazam! beyond a by-the-numbers superhero movie.
For a movie that is ostensibly a superhero origin story, Shazam! is able to work around the trapping of the genre because it’s incredibly self-aware of the genre. The nature of superheroism and the discovery of incredible powers becomes comical as Zachary Levi’s oversized teenager and his wise-cracking, superhero obsessed sidekick in Jack Dylan Grazer’s Freddy experiment with the transformed hero’s potential, and, of course, Freddy is keenly aware of every little possibility thanks to his extensive knowledge of the exploits of Superman and Batman. Shazam! takes place within the larger world of DC movies but is never burdened with having to tie into other movies and mythologies. It’s a film that’s interested in the world-building that concerns the central characters and not tying into an expanding franchise which proves, like Aquaman did recently, to be quite liberating.
What makes Shazam! so much fun is how it’s not out to reinvent the superhero genre. Instead it’s content to operate within the genre tropes and amplify certain elements for comedic effect. David F. Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden (working from a story credited to himself and Darren Lemke) fully embrace the absurd mythology of the character. They don’t try to explain away or diminish the goofiness. And that embrace of what makes the character unique as well as silly is embodied in the gleeful performance by Zachary Levi. Staying true to the characters and the comic book mythology means that later revelations in the film, including a major one in the film’s climax, don’t feel forced or perfunctory but earned.
Shazam! does have some weaker elements but nothing that ever diminishes the sense of fun that comes with the new kind of silly superhero. It’s a film crafted with love for its characters and that affection comes through in the final product. It’s a funny, heartfelt work and further proof that the best course for the future of DC’s movie slate is to not try and play catch up with their rivals at Marvel by creating their own interconnected universe but to focus on character first and the rest will fall into place. Shazam! is entirely goofy and entirely earnest in its take on superheroes and that pays greater dividends in the long run than relentlessly grim and dour. It’s absolutely amazing how much fun DC can be when it’s not taking itself so damned seriously.
A funny, heartfelt, and entirely goofy take on the superhero genre, Shazam! proves to be a winner because it embraces everything that makes its hero unique and is completely unburdened with tying into a larger cinematic universe or teases for sequels.