DC Comics and Warner Bros. at one time sat alone atop the throne of the superhero film genre. But that was many a moon ago. Since Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” ended in 2012, DC has had a noticeable lack of direction, especially in comparison to the wallet-consuming unquenchable black hole that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After releasing hot garbage like “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (which is objectively a stupid title), “Suicide Squad” and “Justice League”, DC looked to be stalling in a cesspool of sub-mediocrity. But despite Zack Snyder’s best efforts, it wouldn’t be all doom-and-gloom forever. DC started to get their act together with a solid B+ effort in “Wonder Woman” and the passable “Aquaman”. And now we have “SHAZAM!”. While it is not enough to overthrow Marvel, it is a sign of positive change for DC.
“SHAZAM!” is a fun movie, which, for the moment, is still a relatively unexpected feat coming from DC. The film focuses on a 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster child abandoned by his teenage mother when he was a young child. Billy is in search of his birth mother and frequently runs away from his foster homes. He is very much out for himself, but one day a Wizard named SHAZAM (Djimon Hounsou) bestows his magic to Billy out of desperation in order to defeat the manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins. Now Billy can transform into an adult male (Zachary Levi) who can shoot lighting from his bodily appendages. It sounds really weird but the film is very true to the source material.
As Billy learns to use his powers, he and his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) get into a bunch of different shenanigans that range from helpful, such as charging everyone’s iPhones in the mall, to negligent, such as accidentally jumping through a window while trying to fly, to actually criminal, when they short-circuit an ATM and basically rob a bank. They aren’t exactly altruists. The comic books that the film is based on are the ultimate childhood fantasy. Kids who are forgotten by society are given gifts that make them have societal value. How would you act like a child if you were suddenly given superpowers that could equal Superman? You might want to do good, but chances are you would spend a lot of time showing off and having fun. It is the most realistic response to the most unrealistic circumstances.
My most immediate and most pressing reaction to “SHAZAM!” was just how great the dialogue was for the entirety of the film. The characters seem to know just how absurd and ridiculous their situations seem to be and humor that comes from this is a driving force for the entire movie. When compared to the goofy, underwater political nonsense that was saturated throughout “Aquaman”, it was refreshing to see DC bring the characters closer to reality again.
There is an issue with the film that I was very disappointed to see arise: the villain. Perhaps the most worn-out trope of the superhero genre is the villain being a mirror image of the hero. They are normally a surface-level antithesis of the title hero and are defeated in a one-off battle. Well, guess what we have here?
Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) is the villain for Billy to defeat and he is serviceable. Strong is one of those actors you recognize by face but not name. He is obviously the bad guy. He knows it. Billy knows it. Billy’s little foster sister knows it. The audience knows it. He dresses in an outfit that only a supervillain would wear. He is bald and everyone else has a thick head of hair. He is clearly a British actor trying to speak with an American accent. His sole motivation for being bad is that he was the second favorite child growing up and he wants to be evil because of it. I am also pretty sure he is mildly pissed off about being named Thad. I had thought we as a society had moved past generic motivations for antagonists in film, but sadly, we have not. It is not like Mark Strong gave a bad performance, it is just that the role is so cliché that you cannot help but feel let down by yet another villain that wants power and just likes being evil.
Thankfully, the film is not reliant on its central conflict to get its message of family and love across. If I am, to be honest with you, sappy morals about finding one’s place in the world are usually so played out that it is hard to feel like an individual story has a different or necessary viewpoint to share with the audience. “SHAZAM!” defies my cynical expectations and actually does create a real tale about a different type of family. Perhaps the most impactful scene in the entire film is when teenage Billy meets his birth mother. It is at this moment that Billy learns what it means to belong and what it means to truly appreciate those who care about you. It is a rare dramatic moment in an otherwise lighthearted action comedy, and it is my hope that anyone who views this film truly appreciates humanity at that moment.
When you make a movie that has as wild of a premise as “SHAZAM!”, it is important to have the characters as relatable as possible. The concepts are looney and viewers who do not partake in typical nerd fantasy stories all the time could get lost in the wackiness of the ideas of old wizards with lightning powers and CGI demons. The characters are the anchor to the real world that a casual viewer can grab onto and view the story through their eyes. It is because the characters of Billy and Freddy, as well as the characters all of their foster family, are played so well, that this film can become a fun viewing experience. Let us not act like this film was a sure-fire hit from the beginning. While the trailers made it look funny, there was a chance the story could have been too silly for mainstream viewers to appreciate. Ultimately, the filmmakers found a nice balance to create a fun experience for just about anyone who watches it.
As for what this means for DC Comics, we should be encouraged. While it is not a perfect film, “SHAZAM!” is a sign that they are reclaiming their form when it comes to making good movies. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that DC works better when it is not trying to be the Pepsi to Marvel’s Coke. Marvel has already created perhaps the finest extended cinematic universe we will ever see and DC will likely never be able to do what they have done. Why keep on insisting on being the lesser copycat when you could just be different? “SHAZAM!” does not worry about fitting into a greater universe, and aside from a frustrating post-credit sequel setup, it only focuses on the movie that is on the screen at the moment. Enough trying to make every character fit into Zack Snyder’s edgy dull red vision, and just tell us good stories. I believe they have finally come around to this idea.
I give “SHAZAM!” a respectable 7.8 out of 10.
Directed by: David F. Sandberg Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand
Runtime: 2 Hours and 12 Minutes