Superheroes are a tricky property to get right. Don’t let the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe fool you, it is very hard to take these comic book characters, these icons of yesteryear, and present them to an audience in a way that truly feels exciting and revelatory. How do I know? Well, look around at the genre on film and you will see studios get it wrong far more often than they get it right. Why that is is something that is frankly hard to say, but the biggest issue has been studios attempting to map ideas and concepts on these characters in attempts to define them, rather than allowing the characters to define themselves. Fear of not being cool, of being too cheesy, of being too serious — or alternatively not serious enough — can lead to a lot of tail-chasing that sends these projects down dark paths. Which is why the recent output from Warner Bros. and more specifically their most recent film Shazam! is such an exciting change of pace.
With Shazam! And Aquaman before it, Warner Bros. has appeared to have turned a corner with its superhero properties. Without a shred of the darkness and self-seriousness that this particular cinematic universe had become known for, Shazam! instead chooses to be an ode to childlike joy and the power of found family, in the process becoming perhaps the most wholesome superhero movie of the modern era.
The film tells the story of a teenage boy named Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who, after being separated from his mother at a very young age, has bounced through the foster system never staying in one home for long, as he constantly runs away in an attempt to find his mother. After one of his more eventful escape attempts, he is placed in a group home ran by the delightful pairing of Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans, respectively). It’s there, with his new found family of two parents and five siblings that Billy is forced to start thinking about what he wants his life to be. After a moment of truth in which he stands up for his newfound brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy finds himself transported to a magical place, where the wizard Shazam entrusts Billy with his powers so that he can use them to save the world from the evil Doctor Sivana (Mark Strong) and the Seven Deadly Sins (this movie is delightful, but also very weird). Upon saying the wizard’s name, Billy transforms into a fully grown and heavily muscled man (Zachary Levi) with an incredible set of superpowers.
A large chunk of the movie is dedicated to Billy’s exploration of his powers, and more importantly how those powers influence his relationships with the people around him. Freddy rapidly establishes himself as the sidekick/manager to Billy’s superhero alter form and together the two engage in a variety of delightful hijinks, including the creation of a dedicated YouTube channel for Shazam. It’s all incredibly pure in a way these things rarely are, and even when drama and tension is introduced into Freddy and Billy’s relationship, it is always rooted in incredibly real and honest emotion rather than any contrived attempt at seriousness or grimness. These characters are children, and they are allowed to act like it.
The dedication to an adolescent state of mind is what carries the film. Even when we deal with the terrifying villain and his cadre of sin demons, it’s all still framed with a childlike perspective. The villains at the end of the day are a cruel adult in whom there is no innocence or joy to be found and a series of big, scary monsters that represent negative emotions. Billy’s greatest power isn’t flight or super-strength, it’s the love he has for his newfound family. The thesis of the film is that powers are cool and all, but it’s the people that we care about and that care about us that make life truly fulfilling and worthwhile.
To this end, the cast was all-important they deliver in spades. This film has a huge cast and each and every one of them came into this film bringing their A-game and it shows. We believe the story and in what the characters are feeling in large part due to the effort they put into portraying them. Angel and Grazer form an astounding emotional core for the film, and their scenes together are the highlights of the whole thing. Levi does a commendable job portraying a 14 year old trapped in the body of a grown man, and Strong is bringing more ham and cheese than a New York deli to his role as the villainous Doctor Sivana, a man driven by his rage and envy over not being judged good enough to wield the power of Shazam as a child.
I could spend time quibbling over the film’s cinematography, or the fact that it didn’t have quite enough budget to pull off what it was aiming for in certain scenes, but quite frankly I have no interest in getting very far into complaints on a movie this enjoyable. Technical shortcomings don’t mean a lot when a movie has as pure and powerful an emotional core as this one. It nails the most important parts, regardless of any imperfection around the edges.
Shazam! is a wild departure from what came before it. It charts a path of boundless potential for the DC film endeavors moving forward. It commits to its character more than anything and in trusting ideas this warm and wholesome to connect with audiences, it achieves something magnificent.