Making the leap from horror to superheroes in a single bound, director David F. Sandberg has brought Captain Marv- I mean, Shazam, to the silver screen. The latest entry into the DC Cinematic something-or-other, Shazam! follows Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year old kid in and out of foster homes, searching for his mother. After a fateful encounter with the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou), Billy is granted his magic, allowing him to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) with one word: Shazam! Together with his foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy revels in this new version of himself, quickly using his powers to have as much fun as possible. However, he must come to terms with the responsibilities of being a superhero, after he is confronted by Dr Thaddeus Sivana, himself gifted with magic, who wants Billy’s powers for himself.
It’s certainly beginning to feel like Warner Bros. are finding their feet with their DC films; Wonder Woman (2017) was a confident step forward, and Aquaman (2018) made over a billion dollars during its box office run, overcoming narrative shortcomings with over-the-top spectacle. But with Shazam!, DC has embraced the inherent goofiness of the source material, giving us a comedic take on the superhero genre, with enough heart to rival Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films.
As an origin film, Shazam! doesn’t offer a hugely new take on the superhero genre although, in fairness, this is becoming increasingly difficult as the market becomes increasingly saturated by the genre. Remaining largely faithful to Geoff Johns’ New 52 comic book origin for the character, writer Henry Gayden’s story is largely familiar, yet never fails to deliver both fun and funny moments. The dialogue feels natural, even during some of the more fantastic moments in the film. With the sheer wish fulfilment at the heart of the film’s premise, it’s no surprise that they mine the concept for all it’s worth as we follow Billy and Freddy’s adventures as they use the former’s powers to become famous on YouTube, make money, and pretend to be proper adults; “I’d like some of your finest beer, please” was a standout line for me.
Sharing the titular role are Asher Angel as Billy Batson and Zachary Levi as his adult/superhero counterpart. The two both deliver a synchronised performance, making the transitions between the two virtually seamless. Angel handles the more dramatic moments he’s given, particularly with regards to Billy’s search for his mother, while Levi takes great delight in his character’s newfound superpowers, whilst making his interactions with Jack Dylan Grazer’s Freddy believable. Billy and Freddy’s foster family are given the bare minimum of development, although this isn’t necessarily a fault. Along with the parents (played charmingly by Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews), Sandberg and Gayden have four other foster siblings to develop: Darla (Faithe Herman), Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand) and Mary (Grace Fulton). Each sibling is quickly established with their own particular quirk (Darla’s a hugger) and fortunately, they still feel like real characters despite their limited time on-screen. The warmth pervading Billy’s foster family helps to emphasise the themes of family and belonging that underline the film, contrasting against our emotionally guarded protagonist.
Mark Strong is no stranger to comic book films – if we keep Kick-Ass (2010) and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) in mind – and in Shazam! he is serviceable as the antagonist, Doctor Sivana. Although he himself is intimidating in the role, I feel that the script wasted a lot of the hard work they do to establish Sivana’s origins and motivations. Likewise, Djimon Hounsou (in his second DC appearance within the last year!) is a largely expository character as the Wizard, Shazam, who grants Billy his powers. Tonally, the film leans predominantly into the more family-friendly side of the superhero genre. This doesn’t stop director David F. Sandberg calling back to his origins in the horror genre, with a couple of scenes proving both effective, and possibly a bit too much for some younger viewers.
The film also serves as a testament to his low-budget filmmaking background as the special effects are, for the most part, effective and as bombastic as this genre demands. The action, meanwhile, is mostly saved for the film’s third act which, admittedly, does drag at times, but remains entertaining nonetheless. The fact that some of these action set pieces are on the scale of Man of Steel’s final act is incredible to me, particularly when considering that the film’s budget was apparently between $80-100 million. Unlike Aquaman though, Shazam! embraces its predecessors, openly referring to members of the Justice League, and even the events of more controversial entries into this cinematic universe. This really gives the feeling that, although they are course-correcting, DC are starting to right their course.
Overall, Shazam! brings a goofy charm to the DC side of the superhero playground, highlighting both Sandberg, and his cast’s, talents. The film definitely left me wanting more and I am now genuinely looking forward to seeing that DC does next, both with this new franchise, and their larger universe.