Shazam is a comic book character I knew nothing about going into the film. I never read comics as a kid, but before heading into a new superhero origin story, I usually I have a basic understanding of our hero before I enter the theater. I was completely clueless on Shazam, to the point where I wasn’t even aware he was initially called Captain Marvel until Marvel sued DC for the name rights (I learned this after the movie). With Shazam begin a completely new character, I did not know what to expect and with DC’s spotty track record of late, it was hard to not think Shazam! could be a dud. But what we got was an absolute blast. Shazam! is a wildly fun movie led by the terrific ensemble, snappy humor, and more heart than most comic book movies.
Meet Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a kid deserted by his mother at a carnival when he was barely old enough to walk who has been on a mission ever since to find her. Billy has broken out of numerous group homes and orphanages on his search and his stand-offish personality makes it hard for him to make friends. But after getting caught by the cops, Billy, now fourteen, is put into the group home of Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews) where he rooms with Freddy (Jacky Dylan Grazer), a superhero obsessed spazz with a gimp. After stopping a pair of bullies from beating Freddy up at school, Billy is transported to a mystical cave where he is given the powers of Shazam, one of which changes Billy from the fourteen year old boy that he is into a grown man (Zachary Levi), though keeping his same personality. Billy, with the help of Freddy, must learn to use his powers and utilize them for good, all while trying to stop Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) from summoning evil spirits to take over the city.
The best part about Shazam!, and the part the separates it from other superhero movies, is the story of Billy and his mother. Since losing her in a fair a decade ago, Billy has never forgotten her and knows that with his determination, he will find her and they will be a family again. Even after he gets his powers, Billy never loses sight of what really means to him. Having grown up feeling lost, lonely, and unwanted, Billy just wants a family and to be part of a family. But Shazam! really asks us to think about the definition of family. Is family only those we share blood with? Or is it the ones who care about us? This a deep theme not seen in many comic book movies, especially DC ones. This guides the movie and makes it far more than superhero action.
Zachary Levi, who I loved as a dimwitted spy in the T.V. show Chuck, gives a career-resurgence performance here as Shazam. He’s a blast to watch and you can’t help but fall in love with superhero who loves having powers, something most superheroes feel is a burden. The two boys, Angel and Grazer, and delightful. Angel wears Billy’s angst perfectly, never going overboard, yet always making us feel his pain. Grazer is terrific. With his sarcastic one-liners, perfect timing, and emotional beats, he is a well-rounded supporting character. The rest of the kids in the group home get their due, being more than just pieces of the plot, they are actual side-characters with depth. And Mark Strong can play any villain he wants because he is so good at it. So devilish and menacing, his voice is just pure evil and he plays the perfect foil for Shazam’s fun attitude.
Shazam! isn’t perfect, though. The final battle, though having some rousing elements, runs far too long and is truly missing a “wow” moment. But the biggest fault of the film is an issue that continues to plague these body-swapping/personality-changing movies. Before Billy gets his Shazam powers, he isn’t a very pleasant kid, and rightly so, as he’s a lost soul trying to find his mother. There was never really a moment where Billy seemed to have a bright, fun personality. But when he becomes Shazam, the idea of it is supposed to be that his personality stays the same, but his body changes, making him a fourteen-year-old boy in a thirty-year-old body. However, and even though the performance from Levi is great, the personality of Shazam is not the same as Billy’s, making this logic a little shaky. It’s almost a complete 180 from Billy’s teenage personality. Of course when a fourteen-year-old magically becomes a superhero he’s going to have a good time and have fun, but even when Billy changes back to his fourteen-year-old self, he goes back to his sad, almost emo ways. This is a kid who knows he’s a superhero, so why is still so glum? Or on the other hand, Billy is sad about his mother, so why is he all of a sudden so happy as a super hero? Freddy realizes how cool it is and Billy only seems to realize it when he is Shazam. Billy still mopes around as a kid, but as a superhero, he’s floss dancing, cracking jokes, things that teenage Billy wouldn’t do. It’s like Billy’s personality didn’t fully translate through when he turned super.
Personality issue aside, Shazam! is loads of fun. I don’t know what this means for the DC cinematic universe, if that universe even exists anymore, but Shazam! is another well-made, entertaining film that stays in the vein of Wonder Woman and Aquaman.
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