You never get a second chance to make a first impression, but you really can’t fault the DC Extended Universe for trying. After all, it got off to a pretty shaky start with dark, angsty films like Man of Steel and the punishingly pessimistic Batman V Superman: Dawn of Martha. While Wonder Woman, the first DC film shot in color, looked like a reversal, DC doubled-down with the schizotonic mess Suicide Squad and the hollow, self-important Justice League. That’s probably why Aquaman, its legitimately entertaining and vibrant (if still overdone and grandiose) sixth film, seemed like a reboot—a conscious effort to distance itself from the franchise’s past. The trend continues with Shazam!, a film so bold, campy, and old-school that it has an exclamation point right in the title.
The hero of our story is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a troubled, 14-year-old foster kid. Through a series of random events, he meets an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who gives Billy the ability to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) when he says “Shazam!” While Billy tries to figure out his new powers with the help of his comic book geek foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), he’s being hunted by the villainous Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), who wants Billy’s magic for himself.
There really isn’t much more plot to Shazam! than that. There’s no world-shaking catastrophe. There’s not really a city to save. Nobody’s trying to become king of anything. There isn’t even a giant, mystical laser shooting up into the sky. Wait…is this even a DCEU movie at all?
It is, but not in the ways you might think. Like Aquaman, Shazam! makes off-handed references to events in prior DCEU films. And based on the memorabilia in Freddy’s room, we know that Bats, Supes, and…Aqus?…are real characters in the film’s universe. Otherwise, though, the film is largely unconnected to any of the movies that came before it. This works entirely in the film’s favor, unburdening it of the DCEU’s past baggage and allowing it to thrive on its own merits.
If anything, the closest analog Shazam! has to other superhero films is, of all things, Deadpool. Both films have only a tenuous connection to shared universes, and both are admirably devoted to the tone and feel of their source material. Both have the lowest but most efficient budgets of any film in their franchise. And both are focused entirely on personal stakes that help to speak to the nature of their characters in ways larger films often miss. (Both heroes wear red suits, too.) Of course, one is a profane, R-rated slice-and-dice-fest while the other is a more family-friendly adventure about flying men in capes. But, you know. Similar otherwise.
The most notable thing about Shazam! is how much fun it is, at least after the rather shaky first act. Even when he’s transformed into a handsome brick wall of a man, Billy is still a 14-year-old boy playing with all the classic superpowers. There is a heavy degree of giddy wish fulfillment in nearly every scene with Hero!Billy that’s more than a little infectious. It’s almost too easy to imagine ourselves into that muscle suit. Even in the film’s weaker moments, there’s an undeniable four-color, page-turning energy to the story.
A lot of this energy comes from Zachary Levi’s performance as the adult Billy, a perfectly cast role if ever there was one. Asher Angel is great as the teenage Billy, but it’s Levi who truly makes the film glow with all his overblown swagger and innocent, exuberant charisma. It’s clear he’s having the time of his life, and he carries the part like he was born to play it. Between Levi’s own juiced-up physique and the padded contours of the retro-leaning supersuit, he cuts a delightfully exaggerated figure, truly like a classic comic book hero come to life. He has a perfect sidekick in Jack Dylan Grazer, who geeks his heart out in every scene, a very logic-focused counterpoint to Billy’s impulsiveness.
Every hero needs a villain, and Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana gives as good, if not a greater performance as Levi does. Casting Mark Strong as a villain might be typecasting at this point, but casting him as this particular villain is genius. Sivana is evil. Like legitimately cold, cruel, stoic evil. Strong’s tempered approach to the character helps sell the menace he has, and his lack of pomposity makes him all the more terrifying. Sivana is responsible for some shockingly dark moments in the film, but also some of its most amusing. An epic villain speech he tries to give in the film’s climax fails to register because he says it when Billy is too far away to hear him. It’s a moment that allows Strong to stay completely true to both the established character of Sivana and the more comedic tone of the overall film.
That tone is hard-won, in a way, because it takes director David F. Samberg a while to get there. As previously touched upon, the first act is highly inconsistent, including several moments that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of the horror films that Samberg is known for. And as horror moments, they work spectacularly…but maybe not in a film explicitly pitched as fun for the whole family. The first act is also heavy on exposition and slack on pacing, and the whole film tends to drag until Billy finally gets his powers, which seems to take much longer than it actually does. Even the scene where Billy does get his powers seems to take way too long to wrap up.
The film’s technical aspects also falter slightly from time to time, although overall, things are very competently handled. Chalk it up to the relatively tiny budget, but a few of Billy’s flying sequences look downright sloppy, and glowing objects like the energy bolt on Billy’s chest or the wizard’s staff look like store-bought props. There’s so much charm built into the picture, though, that these kinds of things are easy to overlook for the most part. They come off more as endearing flaws than unfortunate mistakes.
And endearingly flawed could describe a lot of the movie. Shazam! certainly means very well, and that attitude goes a long, long way to helping make the film as enjoyable and fun as it is. There’s no pretension here, no posturing. The film’s campy, but it never winks at the camera. It has a sense of humor about itself while also taking its source material very seriously. It contains some strong, highly accessible emotional arcs that are only occasionally overplayed. It proudly lives up to its hero’s nickname, the Big Red Cheese, without making apologies for it.
Shazam! is the magic word that turns the DC Extended Universe into a super-charged good time.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+