The DC Extended Universe is a fickle franchise. From its origins in the dark, depressing days of “Man of Steel,” “Batman v Superman,” and the truly horrendous “Suicide Squad,” to the glimmer of hope thanks to the 2017 hit “Wonder Woman,” it’s been difficult to determine the quality of this series. A mere five months later, the CGI-mess “Justice League” erased any potential progress created by Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot and set the franchise back even further. But last December, Warner Bros. took a step back and reevaluated its ominous Snyder-esque take on superheroes and decided to lighten the mood with “Aquaman,” a film that was praised excessively simply for not being a flaming pile of garbage.
Now, “Shazam!” is here to be everything “Aquaman” wished it could have been – and far more. Director David F. Sandberg has created a fun, light-hearted superhero romp overflowing with hilarity and heart – proving that the DCEU doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.
When Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a troubled 14-year-old orphan, is placed in a new group home, he reluctantly gains five new “siblings.” After seeing one of them, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled superhero fan boy, getting bullied at school, Billy decides to intervene. A chase ensues and Billy escapes via subway, but things turn bizarre when everyone vanishes from the train car and it’s inexplicably transported into a dark, mysterious cave. Here, Billy meets The Wizard (Djimon Hounsou), and aging superhero on his deathbed, desperate to find a hero who is true of heart and worthy to replace him. This doesn’t sound like Billy, but he hesitantly agrees, and after uttering the word “Shazam,” The Wizard’s powers are transferred to him.
But the word does more than give him super speed, strength, flight, invincibility and electrical abilities – it morphs the 14-year-old Billy into a full-grown adult superhero (Zachary Levi). By speaking his name, Billy is capable of transforming himself between his teenage and superhero selves. Initially, his newfound powers seem like a sensational publicity stunt, as Billy performs ridiculous stunts, lights up YouTube and poses for photos, all with Freddy posing as his manager. But quickly, Billy realizes he’ll have to use his powers for more when Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) arrives – a power-hungry mad man scorned by The Wizard as a child who is now possessed by The Seven Deadly Sins and determined to destroy the hero.
It’s legitimately refreshing to see DC embrace the playfulness that makes its counterpart, Marvel, so lovable and entertaining. In “Shazam!” Levi channels an almost Deadpool-like level of humor and self-awareness, minus the profanity and crudeness. Yes, this is a superhero film packed with explosions and flying, but it honestly feels like more of an action-comedy than anything else, as I’d wager no more than three minutes of screen time pass without someone cracking a joke.
Another aspect that sets this film apart from its peers in the DCEU is its commitment to crafting a well-developed villain – an issue many of its counterparts have struggled to overcome. The Lex Luthor/Doomsday combination was weak, Steppenwolf was a wreck, both visually and structurally, and even Ares in “Wonder Woman” somewhat fell apart at the end. But this time around, unlike most superhero films, Sandberg begins with the villain and his backstory, sufficiently setting the stakes and elaborating on his motivation. As a child belittled by both The Wizard and his unsupportive family, Sivana’s motivations are far more complex than simply wanting to destroy the world.
While most superhero films, particularly origin stories, can feel somewhat procedural in the development of their heroes and explanations of their powers, “Shazam!” never falls victim. Instead, Billy and Freddy are constantly discovering new abilities throughout the film, and it’s not all a messy dump to begin the film. Even the obligatory training montage is masterfully executed, and equally hilarious, to prevent it from feeling like anything audiences have previously seen.
“Shazam!” is a film full of heart, which at times may seem a bit too on the nose for some. With a story focused on a group of orphans coming together to save the day, family is a key emphasis, and some of its message are a bit forced when they could have been handled in a more subtle manner. Despite the warm and fuzzy feelings, they never overpower the core hilarity and action of the film.
With impressive third act twists and an extremely entertaining final showdown, “Shazam!” marks DC’s best cinematic release since 2008’s masterpiece, “The Dark Knight.” If this is any sign of where the franchise is headed, Marvel may finally be getting some serious competition.
Star Rating: 5 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.