Shazam! - Review

In breaking from the grim mood of Batman v Superman and Wonder Woman, DC’s Shazam! makes a case for the best superhero comedy since Guardians of the Galaxy.

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Something is in the air with Shazam!. It’s the kind of film to take your kids to, to invite everybody you know to enjoy the silliness and heartfelt (wha!?) themes of family, ones that aren’t shoehorned in for emotional depth (looking at you, Fast and the Furious). In a lighter, better-written origin story, DC show real promise in their solo superhero outings, building on the outrageous charm of 2018’s Aquaman: finally, DC has re-entered the ring.

This is what an informed comic book movie looks like. After pouring over the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Justice League, Batman v Superman, and Aquaman, director David Sandberg likely saw what was missing: genuine humor. Not occasional quips or an oddball premise, but a full-on comedy that wears the guise of a superhero film. Shazam! needed to be an origin and a good comedy. We’ve seen how difficult that can be in films like Ant-Man: one element is nearly always sacrificed, and trivial things like villains, supporting characters, and motivations are tossed for more explosions. Shazam! takes time to ingratiate the viewer with the struggles of Billy Batson, a runaway foster child, teenager, and ideal candidate for the reluctant hero. Played with calm angst and aplomb by both Asher Angel and Zachary Levi, respectively, the role is split in a way that’s meant to be jarring: what’s shocking is how well it works.

Every frame that includes Levi is bursting with wit, Tom Hanks in Big-style humor, and not every scene with Angel is a timer until he yells the titular phrase that transforms him into the spandex-clad hero. They capture separate energies, Angel spending most of his time in search for a long-lost mother, while Levi hams it up with natural charm, a quality that’s as rare and effective as Robert Downey Jr. was for Iron Man. Written with surprising heart by Henry Gayden, it doesn’t dodge the drama inherent with sappy beginnings: someone dies, someone else isn’t wanted, and the boy becomes a man. Every beat hit by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is struck in Shazam!, though unlike DC’s Man of Steel or Wonder Woman, Shazam! ignores the grit. A frightening opening sequence introduces Doctor Sivana, the film’s 7 Deadly Sins-themed villain, and though he couldn’t be a more stock-DC bad-guy, gray CGI blobs included, Shazam! let’s him have his moment; then it moves on. Never again are we forced to watch a blue-eyed Mark Strong monologue or terrorize without a joke from Batson, or at least not for very long.

Sivana drags the film down, elongating the climax into an excessive display of mid-budget computer creations that don’t look even close to real, but at this point, there’s no question as to whether the hero will succeed. Everything around the bland effects and corny villain-speak is so tight, so refreshingly funny, it’s easy to completely ignore the plot and focus on the characters (which is exactly the point). Shazam! is the return to grace fans have expected from DC ever since Suicide Squad, a film that doesn’t have to feign style, but possesses it in every breath.