Everyone can admit they have once secretly tested to see if they have a superpower. It’s a pretty universal dream. Shazam!, hailing from DC’s Captain Marvel comics, this is a fun little jewel on the odd crown that is the DC Extended Cinematic Universe. After Nolan revolutionized superhero cinema with The Dark Knight Trilogy, DC films has struggled to find the correct tonal application for its characters. Nolan succeeded in bringing dark truth and grit to a superhero who dresses as a bat. However since then, lightening has not struck twice with filmmakers trying in vain to recapture that deeper tone. Wherein the opposite happened with Marvel films, they interestingly managed to make dark characters light. DC has not been able to manifest a worthy companion to their only critical hit, Wonder Woman (2017). Aquaman (2018) was a close call, but its DC’s newest superhero romp Shazam! that gets the closest but failing to truly strike. However, it’s a fun film mixing the ancient superhero magic of a DC comic with the whimsical fun of a Marvel Film.
The film follows Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an abandoned child who is proving a nuisance to Child Services and the authorities with his stubborn search for his lost mother. However, in his latest foster home, Billy makes a new friend, Freddy, and finds himself selected by an ancient Olympian Wizard ‘Shazam’ to be his new champion. Now endowed with the ability to instantly become an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) by speaking the wizard’s name, Billy gleefully explores his new powers with Freddy. However, Billy soon learns that he has a deadly enemy, Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), who was previously rejected by the wizard and has accepted the power of the Seven Deadly Sins instead. Now pursued by this mad scientist for his own power as well, Billy must face up to the responsibilities of his calling while learning the power of the special magic now inside him.
It’s ironic really that two of DC comics most laughable characters, Shazam and Aquaman, have become two of the DCU’s best films. If the DCEU continues to make films like these two they are in good hands. As both films are definitely good, but not great. The effects are noteworthy as they are sleek and tight, while also being over the top and amusing. But the stakes are relatively small and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The final act needed another boost of incentive however. The film is a little extra – with events and circumstances randomly happening for even more random reasons. It’s fun to watch, but not particularly anymore fun than watching a Saturday morning cartoon. It tries its hardest to be light… really, really tries. And that’s where the film starts to falter. Instead of giving weight to the narrative, we are force fed jokes and unlikeable characters.
Zachary Levi’s performance is sadly at a hindrance to the film, as he tries too hard to make Shazam humorous. We are always aware he is an adult acting like a child, unlike Tom Hanks in Big (1988), which is the opposite. The character of the grown up Shazam would have been better realised and likeable had it felt more like a joint character between Angel and Levi. Levi doesn’t ooze the likeability of a child who just realised they have superpowers. Mark Strong gives a solid performance as the film’s villain Sivana, yet one feels as though Strong hasn’t been given the opportunity yet to play a truly great comic book villain. A role he would relish. Also, having the seven deadly sins as gargoyle-like creatures feels like a wasted opportunity to have some exciting personifications of the sins as human villainous characters.
Still, there’s a fair share of fun to be had with Shazam! as a comedy about superhero growing pains, Superman (1978) meets Big (1988) and it works. When a plot point involving his new family emerges in the final battle it’s a pleasant surprise and enough to make anyone smile. A nice step away from the brooding virility of earlier DC films, Shazam! is more straight-forward and family friendly, with its power being light: it’s the blockbuster version of a Saturday morning cartoon. A sequel will no doubt be on the horizon, hopefully the story continues to fly and only gets better.
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