The premise of Shazam! seems primed for contemporary audiences. It’s the story of a young boy trapped in the body of an adult, a feeling that comic book movie viewers long away from high school should easily relate to.
It’s an old trope, and allusions to Big are made explicit with a floor piano, but that takes nothing away from the effectiveness of the film to bring character and narrative beyond the usual spectacle and bombast.
The opening act is refreshingly paced. The movie takes its time to integrate us into the storyline. We meet a young orphan named Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who’s on a quest to find the mother he got separated from at a theme park as a young child. A scruffy outsider, Billy has a chip on his shoulder as he bounces from foster home to foster home.
In his newest placement, he meets up with a ragtag bunch including young Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a kid with a cane who’s obsessed with properties conveniently all from the DC universe. When Billy is called to meet a wizard (Djimon Hounsou), he’s granted the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury, along with a very silly red suit and awkwardly attached white cape. He also turns into a gawky adult (Zachary Levi).
Swedish director David Sandberg made his bones on documentary and horror films, and here manages to bring a sense of authenticity to the film that’s often lacking. The best parts by far are the character interactions, where we’re drawn into the dynamic of friends testing out their powers to varying effects and sometimes spectacular failure. There’s surely no better metaphor for adolescence. Writer Henry Gayden keeps the plot from being glaringly clichéd while still managing to check off the requisite superhero elements.
The baddie, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), is also given a relatively rich backstory that provides a little bit more weight to his need for vengeance. While it’s not quite as blissfully heavy-handed as the Fast & Furious franchise, themes of family and responsibility are central to the storyline, and their integration into the greater superheroics is surprisingly done with a degree of elegance.
Angel and Levi’s take on Billy is the heart of the film, and the two craft a terrific synergy. Levi’s having a blast being goofy without going over the edge, managing to provide the right degree of awkwardness without becoming cartoonish. Even toilet humor is nicely integrated, answering age old questions about how one relieves oneself while in a spandex unitard.
The retinue of foster kids and their caring parents easily could have come across as cloying, but thanks to strong performances and brisk scenes, it all works out. The most refreshing part of the movie may be the most throwback part – yes, the film takes place in a universe where Batman and Superman exist, but for at least this iteration, there’s no particular sense that we’re merely world-building. It feels like you could take a ride with just this one storyline without worrying about how it affects the machinations of a greater cinematic universe. You can simply hang out with Billy and his buds and take the movie in on its own terms.
Rid of the more strategic elements of needing to set up an entire franchise, Shazam! doesn’t forget to entertain first before getting ahead of itself. Its playfulness is welcome – look to a young kid smashing action figures together to get a sense of the final battle – but above all it’s a coming-of-age tale told at mythic scale. What easily could have been just more schlock instead feels like it has something to say. Its scope doesn’t need thousands of CGI creatures all attacking like some malevolent confetti. Instead, the movie draws real, human conflicts that still have a sense of supernatural urgency.
In the end, Shazam! works perfectly well for those who couldn’t care less about the baggage of decades of comic book lore, and reminds us that these superhero movies can be a hell of a lot of fun without sacrificing richness of character.
Erik in Wisconsin
“…works perfectly well for those who could care less about the baggage of decades of comic book lore…”
THANK YOU and AMEN. It never ceases to amaze me the degree to which some people complain and obsess over minutiae related to trivial inconsistencies between one movie and another in some serial. For crying out loud, loosen up a little and enjoy each movie for what it is. Yeah, there is an over-arcing story line, but don’t get so focused small inconsistencies that you end up with a negative attitude about a movie that otherwise is pretty good. My 2 cents.
By the way, your review (and the trailer) has me very interested in this one for all the reasons you stated. Thanks.
Couldn’t care less*
….I know they are both technically correct with today’s grammar rules and popular use, but it bugs me every time I see “could care less” because it’s a pointless phrase. If you can care less then why announce it? You care, but you only care just enough to tell someone?
Btw I loved the movie, idk if I’d go to a theater to watch it again, but I’ll buy it and watch at home for sure.
Dammit, I should have caught that in the edit. Fixed now, thanks.
Can’t wait to see this one. Our old Bonus View friend/contributor Luke Hickman gave it a big rave as well.
It’s definitely the better of the year’s Captain Marvel movies. It captures the fun of superheroes AND it doesn’t feel like it was directed and edited by artificial intelligence!
I couldn’t relate to Shazam. Just given magical superpowers, so unearned. The power of 6 gods without any training. Such an agenda to make unworthy teenage orphans into empowered Marty Stus.
Had to point out how so many things have a double standard. Hey, Equal Pay Day (google it) was just this week.
Seriously, looking forward to watching Shazam, then coming back to read this review.
I’ve waited over 40 years for someone to make this film, and to say the least I’m very satisfied with it. Besides the comic book, I grew up with the 1941 chapter serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel, as well as the Saturday morning CBS kids show Shazam from the mid-seventies. It would’ve been cool if they had made Shazam for the big screen after the success of the Superman movie at the time, but, better late than not at all. Now to wait for it on blu ray!
I really enjoyed it. Was fun and heartfelt. It really did blend the 70s cartoon and Big together in the best way. Yes, the kid super squad was a bit silly, but you could tell they had no idea how to use their powers and weren’t the one to save the day. They helped, but not like they were doing it in a really skilled way. They let Shazam have his moment at the end.
I enjoyed the Aquaman burn at the end… lol
The “Aquaman burn” was really tone deaf, given that it was preceded by a talking caterpillar. Ha ha, you’re so silly talking to fish, said the talking bug.
Don’t care either way, if considered silly or sensible, just noting the hypocrisy.
Josh, isn’t there usually a survey in these comic book movies?
When I remember to add one.
Josh, how can you skip the opportunity of your joy of writing some puns for the survey options?
How about 6 survey options that create the titled acronym?