‘Shazam!’ Breathes Life Back Into the DC Superhero Universe
Filmmaker David F. Sandberg and star Zachary Levi have crafted the best DCEU film this side of ‘Wonder Woman,’ and given hope to its legion of superfans.
There’s a subtle, if significant omission in the opening seconds of Shazam! that marks a first for this DC/Warner Bros. superhero era: it’s the only time one of these movies hasn’t bothered teasing a universe-deep bench of heroes and villains in a quick, sweeping animation, like every film in the franchise has since Man of Steel. It’s the first sign that what’s to come is like nothing that’s preceded it—it’s weirder, goofier, far more fun, and totally unconcerned with the build-up to or fallout from Justice League. It’s about one hero, not a universe. And it’s exactly what the DCEU needed from the start.
Shazam! seems acutely aware of the self-serious, killjoy reputations of some of its DC universe brethren. It both celebrates the nerds who’ve stuck it out this long and (gently) dunks on the franchise’s wonkier moments. (In one gag, a little boy mindlessly smashes Batman and Superman action figures together in a dead-accurate recreation of Batman v Superman: The Longest Three Hours of My Life, then drops them and grins at the sight of Zachary Levi’s fumbling, winsome Shazam. That little boy is me.) Not that the film is ever mean-spirited, which is nice, but it’s also not the ingratiating tonal reset that Justice League attempted and botched. That might actually be a miracle.
DC’s grimdark inclinations were never its biggest problem, after all—not more than its insistence on catapulting the cart miles ahead of the horse and diving straight into multi-hero team-ups and showdowns before we’d even gotten to know these people. Character studies like Wonder Woman and, if a bit less cohesively, Aquaman, showed that each hero requires a different narrative style and tone to effectively establish who they are, what they’re afraid of, and why they might resonate with us. Shazam! comes closer than any attempt since Wonder Woman to nailing its hero’s natural appeal in a story tailored to what makes them unique. And given that this hero is a punk of a 14-year-old swapped into the body of a red-spandexed adult with biceps so comically huge they look inflatable, it’s also really, really fun.
Directed by David F. Sandberg and scripted by Henry Gayden, Shazam! smartly uses its hero’s relative obscurity to its benefit. It draws out the discovery of his powers (a requisite superhero movies usually get over with in a montage) and treats each new finding with the same wide-eyed, genuine surprise as its giddy teen protagonists. The more staid parts of the story, meanwhile, are dispatched with as little momentum-killing exposition as possible. It doesn’t make Djimon Hounsou in an electrified medieval wig and reams of purple velvet talking about the threat to mankind posed by the seven deadly sins (they’re real and all look like demogorgons, apparently) much easier to wrap your head around, but it at least gets us back to the fun stuff a little faster.
Asher Angel plays Billy Batson, the foster kid a dying wizard deems “pure of heart” enough to inherit his powers, with a compelling blend of canniness and innocence—he secretly hopes for the best, even as he’s learned to expect the worst of adults, and has understandable doubts about his own or anyone else’s innate “purity.” There isn’t much of him in Levi’s performance as Billy in the body of the swole demigod he morphs into anytime he says the name “Shazam,” but both emit such infectious, reckless, delinquent teen energy, especially whenever Jack Dylan Grazer is at their side as Billy’s wiseass foster brother Freddy.
Freddy is our hype man and audience surrogate, the one gleefully holding the camera as Billy tests out his powers in Jackass-style stunts. But he also represents a sort of unprecedented figure in DC’s movies so far: the superhero fan. With his stacks of DC comic books, memorabilia, T-shirts, and encyclopedic knowledge of superpowers, he’s every kid who turns to comic books as an escape from the loneliness of being an adolescent social outcast. (Freddy is also disabled and, as he articulates in one startlingly honest moment, someone most people choose not to see.) He’s the one Billy confides in from the start of his journey and so begins to feel a sense of ownership as Shazam’s fame around the neighborhood grows. He’s a good kid. But there’s something darkly familiar about the possessiveness he lashes out with—how easy it is to slip from fan to bully, a trajectory not unfamiliar from the last few years of discourse around IP-driven movies.
Of course, Freddy soon realizes his mistake and apologizes, which is more than most grown-ups who fall into the same toxic habits ever do. He and Billy’s other foster-kid siblings—affectionate little Darla (Faithe Herman), computer whiz Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand), and protective eldest sister Mary (Grace Fulton)—eventually tighten into the kind of unit that proves there are bonds worth centering in superhero films beyond love interests. (Shazam! and last month’s Captain Marvel are both breakers of the mold in that regard.) It all builds to one of the most original third-act reveals in recent superhero history, bursting with so much heart and euphoria that I found myself unexpectedly emotional.
Billy isn’t driven by selflessness, like Superman or Wonder Woman. Nor is he a billionaire or a genius or a cool surfer bro fish king. He’s ordinary—a little bratty, and prone to selfishness and insecurity. Shazam! revels in that, shedding the weight of the world and going for a beer run instead. Billy’s flaws allow him to understand the resentment that fuels his biggest threat, Mark Strong’s supervillain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. (In what I’ll construe as a nod to longtime DC fans, Smallville’s John Glover plays Sivana’s father, another toxic male figure who contorts his bald son’s psyche into a deadly superiority complex.) The two aren’t so different, the movie takes pains to establish, following each boy from childhood to the present day. In his most heroic moment, it’s a degree of empathy for Thaddeus that moves Billy to save his life.
At two hours and 12 minutes long, Shazam! allows perhaps a few too many of the obligatory superhero beats that, in an otherwise free-wheeling story like this, tend to grind the excitement to a halt. In its best moments, though, it evokes the kids-on-the-loose feel of an ’80s genre blockbuster (and nods overtly to Penny Marshall’s Big, naturally, with a scene set in a toy store). It’s as joyful, awkward, and weird as it is being a teen, and a welcome sign of life for the DC universe, too.