Despite the efforts of multiple Hollywood studios, audiences haven’t warmed to dark, brooding movies about superheroes, simply because characters like these are intrinsically silly products of fantasy. Here is a film that embraces that silliness, and allows the audience to have fun, yet hasn’t ridded itself of those unnecessary gloomy elements.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has spent most of his childhood homeless, moving between foster homes as he tried in vain to locate his biological mother. Now a teenager, Billy is convinced he can look after himself, but social services believe otherwise, insisting that he remain in care until adulthood. The Vasquez family are the latest to take Billy into their home, in which he is one of six children.
In said home, Billy shares a bedroom with Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) whose vitality is matched only by his love of superheroes. Freddy has a heavy limp and requires crutches to walk; this makes him an easy target for the school bullies, whom he deals with passively. Billy, on the other hand, is more confrontational, and is able to subdue said bullies with the help of Freddy’s crutches.
This act of courage is enough to earn the attention of an ancient, frail wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who transports Billy to his hidden temple and gifts him with superpowers, in the hope that he can use them against the Seven Deadly Sins. To activate these powers, Billy must say the word “Shazam!” aloud, which also results in him becoming a tall, muscular and very handsome man (played by Zachary Levi).
Officially considered part of DC’s extended cinematic universe, Shazam! can boast having the lightest tone of the franchise thus far – it’s a hollow achievement, given the standard set by the likes of Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice, but a welcome one all the same. The film does so with the frequent use of bright colours, and the casting of Levi, who is energetic and charismatic as the adult lead, thus making his teenage counterpart Angel look bland by comparison.
Blander still is the villain, which is becoming something of a trend with the DCEU. Joining the ranks with his appearance in Shazam! is Doctor Sivana, who is portrayed by a visibly bored Mark Strong, and who can blame him for being so – humourless and lacking complexity, his antagonist has little to no defining characteristics, let alone any unique qualities. This viewer thought it impossible that a foe could be more boring that Justice League’s Steppenwolf, and is very surprised and saddened to be proved wrong.
Also problematic is the film’s willingness to have darker, scarier moments that contrast with its cheery tone – said moments contain imagery which is downright traumatising for younger viewers, with characters disintegrating into dust, being thrown out of skyscraper-windows, having their heads eaten and frightenedly trying to escape monsters in an enclosed room. Seemingly, director David F. Sandberg couldn’t quite free himself of his roots in the horror genre, even if the deaths are bloodless.
Contrasting with these sequences, mercifully, are the various members of the Vasquez family, who all lighten the mood with their presence. Freddy is the child who occupies most of the screen-time, with actor Grazer appearing to have as much fun in the role as Levi is playing Billy’s alter-ego; Grace Fulton, Jovan Armand and Ian Chen make pleasant contributions as their distinctive characters Mary, Pedro and Eugene, respectively; yet the highlight is Faithe Herman as Darla, the most innocent, pure and wholesome child of the household.
The appeal of Shazam! doesn’t cease with the protagonists, because there are plenty of other elements to appreciate. Humour is in abundance, with the film never afraid to crack a joke – unless it’s during one of the aforementioned moments of excessive violence; Billy’s presence as part of a wider superhero universe is cleverly teased, rather than bluntly enforced like the other DC movies; and the third act, without giving too much away, does something rather surprising and unexpected that allows for a clever finale.
For the most part, Shazam! is colourful, funny and lively – the kind of superhero flick that DC, and Warner Brothers, should have been making years ago. Although it lacks a compelling villain, and some scenes are overly frightening, David F. Sandberg’s blockbuster is one which is bound to please.