After seemingly showing signs of new life with AQUAMAN, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) continues to chug along. This new entry into their shared universe is an origin film based on the superhero known as Captain Marv – – err, I mean, Shazam! (Author’s Note: Seriously, if interested, definitely check out the history of the Captain Marvel/Shazam naming rights battle – it’s actually pretty fascinating). From a causal audience perspective, other than for those old enough to remember the SHAZAM! television series of the 1970s, Shazam never really broke into the mainstream – at least on the level as his DC brethren Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. But as Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a testament to, all it takes is just one well-made origin/introductory feature film to make its relatively-obscure characters overnight sensations and capture the popularity of millions. Does SHAZAM! accomplish this for its titular hero?
In Philadelphia, Billy Batson (played by Asher Angel) is on the run again. An orphan boy, his search for his biological mother leads him to unscrupulously break into police cars and steal data from their dashboard regarding his mother’s potential whereabouts. After being caught again, in place of returning to the orphanage, he is instead adopted by Victor (played by Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (played by Marta Milans), whose family consist of 5 other adopted children – Freddy (played by Jack Dylan Grazer), Mary (played by Grace Fulton), Darla (played by Faithe Herman), Pedro (played by Jovan Armand), and Eugene (played by Ian Chen). Despite Billy being very reserved and keeping to himself, Freddy takes a liking to him and tries to get him to come out of his shell. After saving Freddy from some bullies a school (and said bullies giving chase to him), Billy hops on a train to escape, after which he is magically transported into the presence of a wizard known as Shazam (played by Djimon Hounsou). Shazam, who recognizes Billy’s potential for good, grants him full use of his powers – powers which can be turned on and off with the simple uttering of the word, Shazam!
Director David F. Sandberg (whose only two previous directorial credit are LIGHTS OUT and ANNABELLE: CREATION) takes the helm of SHAZAM! and, quite frankly, does a terrific job. Seemingly gone are the days of Snyder-esque “dark and brooding” superhero/comic book films (not to say that “dark and brooding” doesn’t have the potential to be good, as Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY and the trailer for the upcoming JOKER film suggest, but in the wrong hands, you get something like BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE) as DC has decided to embrace the “silly and heartwarming” formula that Marvel Studios has perfected over the course of 22 films. In SHAZAM!, Sandberg manages to keep the audience invested in its story and its character progression (as Billy learns the true meaning of “family”), while at the same time amusing them with well-delivered one-liners and gags, all in a realization of what this film is and what it’s supposed to be. The screenplay by Henry Gayden and story by Gayden and Darren Lemke appears to realize the mistakes of previous DCEU films and decides to take a more MCU-like approach; the end result is a film with a lot of heart that makes you care about its characters and the stakes at hand.
Of course, this wouldn’t be possible without the talent of the cast. In particular, Zachary Levi (as Billy’s adult form when he turns into Shazam) hits his performance right out of the park with an amazing effort. What makes his performance work so well is his ability to changes his emotions at the drop of a hat, especially when the situation in the story calls for it; Shazam can be silly and joking around with Freddy in one scene, and in the drop of a hat, as the danger known as Dr. Sivana (played by Mark Strong) looms, he gets serious, and Levi does a terrific job of conveying that through his emotions and facial expressions. Mark Strong as Dr. Sivana is another strong outing from the veteran actor, were Jack Dylan Grazer’s (of IT fame) and Faithe Herman’s performances as Freddy and Darla, respectively. But all in all, the ensemble cast hit all the right notes and made the story enjoyable.
The film breezes along at a nice pace, never once feeling overly long or bloated. Again, this can be attributed to top-notch directing from Sandberg, a compelling story and narrative progression, and the fine work of its actors with their incredible ability to make us care for them as characters as well as the story around them. What I also enjoyed was, while the film is part of the DCEU, it did not overdo it with the superhero references. While the character of Freddy is a confessed superhero enthusiast (collecting articles and memorabilia from the likes of Superman and Batman), the story uses them very minimally, letting the audience get to know Shazam without being tied down to any sort of “relation” to already-established heroes. But when the film does decide to reference them, it’s done in a way that enhances the story rather than drawing attention to itself.
Personally, I think SHAZAM! just might be my favorite DCEU film to date. It realizes what type of film it wants to be from the get-go, and takes the right approaches in making that happen. Due to Sandberg’s direction, the strength of the screenplay, and the talents of the cast, we have a film that has great action, amusing humor, and interesting characters. But I feel that the most important thing this film has is heart – you can feel how much the actors are into their roles. You can feel the love that the screenwriters and story developers have for the property. This isn’t just another assembly line superhero origin film, and there’s potential for SHAZAM! to become the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY of the DCEU; a film that takes a casually unknown character and catapults him into the mainstream – all the ingredients are there. If AQUAMAN still hasn’t convinced you to take the leap back into the DCEU, take a chance on SHAZAM! – the film that the DCEU didn’t know it wanted, or needed.
David F. Sandberg
2019 • 132 Minutes • United States
Color • English • Warner Bros. Pictures
Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews