Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou
Director: David F. Sandberg
Writer: Henry Gayden
With the global phenomenon that superheroes have become and the weightiness and maturity that many fans have come to associate with the genre, whether it be the disturbed philosophy of The Dark Knight, the reflective politics of Black Panther, or even the obscenely adult humour of Deadpool, a lot of people forget that most of the superheroes we love originate from comic books and Saturday morning cartoons aimed at children. The early DCEU films in particular tried so hard to adapt these stories into an esteemed, multifaceted saga with the kind of dark, gritty tone, densely complicated narrative and bleak (some might even say nihilistic) morality that they hoped would establish them as Marvel’s mature older brother, that I couldn’t help but feel that DC found their universe’s childish origins to be downright embarrassing. When The LEGO Batman Movie came out, a film that unashamedly aimed itself towards children and eagerly celebrated its hero’s colourful, campy history, I was as dumbstruck as I was impressed. This was a movie that wasn’t the least bit embarrassed to treat the mythology of the Caped Crusader as ‘kid’s stuff’, practically a blasphemous statement to make in this day and age. Shazam! follows in this tradition as a superhero movie that was gleefully made for kids and has absolutely no problem leaning on the inherent silliness and childishness of superhero movies.
Based on a 1940s comic book series about a superhero called Captain Marvel (a name that unsurprisingly never gets uttered once in this film), Shazam! is the story of the un-titular hero’s alter-ego Billy Baston (Asher Angel). Billy is a 14-year-old boy who has been living in foster care since he was little but has never stayed in any single place for long due to being a difficult and rebellious brat. He gets into trouble with the police thanks to a stunt he pulls in an attempt to track down his birth mother, leading him to be relocated to yet another foster home run by the welcoming and loving Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans). Their home is a large and diverse one that houses the paraplegic wisecracker Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), college hopeful Mary (Grace Fulton), tech genius Eugene (Ian Chen), uncommunicative loner Pedro (Jovan Armand), and bubbly sweetheart Darla (Faithe Herman). Billy however has no desire to become a part of their family and resolves to run away as soon as possible. He does however demonstrate a capacity for nobility and kindness when he defends Freddy from a pack of school bullies, a deed that catches the attention of a force far beyond his comprehension. Billy is thus transported to a mystical lair where he meets the dying wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who bestows his magical powers onto the young boy so that he might defeat the great evil that is to come.
What follows is essentially Big if it were also a superhero film. Billy discovers that by saying the word “Shazam!” he can transform himself into an impressively buff, superpowered adult man in a red spandex suit (played by Zachary Levi). Whether the spandex suit is actually a part of his physical body or if it’s simply an impractical outfit that offers no apparent means of relief when nature calls, Billy never figures out. Confused and beside himself, he brings Freddy in on the secret and together they set out to discover just what exactly Billy’s new body can do. Through a series of tests they learn that Billy’s powers include super strength and speed, invulnerability, and lightning magic. Their initial response however isn’t exactly that with great power comes great responsibility. Instead the adolescent boys take advantage of Billy’s abilities by buying beer under his adult guise, using his lightning powers to charge their phones, and uploading his stunts onto YouTube. Levi proves himself to be an ideal casting choice, looking imposing enough that anyone would be awed by his presence but also making use of his comedic talents to show that there is a young kid in there who cannot believe that he is inhabiting this kind of body. Even if his brash and awkward portrayal of the character isn’t exactly consistent with Angel’s performance as the rather quiet and level headed Billy, it still works.
Soon enough the big bad comes along in the form of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), the unfortunate child of a rotten family who was summoned by Shazam as a young boy but was rejected from the call for power and greatness when his heart proved impure. Having dedicated his whole life to returning to that magical realm and claiming what he believes to be his destiny, Sivana has struck a deal with the devil (or, rather, seven demonic entities personifying the deadly sins) in order to realise his goal. Strong is such an intimidating figure throughout that his mere presence is enough to make you forget that Shazam! is a kid’s film. One scene where Sivana marches straight into a board meeting and casually tosses a character out of a skyscraper window mid-sentence caught me completely off guard. What makes him a great foil to Levi in this kind of movie is that Sivana has absolutely no idea he is the villain in a children’s comedy, making his puzzlement at the adult Billy’s amusing antics and juvenile humour all the funnier. The best example of this comes in their climatic showdown where Sivana’s obligatory bad guy speech about how much more powerful he is than the hero and how futile his efforts are doesn’t quite land with the effect he intended.
Shazam! isn’t just a kid’s adventure with some silly gags and action scenes. Billy’s main concern before acquiring his powers is searching for his long-lost mother, a pursuit that eventually leads him to some tough truths and complicated feelings. What Billy wants more than anything is to have a family that loves and accepts him and he gets so consumed both by his fruitless search and the preoccupation of being a superhuman with god-like powers that he doesn’t even notice how close he is to seeing his dream come true. The Vasquez family have invited him into their lives and are only too willing to offer the belonging and affection he has always desired, but Billy is so blind to the chance that it isn’t until an external threat appears and threatens to take them all away that he even realises what he actually had. It’s a strong lesson with such a satisfying payoff that the movie doesn’t care if it comes across as a bit schmaltzy. Such sweetness and sincerity is almost unheard of in a modern-day superhero blockbuster and the movie wears its own hokiness like a badge of honour. This is a movie that was made with the whole family in mind and it wants viewers to walk away feeling not only thrilled and amused but also moved.
Shazam! feels like a movie that was made in the Spielbergian spirit of the 1980s, an era where PG actually meant something. It’s a kid’s adventure through and through, but with enough of a personality and an edge to make it feel like there is something grown-up happening amidst all the adolescent jokes and cartoonish action. Unlike the likes of Netflix’s Stranger Things though, it doesn’t rely on direct references and callbacks in order for the connection to be made; it’s all there in the style and tone. The movie is goofy, but it’s also action-packed. It’s a movie that’s capable of being silly and light-hearted in one moment soberly dark the next without it feeling like a dissonant clash in tones. It’s a movie where not all of the digital effects look top notch, but that’s sort of part of its child-like charm. It is also, much in the spirit of such 80s classics as E.T. and The Goonies, a movie that lends much weight to childish personalities and experiences. Freddy in particular, a kid whose disability has rendered him to as much of an outcast as Billy, is a character whose voice counts for a lot as he assumes the role of both friend and (seriously unqualified) mentor. The rapport they share is one of the many pleasures of this thoroughly enjoyable movie.