'Shazam!' Is a Superhero-Sized Burst of Joy for the DCEU
If a 14-year-old kid suddenly acquired the ability to turn into a 30-something superhero who could shoot lightning out of his fingers, would he immediately feel an urge to nobly start fighting crime? According to Shazam! -- the very amusing new entry into the DC Extended Universe -- of course not. He would use his newfound powers to make sick videos, charge phones, make some easy money, and buy beer (or at least a ton of junk food).
Barring a few exceptions, it seems like being a superhero sort of sucks these days. The Avengers are dealing with the trauma of their pals vanishing into thin air. The X-Men are set to grapple with one of their own going bad. Zack Snyder reimagined Batman and Superman as tortured souls. For many years, DC led the genre in glumness, but the studio's tides have turned. First, with Aquaman in all its giddy undersealunacy, and now with Shazam!, a gleeful tale of a hero with a goofy but sweet core that actually finds something wondrous in incredible abilities. Directed by David F. Sandberg, the latest in the DC Extended Universe mixes throwback earnestness ripped from the funny pages with the sensibility of a wisecracking 21st century teen, wrapping all that up in a touching coming-of-age story. Given the relative obscurity of the hero, expectations for his solo picture were essentially non-existent, so the film easily ends up rocketing past whatever hopes there are and landing in a place of pure delight.
Shazam’s origins go back to the 1940s, before Detective Comics, a.k.a. DC, even existed. (To make things really confusing: In his early days, he went by Captain Marvel, but was never thatCaptain Marvel.) Now, Shazam's name recognition is probably misplaced -- no, his superpower isn't being able to immediately identify songs you can't remember the names of. Instead, he's the alter ego of foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a sullen teen perpetually on the hunt for the mother he lost at a carnival when he was little. In the on-screen telling, after messing with the police to get his mom's potential address, Billy is transferred to a new home run by Rosa and Victor Vasquez (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews), who provide loving parenting for a motley group of kids. There's video game-obsessed Eugene (Ian Chen), talkative and adorable Darla (Faithe Herman), ambitious student Mary (Grace Fulton), and quiet Pedro (Jovan Armand), who wants to get swole.
Billy's roommate is Freddy Freeman (IT's Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled superhero aficionado, who gets bullied, and an incident with a few high school jackasses finds Billy reluctantly sticking up for his foster brother. On the way home, he's transported to a fading wizard's lair who transfers his power to Billy. All he needs to do is say "Shazam" and he's transformed into a 30-something man in a red spandex suit with old-fashioned matinee idol looks, a.k.a. Zachary Levi. Unbeknownst to Billy, the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) needs a vessel for his mythical strengths because of an emerging threat: Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has harnessed the power of the Seven Deadly Sins, personified as gargoyle-like monsters, after being rejected by the Honsou's magical shaman for not being pure of heart enough as a child, and wants to wield the powers of Shazam to rule the world.
This is all to say that Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden have a lot of set up to do in the movie's first act, which offers origin stories for both Billy and Sivana, all while introducing the audience to the Wizard's lore. (Fun fact! Shazam is actually an acronym for Solomon, the biblical king, and Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury, all mythological figures.) This expository section is the only place where the movie drags.
As soon as Billy first morphs into Shazam, it's full steam ahead. Freddy becomes Billy's superhero coach and personal videographer as they test out his various powers, seeing whether he can fly, punch through walls, and resist flames. Shazam! doesn't pretend that two teen boys suddenly dealing with superhuman abilities would suddenly gain some sort of moral imperative to fight crime. There's a little bit of that, sure, but it's mostly coincidental. Mostly they use Billy's newfound powers to create what are essentially the superhero equivalent of skate videos, posting their exploits online for all to see. For a movie that clearly operates on a heightened plane, it actually feels relatively realistic.
Like Tom Hanks in Big -- a movie to which Shazam! owes a lot, including a jumbo piano reference -- or Jamie Lee Curtis in Freaky Friday, Levi gives a great "kid trapped in an adult's body performance." He conveys the boneheaded, out-of-his-depth energy of Billy, while still radiating a sort of Old Hollywood charm. (The purported model for Shazam was initially Fred MacMurray of Double Indemnity fame.) Levi's always been good at portraying an everyman thrust into extreme circumstances -- he broke out on TV as the titular character in NBC's super-spy show Chuck -- that this just feels like a natural extension of his abilities. He's not alone: Levi is buoyed by a fantastic cast. Not just Strong, who can probably do a bad guy like Sivana in his sleep, but a horde of talented youngsters, especially Grazer, who finds a rhythm with both Levi and Angel.
Billy's fun eventually has to stop as Sivana comes to destroy him and claim the wizard's power as his own, but Sandberg prevents the movie from becoming a mess of battles. The series of set pieces that unfold are lively and clever, all leading to one big moment that is so thoroughly invigorating you have to cheer. (I'd say more, but it's really worth concealing the spoiler.) All the while, Sandberg refuses to let the undercurrent of loss that courses through Billy's story fall to the wayside. Plenty of superhero films -- from the X-Men to the Fast and Furious franchises -- are about finding a version of "family," but those themes explode in absolutely charming ways as Shazam! mounts its big finish. It all portends a future for a contained Shazam! universe that has the potential to be equally as wonderful.