After David F. Sandberg became WB’s golden child post-Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation successes, superhero property Shazam! seemed an “inspired” choice for a follow-up project. “Why give a scream machine the reins to DC’s lovable manchild in tights?” Simple: Sandberg displays a surgeon’s precision by balancing snarly demonic darkness with playground superpower maturation. Don’t fret: Shazam! proves that the DCEU has a sense of humor, can execute on it and *deliver* an electric punch of uber-fun comic book action, too. Heart, humor and heroics – can I get a hell yeah?
Meet Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old boy who’s spent most his life escaping step-parents and searching for his blood mother. His laundry list of offenses doesn’t paint him as The Wizard’s (Djimon Hounsou) “pure of heart” successor, but with the seven deadly sins loose – thanks to evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) – he’ll have to do. After grasping “The Wizard’s” staff (lol) and uttering the name “Shazam,” Billy transforms into an all-powerful savior without any teaching (played by Zachary Levi). Thus initiates a quest to unlock potential, defeat Sivana and keep Philadelphia safe all before bedtime – but can a delinquent schoolboy with unpredictable outbursts serve as the next Superman?
There’s a juvenile immaturity to Shazam! that might first be vexing, but generic setups are integral. As much as Billy’s beginning is cut-and-expected, once Shazam appears, the DCEU finds its beating pulse. Like Tony Stark once sat atop Randy’s Donuts contemplating his powers, so does Shazam sip a convenience store drink. Ingesting the reality forthcoming. Imagine Big but with invincibility and nemeses. Shazam is our conduit to discovery and wonderment on an inter-dimensional level of entertainment. An unsupervised problem kiddo granted lightning fingers and flight with no instruction manual – Sandberg refuses to waste befuddled setups.
Full disclosure, Shazam! doesn’t kick into overdrive until Levi’s “better imagining” appears. Before then, Billy’s foster care and Thaddeus’ upbringing are cut-and-paste understood. As Billy dodges foster homes and a glasses-wearing boy fails his opportunity to become the universe’s almighty savior, themes of envy drive revenge. Shocking, I know, since one of the film’s all-powerful villains is, indeed, the grossified sin of “Envy.” No bother. Generic bullied-at-school setups give way to an unexpectedly meaningful self-rebuilding then fight against rigid DCEU stuffiness (although, that’s not been a problem of late).
Divulging the sky-cracking power of Shazam! that thunders throughout Sandberg’s final act would be a disservice. Understand that no Marvel film has moved me to misty-eyed swipes since Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn’s first attempt previous), and no DCEU entry better utilizes canon. Between Billy’s early inadequacies as an ultimate champion to “understanding” as an underage protector of worlds, Shazam! is only ever atop its superhero game (think Deadpool but PG-13 and less masochistic, honestly).
Superman and Batman are the serious ones – Billy’s role is to don a rightfully questioned white cape and save the day while quipping goofish one-liners. Trust my words: there’s no letting down in this sense. From Billy’s early work as a Pennsylvania internet celebrity – blasting bolts of energy to “Eye Of The Tiger” for street performer tips – to ultimate realizations of growth, he does so as expectedly hilarious with foolish yet genuine results.
Without missing a beat, Sandberg wastes not Billy’s foster care upbringing. Shazam! is an ode to the “outcasts,” song for the left behind and exemplification that families can be who we choose. Did this spandex wearin’, beef jerky munchin’ bad guy punch-em-up reduce me to weepy tears on more than one occasion? Straight up. Such is Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans’ orphan housing, Dalia’s hug-a-minute optimism and Billy’s reclamation of humanity. Baton’s story is not unique – raised by a rotating door of caretakers after mommy left him – but what starts with Hallmark beats ends on such a euphoric high. As exciting and enthusiastic a Justice League demo tape Shazam! is, Sandberg’s most significant achievement may be Christmas themed discovery of selfless storylines that unite an unlikely cast of “forgotten” children. What a perfect place for my favorite quotation: the “underrated but undeterred.”
Sandberg’s horror sensibilities aren’t to be forgotten in this otherwise sunny Philadelphia flyboy caper. As bright and plasmatic as Shazam’s powers are, Thaddeus’ icky glowing eye imprisons seven beastly representations of disgusting creatures who hold no reservations over decapitations or brutal pummeling. This isn’t just an excuse for Annabelle cameos (anyone catch an essential Lights Out nod I missed?). Shazam! balances pitch-nasty underworld possession beats with Billy’s superhero-for-hire gig surprisingly well, sticking to influences while showcasing Sandberg’s filmmaking prowess outside of (brilliantly maniacal) jump scares and Conjurverse revitalization. Mark Strong’s performance an obvious additive as the film’s glassy-eyed antagonist.
Kudos to Warner Brothers for casting a relative “unknown” in Asher Angel, who never steals from Levi’s made-for-print “adult” form. Whether Shazam’s slugging back Dr. Peppers, testing skills in a warehouse, or saving Santa from unsightly creatures amidst “Chilladelphia” wonderland festivities, Levi is the embodiment of do-it-yourself heroism. Curious, cocky and childish in that his core is still that of a teenage boy. He’s not the *only* scene stealer though – as you’ll find come a dynamite Act III – but Levi’s Chuck background sets the stage for fish-out-of-water humor that resonates given Billy’s newfound abilities. As fitting a placement as Jack Dylan Grazer’s disabled Freddy Freeman – Billy’s fanboy Mr. Miyagi – or Faithe Herman as the adorably innocent Darla Dudley (not mentioning *those* perfectly casted additives) are.
Shazam! may begin predictably slow, but all is forgotten and forgiven once Zahary Levi’s Red Cyclone, or Mr. Philadelphia, or Captain Sparklefingers (depending on which YouTube video you watch) starts dishing out justice. He’ll flick industrial containers with a single finger, (almost) leap skyscrapers in a single bound and battle the mystic forces of Sloth, Gluttony, etc. while cracking wise for good measure. He’s just a kid, as we’re reminded over and over again. Shockingly, screenwriter Henry Gayden’s gimmick never wears thin. Dare this critic state that Shazam! is the most fun you’ll have with a superhero film this year? Even with Captain Marvel behind us and Avengers: Endgame on the way (Spider-Man: Far From Home still coming), there’s an excellent goshdarn chance.