***There are minor spoilers ahead***
I’m gonna be honest here. I’ve learned the hard way to go into a DC movie with low expectations. My fiancé and I’ve endured too much: trudged through too many sluggish, gritty, grey overtoned color palettes; winced through too many poorly-written, edgy, grimdark facades of the characters we know and love; and pointed out so many potholes, the whole DCEU could easily be mistaken for one of many poorly-maintained streets in the major city nearest us. To say DC movies have been a slog to sit through is a major understatement.
It was with this mindset that I sat down in the theater with my fiancé and ordered my dessert. The trailers had looked good, much better in my humble opinion than those of Shazam’s Marvel counterpart, Captain Marvel (and made me laugh at the use of Eminem’s “My Name Is” in one of the trailers; after the use of “Without Me” in Suicide Squad, it makes me wonder exactly how much of a hard-on DC’s marketing team has for the rapper’s old hits), but if I was optimistic it was cautiously so.
Billy Batson is a 14-year old foster kid. He’s been shunted from home to home, because he keeps running away. Billy is on a mission to find his mom. When he was very little, he and his mom got separated at a carnival. He’s tracked down half a notebook’s worth of female Batsons in the Philadelphia area, but none of them are his mother. Nevertheless, he’s determined to find her, whatever it takes.
A couple named Rosa and Victor Vazquez are the next family to take Billy in. They foster five other children who have been difficult like Billy has been, or have special needs. The Vazquez’ are a loving couple, who were foster kids when they were younger, so they know the ropes and are confident Billy will fit in well and become part of the family. All the children take to him: Freddy Freeman, his new roommate and superhero enthusiast, most of all. Billy, however, doesn’t really want anything to do with anyone in the house; to him, it feels like they’re keeping him from finding his mother, from his real family.
While plotting to run away again to chase down the next Batson on his list, Billy is summoned to a mystical cave. A very old wizard named Shazam tells Billy he has been chosen to become the next champion to protect the world from the manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins. Out of everyone else in the world, Billy has been chosen because he has the purest heart. Billy is skeptical; there are no truly good people left in the world, right? And he can’t possibly be one of them, right? But the wizard is adamant, and Billy lays his hand on the mystical staff and shouts, “Shazam!”
A crack of thunder, a flash of lightning, and Billy is transformed into an adult superhero. The wizard fades away, his quest fulfilled, leaving Billy alone and very confused. He makes his way back home to Freddy, the superhero expert, and together they test the limits of Billy’s powers, film them, and post them on the internet. He immediately becomes a viral sensation, and Billy soon starts using his powers not for good, but to show off and make money. When the Seven Deadly Sins escape and a threat arises, can a teenaged and untrained Billy even rise to the challenge? Will he keep chasing the mother who gave him up for adoption, or learn the true meaning of family?
As usual, the good first:
Guys. GUYS. GUYS. THIS is what a superhero movie should be. Shazam! was everything I had previously been missing from the DCEU, and more.
The difference with this movie was, it felt like they finally just let loose and had FUN with it. They took the concept “what would a 14 year old boy do if he suddenly got superpowers?” and really rolled with it. Of course he would not know how to pee while in costume! Of course he would film himself showing off his powers to become famous! Of course he would try to buy beer while in his older disguise!
What would you have done if you acquired superpowers at that age? Probably about the same stuff, if you’re being honest with yourself! I know I might have ;D Billy behaved exactly as I would expect any 14 year old to, as I would have expected myself to at that age. It was for that reason that the entire theater was in stitches for what I’d say was the first third of the movie.
For all the laughs it provided, it has soul too. Billy has a good heart and is worthy of the mantle of Shazam, though he doesn’t believe it and doesn’t show us at first. It’s over the course of the movie that we, and him, learn it. Rosa and Victor, though they have limited screen time, are obviously loving and caring parents for their foster children. I wish they were my parents! Freddy has a physical disability, for which he has to use a crutch to walk, but his knowledge of superheroes is encyclopedic, and he at turns acts as Billy’s conscience and rival, much as real brothers would.
For all their faults, the DCEU sure knows how to cast. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi are perfect for the roles of Billy/Shazam. Angel is quick on his feet and unafraid to show deep emotion, allowing him to bounce from sarcastic joking to disbelief to fear all in the same sentence. He’s so young, but obviously an artist to watch. Levi, maybe pulling from his own childhood fantasies of gaining superpowers, gives a hilarious and believable performance as adult Shazam. The character fumbles a bit at first, but soon finds his stride, much as a teenager really would.
The bad? There isn’t much. I’ve been mulling it over for a few weeks, and really my one big nitpick is that Billy went from typical teenager in a costume to a hero too fast. That character development was saved only for the third act. At that point you’ve sat through the hilarity of the first act, the very middle-y and bogged down second act during which the Big Bad gets a lot of attention and Billy’s antics have gotten kind of old, before getting to any “meat.” A two-hour movie isn’t a long time for significant character development, but a little bit more of a gradual uptick in hero-ness as the film went on would have been appreciated.
Oh, more of Mary would have been most welcome too. She’s an American treasure, a sweet baby, and must be protected. The cameo right at the end could have been expanded upon a tiny bit more, buuut I suppose there was a good reason, so I can let it slide =P
Overall, Shazam! is a genuinely funny romp through finding the true meaning of family, and back through childhood dreams of becoming a hero. All through the hilarious first act (and at the very end!), we the audience are also back in Billy’s shoes as children, longing for superpowers of our own. To see our wishes fulfilled through Asher Angel and Zachary Levi’s Billy Batson on the big screen is truly fun and heartwarming. I stated in my Aquaman review that it was DC’s best since Wonder Woman, and while nothing DC does can ever top Wonder Woman for me, I feel Shazam! was leaps and bounds above what Aquaman accomplished. Shazam! had more consistent characterization (despite my above nitpick), a main character you truly saw yourself reflected in, and overall, superior writing, a bit of a tighter plot, and a better time at the theater. I appreciate that the DCEU is letting lesser-known characters come out to play… if the rest of it (though I’ll settle for a spin-off series) could be Shazam Family Shenanigans, I would be very satisfied indeed ;D
After Justice League was yet another disappointment, I gave the DCEU three chances to redeem itself in my eyes. With Aquaman and Shazam!, it used two of those chances, the third being Wonder Woman 1984. I mean, I’ve never doubted WW84 would be good, but now I truly have hope for the rest of the DCEU going forward. Don’t screw it up, DC!!!
Sandberg, David F. Shazam! 2019.