Infectious fun in the DCEU…
Continuing a winning streak after December’s Aquaman, the World's Mightiest Mortal makes his presence felt in the most fun superhero movie WB has produced in years.
Starring Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, and Faithe Herman
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures
Written by Henry Gayden , Darren Lemke (story)
Directed by David F. Sandberg
The DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has been moving through a bit of a transition, and this is made no plainer than during one particular scene of Shazam!: as a child is in his high-rise Philadelphia apartment, playing with his Batman and Superman action figures and likely recreating those characters’ clash from a few years ago, all of a sudden two very real super beings collide right outside of his window high above the ground. His attention moves away from his playing, and toward the real battle taking place right in front of him between Shazam and Doctor Sivana.
The camera then cuts to the floor, as the kid’s Batman and Superman action figures clatter to the floor, forgotten in the wake of these new beings locked in battle before his eyes. If ever there was a metaphor for the way that the DCEU has evolved since 2016, it’s this scene.
Instead of a cinematic world being led by the timeless icons of Batman and Superman, the reins of leadership in the DCEU are now firmly held by Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and now Shazam. In one respect this could be something worthy of being sad about, but considering the effective way these formerly lesser-known characters have connected with audiences, it seems that this instead is the path forward for the icons of DC Comics to persist into the future of the public consciousness.
That was inconceivable just a few years ago, but speaking as a longtime fan of the DC Comics Universe, it’s honestly pretty cool.
Based on the Fawcett Comics character conceived as a ‘Superman killer’ before he was eventually absorbed into DC Comics itself, Shazam! has a clear mission statement aiming to be a fun and fully-featured exploitation of the concept of a child saying a magic word and becoming a super-powered adult instantaneously. Calling back to the Tom Hanks classic Big in multiple ways, Shazam! also fully owns its identity as both a DC Comics-based film and as a story that tries to exemplify a lot of what has helped to make the Shazam character — formerly Captain Marvel — an enduring one in the larger stable of the DC Universe.
Trouble-making orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has had a hard life ever since his mother lost him when he was a small child, drifting from orphanage to orphanage and school to school and depending only on himself. After he’s taken in by a new family, Billy reluctantly befriends his new foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), who is a huge fan of the heroes of the Justice League. Freddy’s rarely seen without a shirt sporting the emblems of Batman, Superman or Aquaman, and has some pretty encyclopedic knowledge of all those heroes’ abilities and adventures.
After his smart mouth gets him into trouble with a couple of bullies, Freddy gets beaten up until Billy intervenes and embarrasses the bullies in front of a lot of kids at their school. When he flees the bullies onto a nearby commuter train, Billy is transported to a magical location known as the Rock of Eternity where the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) names Billy as his “champion.”
The young Billy is then conferred with the powers of the gods — the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury — and is transformed into the adult superhero named after the wizard: Shazam (Zachary Levi).
Billy, now transformed with the power of the wizard coursing through his body, seeks out Freddy in order to help him navigate his newfound abilities. Meanwhile, little do Billy and Freddy know that Doctor Sivana (Mark Strong) — a man who was rejected by the wizard Shazam as a child — has obsessively sought the Rock of Eternity to take the wizard’s power for decades. When the Doctor finally reaches the Rock of Eternity, he unleashes the power of the Seven Deadly Sins previously imprisoned by the wizard with the ultimate intent of killing the wizard’s new champion and taking all the power for himself.
The thing that’s so very clear while watching Shazam! is just how fun it is from beginning to end. Zachary Levi and Asher Angel do a really great job of evoking each other as they play the same character, with Levi proving to be the perfect choice to bring the concept of a teenager in a grown superhero’s body to life with all the fun you’d expect from the core idea. The rest of the cast orbiting Asher and Levi also bring the core concept of the film to life brilliantly, and helps to further show that the DC Comics Universe is itself the home of a lot of different tones and genres depending on the prime characters you follow in that larger, shared world.
Since 2017, the shared world of the DC Extended Universe has been trying to reform its image away from the hard, gritty conception dreamed up by Zack Snyder and fully on display in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and instead has tried to lean a little lighter while also more evenly distributing that light among genres based on each individual character. Wonder Woman was the film that first showed the strength of adhering to the core of the individual character in this established shared universe. Justice League suffered by transitioning out of Zack Snyder’s hands and into a lighter conception thought up by Joss Whedon, but still effectively positioned all the characters in that film into a starting point that any filmmaker can then pick up and run with.
Aquaman did everything it could to pack in as much uniquely recognizable Aquaman elements as possible and connected very effectively with audiences as a result, while still feeling like that character owned his movie. Shazam! continues in the tradition of Aquaman and Wonder Woman by choosing to play in that shared world, while the character very clearly owns this movie totally outright. Refreshingly, as well, the movie has a fair amount of surprises that demonstrates that Warner Bros. exhibited restraint in the marketing of this film, since some of the best moments of this movie were not included in trailers or other promotional materials. That can be a rare thing in modern comic book movies.
Shazam! is also a movie that, at times, can lean a little too hard into giving service to its overarching primary theme of family, but that’s a tactic that probably feels most at home in a movie that is about kids. Billy’s journey of self-discovery takes a surprisingly emotionally potent turn near the end of the film. While it may not be obvious at the beginning why the wizard chose him as the champion, you start to glean details about him that make the wizard’s mysterious reasoning just a little clearer without totally “giving away the store,” so to speak. It was a refreshing surprise that helps make the movie more valuable than one might think.
Director David F. Sandberg also ties together a film that feels weirdly in-line with the relative realism of this shared world first established in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, but that has now been invaded by magical forces. The tactic to show the encroachment of the magical onto the mundane is far more effective than the way this juxtaposition was attempted in 2016’s Suicide Squad, for instance, and feels nice and lived in even as we acclimate to the capabilities of the heroes and villains we meet over the course of the 132-minute runtime.
All in all, Shazam! is easily one of the best films produced under the umbrella of the DC Extended Universe, and this writer certainly hopes that the larger framework of that shared world is maintained in order to allow for the characters introduced here to potentially interact with some of the other heroes we’ve seen in this world at some point down the road. For a long time, people have criticized the DCEU films as trying to chase the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe without much rhyme or reason, but now that Shazam! is coming along as the third leg of the potential tripod — along with Wonder Woman and Aquaman — to build off of, here’s hoping that this isn’t the last we see of a more truthful vision of that larger world to the comics they take their characters from.
However, if the DCEU’s days are numbered, then what we have here is a brilliant new franchise-starter that has limitless possibility, if the source material for these characters is any indication. There are more than a few notable absences in Shazam! when it comes to characters that we know will play an important part of Billy’s life as a superhero going forward, and that absence shows the initiated — and hopefully the executives at Warner Bros. — just how much gas is left in the tank for adventures featuring the Earth’s Mightiest Mortal.
Welcome to the show, Mr. Batson. It’s hard to imagine we’ve been seeing these films for so long without you, but now that you’re here, I hope you never leave.