In this seventh installment of the DC Extended Universe, the people over at Warner Brothers do something the guys at Marvel haven’t really dealt with, the existence of superheroes from the point of view of kids — you know, the target audience the original comics were aimed at — and with Shazam! director David F. Sandberg does just that, and it’s rather refreshing.
With this film we get the origin story of Captain Marvel, and no I don’t mean the Captain Marvel who is teaming up with the Avengers to save the universe from Thanos, we’re talking about the hero Billy Batson, the one found in the Shazam comics, but this confusion is understandable considering the legal history of the character. Captain Marvel was created by Fawcett Comics back in the late 30s, and whose popularity started to exceed that of DC’s flagship hero Superman, which resulted in a whole bunch of lawyers being brought in and Fawcett Comics eventually ceasing publication of comics with the Captain Marvel-related characters. Case closed, but not quite. Then in the 70s, DC Comics licensed the character from Fawcett only to then run into problems stemming from the fact that over at Marvel they now had their own hero by the name of Captain Marvel, which forced DC to publish their comic under the title “Shazam” — the word that Billy Batson uses to transform into Captain Marvel — and due to this change, over time many people took to identifying the character as “Shazam” instead of “Captain Marvel,” which then led to DC officially changing the character’s name to Shazam in 2012. Have we all got that straight now?
With the movies flowing out of the DC Extended Universe being criticized for being too dark and gritty — with Batman and Superman killing villains left right and center — the studio has been making some quick course corrections to fix this perception, and now with Shazam! we get an even more comedic entry into the franchise, one that stars the title character from the television comedy Chuck. What’s even more odd here is when you consider the fact that this comedic superhero film is coming from director David F. Sandberg who is known for such horror films as Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation. He is certainly not an obvious choice for the subject matter, as this film is basically a superhero version of the Tom Hanks film Big, but as this particular superhero film does have some actual horrific elements to shake things up, I’m not completely surprised. I mean if James Wan, the creator of The Conjuring Universe can give us Aquaman, why not?
The hero of this movie is a young boy named Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who was separated from his mother at an early age, but even as a 14-year-old delinquent, he clings to the hope of a reunion, and has since become obsessed with tracking down his birth mother. This obsession has resulted in him bouncing from one foster home to another until finally landing in the group home run by Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vazquez (Marta Milans) — who aren’t running a secret sweatshop, so that’s nice — and Billy “befriends” his crippled roommate Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a kid who has his own obsession with the numerous superheroes that now populate the world. When Bill defends Freddy from some school bullies, this results in him being transported to the Rock of Eternity, the mystical lair of the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), where he is told that Shazam has been protecting the world from an invasion of the Seven Deadly Sins, which he keeps locked up inside some seriously creepy looking statues. Shazam has been looking for a pure soul to take on his powers and become his “Champion,” but unfortunately, the villainous Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who as a child didn’t pass Shazam’s test to become a champion and was harshly rejected, has now returned and released the Seven Deadly Sins into the world. Billy is certainly not “pure of heart” being a bit of a selfish prick, and with a serious flexibility when it comes to stealing, but the wizard is desperate, and thus Billy Batson is given 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. What a 14-year-old kid would actually do with such powers is the crux of this film.
The key theme of Shazam! is the idea of what really makes up a family, and with this the screenwriters do an admirable job illustrating the message that “family” truly comes from those you care about and those who care about you, not necessarily those that are blood related. Of course, this film isn’t all about personal growth and understanding; we’ve got a lot of comedy on deck. The bulk of the film’s run-time deals with Billy and Freddie figuring out how his powers as Shazam work — Does he have invisibility? Is he fireproof? What about laser vision? — and this stuff is brilliantly funny, as is the chemistry between Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer, which is what truly holds this film together. Unfortunately, the pacing is a bit of an issue as the story they are telling certainly didn’t warrant a two-hour-plus run-time, and some of the drama between the two boys could have been easily trimmed to fix this.
I should also point out that the tonal shift with the arrival of Sivana, and the monstrous Seven Deadly Sins, could catch some viewers off guard, especially younger ones, as the trailers certainly didn’t allude to scenes of monster carnage resulting in multiple murders including heads being bitten off. So parents, be warned that there are some quite frightening scenes that could scare the little ones. Yet it’s when the villainous plotline moves front and center that the film starts to stumbles the most, and Mark Strong, who is no stranger to playing the heavy, isn’t given much to do other than chase after Billy and offer cliché speeches — which are not excused just because the screenwriters make fun of them — and the monsters themselves offer no consistent threat. What these creatures can and cannot do is never made clear by the filmmakers.
• The Seven Deadly Sins don’t look much like representations of their specific sins, with gluttony being the only one with a fitting appearance. I’d say they’re more in keeping with the average monsters that Hellboy would be comfortable punching.
• If the Seven Deadly Sins have been imprisoned inside the Wizard’s statues all these years, why does the world still suffer from greed, pride, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth? Clearly the writers lifted this idea from the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box, but then forgot the part about the sins never being put back inside.
• None of the monsters use aspects of the sins their named after. Wouldn’t it have been cool to see Lust or Gluttony using their aspects to torment the hero?
• When freed, these monsters can turn to mist as to avoid being punched, an ability they forget they have later on.
• Silvana gets his powers from being possessed by these Sins/Monsters, but his power level doesn’t seem to fluctuate, even if he’s down to just one of the Sins residing within him.
Easily the most stand-out element of this movie is of course Zachary Levi’s ability to channel his inner child, and he clearly had a blast with the part, but as fun as Levi was with the comic shenanigans (like getting shot in the face or tossing muggers around), his portrayal of Billy Batson wasn’t quite on point with what Asher Angel was doing earlier in the film. Levi gives us that wonderful schism between an adult body and the mind of a teenage boy, but it leaves out the fact that the Billy we’ve seen is a distrustful, over-defended kid who has definite issues with authority. The Zachary Levi version of Billy is so completely divorced from the one Asher gave us that it’s all but impossible to reconcile that they are the same person. Sure, being given immense powers would change you, but we really don’t see any of the young Billy in Levi’s performance.
Shazam! is an immensely fun movie, and Zachary Levi is a hoot as the title character, but when the final act arrives it does devolve into your standard superhero slugfest, and the fact that we have another two-dimensional villain to thrash doesn’t help much. In conclusion, I’m still able to heartily recommend seeing this film as there are some solid moments of both comedy and action, and it certainly is a step in the right direction for DC and Warner Brothers, I just wish they’d worked a little harder on the nuts and bolts of the plot because the overall message of the film, about what it means to be a family, was really well done.
Note: This is not the first live-action incarnation of Shazam, as he first appeared on screen back in the 40s with the serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel, then later on, there was a godawful kid’s show in the 70s called Shazam!
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
The DC Extended Universe continues in the right direction with Shazam! and even though it could have used a more interesting villain – which hopefully the following Black Adam movie will give us – overall the comedy and action was fun and entertaining, making it well worth checking out.