More than 10 years on from the start of the birth of the modern superhero films, we’re seeing the form starting to evolve. With each entry, characters are getting more niche, the stories are getting more self-aware and scripts are becoming more complex. Movies like Deadpool show that superhero stories can delve below the surface and in their latest entry Shazam, DC seems to be following suit.
Shazam follows the origin of the titular superhero from his origins as fourteen year old, foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel). The teenager finds himself sucked into a strange alternate dimension where he meets an elderly Wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who bestowes upon the “pure-hearted” boy the power of “Shazam”. All at once, the youngster finds himself blessed with the body of Zachary Levi and a strange collection of superhero powers he’s not sure how to control. Things become even more challenging when he stumbles into the path of super-villan Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who’s intent on harnessing the power for himself. David F. Sandberg directs the film from a script by Henry Gayden.
At its core, Shazam! is certainly the most fun of the DC extended cinematic universe. The film is unapologetically quippy, doing exactly what it needs to do with an actor like Zachary Levi in the title role. In fact, the story is truly at its strongest when it embraces this tone. While so much fo the DCEU has been at best contemplative and intelligent, and at worst down-right unpleasantly, brooding, Shazam feels to be continuing on the outrageous path established by Aquaman and upping the “quippy” quotient. Shazam is a lot of fun and this is actually quite refreshing in the DCEU. Not everything has to be Christ metaphors and neck-snapping, and the team over there seems to finally be figuring this out.
The supporting cast does incredibly well with the sometimes complicated tone, with young star Jack Dylan Grazer showing that his delightful performance in IT wasn’t a fluke. Faithe Herman shines as Billy’s foster sister Darla. The youngster has been making waves over on NBC with her role in This Is Us and she brings a snappy, fun performance to the superhero feature. Finally, character actor extrodinarie Cooper Andrews also brings his A-game as foster parent Victor Vasquez, carrying a great deal of the movie’s laugh moments on his shoulders.
Shazam does struggle in the moments where the narrative isn’t as sure what it wants to be. The biggest inconsistencies seem to come in the contrast between Billy’s story and Sivana’s narrative. Strong brings a powerful screen-persona and is a heck of a “straight man”. He even shows some moments of comedic chops, most recently thanks to his work in the “Kingsman” franchise. However, the villain narrative struggles to gel in the face of the stronger comedic material. In fact, at times Shazam feels to be a multiple movies pushed into one. As such, the pacing struggles a bit as it struggles to find its identity, emphasizing the more than two hour runtime.
The film stands tall in its comedic presence, but this does come at the expense of the script development. Gayden’s script struggles to come together narratively. Due to the disconnect between the Shazam and the Sivana narrative, the story meanders quite a bit towards the end of the second act. Ultimately, the movie works great as an origin tale spotlighting an unlikely superhero struggling to learn his powers, but it looses focus when Shazam actually fights against the villain. Ultimately, had this script decided to focus squarely on Billy gaining a feel for his superpowers, it would have worked just as well.
In fact, most of the film’s struggles revolve around the script. As the action builds to the final storyline, the screenplay begins taking a number of leaps. Characters have almost immediate epiphanies as to what it takes to defeat the villain. The story arcs (desperately trying to avoid spoilers here) feel rushed towards the close of the third act, when similar stories in other backstories have taken a full narrative to develop. At the same time, their motivations change at the drop of a hat. The moments can feel jarring, but ultimately the impact on the movie is relatively light.
There’s been a lot of talk on the tone of Shazam on social media. The look and marketing for Shazam is perhaps a bit deceptive. While the movie can best be equated to Big in a superhero universe, it might not be workable for young, young children. There’s some intense scariness and some moments of real violence. There is some definite trigger warnings. Look into it more before you take the family.
Shazam hits theaters this week, taking the ever-expanding DC cinematic universe into brand new territory. The movie is fun and entertaining, proving to be a welcomed departure from the much heavier tone of some of the studio’s previous works. The movie brings its share of problems, but is definitely worth a watch for fans for the genre.
Shazam is playing in theaters around the country now.
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