Review: Shazam! (2019)

The problem with most DCEU films is they’re all rather joyless; they don’t have to be borderline comedies like the Marvel films, but they have embraced this bleak outlook that is rather repulsive even from a distance. Wonder Woman and Aquaman toned that down quite a bit, but Shazam! feels like a total reversal, a concept goofy enough that it demands a much lighter approach.

Walking out of the theater, I realized Shazam! was the first live action superhero film in years that really left me with a sense of joyous wonder. Though its origin story structure has obviously been done into the ground by this point, it left me with a nostalgia for an older kind of superhero flick.

This feeling in large part lies in the central concept – a desperate wizard gives eternal runaway Billy Batson the power to transform into a man loaded with magical powers. The film proceeds to run almost entirely on Billy’s amusement with his own abilities. There’s a certain potency to an origin story from the perspective of someone young enough to appreciate the pure fun of suddenly having power – where most adult characters seem immediately burdened with a sense of responsibility, Shazam is a rare character allowed to initially run wild.

Being a film focused on a teenager moving into a group home with five other kids, Shazam! is given the burden of being flooded with child actors – thankfully, most put in pretty good performances. Among the younger actors, Jack Dylan Grazer steals the show as Billy’s disabled foster brother, Freddy. He carries this obnoxious and opinionated edge, which plays well against Zachary Levi’s jovial bravado as the adult Shazam.

Shazam! is at its best when it’s not quite being a superhero film – my interest waxed and waned depending on the presence of the villain, Dr. Sivana. Turns out, most superheroes who fly around and punch things kind of look the same in action. There’s nothing wrong with the character of the villain – in fact, I enjoyed his twisted origin story and his lifelong search that opens the movie – but the simple fact is that the film suddenly turns dire and loses the energy that sets it apart whenever he’s on screen. His presence is necessary due to the genre, I just wish they could have trimmed the action sequences down.

The real highlights are those moments of discovery – Billy starts off having no knowledge of what he’s really able to pull off, and he ends up stumbling into everything. The boys make great use of the most obvious new power – Shazam’s adult appearance allows them to get away with various hijinks, from trying booze for the first time to checking out a strip club. This is a childhood wish fulfillment fantasy wrapped in a cape – a Big reference is as on-the-nose as it is hilarious.

Between the comedy and action is some surprisingly effective room for drama. Shazam! plays well into the concept of family – Billy begins the film in constant search for his mother, who very obviously abandoned him as a child. He immediately rejects his new foster family and returns to his search, only to find a mutual understanding between him and this new family. The phrase “I get it” is repeated throughout – they know what it’s like to be searching for a family. This all builds up to a wonderfully poignant moment where Billy learns what happened with his mother – I can think of few superhero movie scenes as effectively gut-punching as this one. Where it might fumble with action, Shazam! really plays into its themes well.

My only real concern with this theme of found families is how little time certain members are given. Billy and Freddy get plenty of time as the leads, Darla and Mary have a few key scenes, but Eugene and Pedro are just kind of there. They are given a few minor things to do, but they almost seem inessential, which makes it a bit harder to buy Billy’s investment into his new family as a whole unit – he simply hasn’t interacted enough with multiple members. The theme still works, but the connections between certain characters feels glossed over.

Within the span of a month, both Marvel and DC released movies based on characters originally known as Captain Marvel – what’s shocking here is that DC won out this time. Both films feel a bit too familiar, but where Captain Marvel comes off as a strict adherent to the MCU formula and little more, Shazam! manages to gather the best elements of the superhero origin story. Nothing here is particularly new or innovative, but Billy’s relative youth allows certain classic tropes to be amped up in fresh ways.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

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