WARNING: Spoilers for Shazam!
Now THIS is a comic book movie! When it first came out, I felt Shazam! was the best film in the DCEU, and upon rewatch I can confirm that I still feel the same. It’s a shame it took them this long to get the formula right because this is a near-perfect super hero film; let down only by a few weak performances, and a very awkward introductory scene for the school bullies.
Shazam! feels much more in line with some of the great comic book films of the past like Richard Donner’s Superman or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. Shazam! is not actually about the villainous plot, but more about the character of Billy Batson and what is going on in his life. The super-hero antics are treated more like the B-Story with the A-Story focusing on Billy’s attempts to find a family. And that is where this film succeeds where every other DCEU film has failed. It focuses more on heart than thrills, and because of this, the thrills we do get are made all the more exciting because we genuinely care about our characters. I tear up multiple times throughout this film, sometimes from sad moments, sometimes from heartfelt moments, and sometimes just simply from the joy of cinema.
Shazam! has them all!
Asher Angel is a great young Billy Batson. He is sarcastic and confident. I believe this is a kid who has been through a lot, but has still managed to keep his heart of gold. Mark Strong is also wonderful as Dr. Sivana. Let’s be honest, Mark always excels as the villain, but the script here gives him just a little more to chew on and he revels in it. I like that Sivana doesn’t actually have an overarching villainous plan. He is simply a man who has grown up feeling powerless, and seeks power to turn that around. He really only plans on facing his father with that power until he is told he must take on Shazam in order to keep his abilities. I really like the moment when he tells his father that it wasn’t about money; that was very good. But the stand outs of the film are Jack Dylan Grazer and Zachary Levi as Freddy and adult Billy respectively.
They (along with Gal Gadot) are the best casting decisions in all of the DCEU, HANDS DOWN.
Jack blew me away in the IT films and he brings that same nervous, yet big-mouthed charm to this role. Freddy is a large part of this film’s heart. His disability helps his frustration at Billy’s behavior feel all then more real. Billy has incredible abilities and he is wasting his potential. Meanwhile, Zachary Levi made me laugh with ever single line he delivered. He is basically a big kid and that shines through perfectly. He does exactly what a 14 year old boy would do if he learned he had superpowers. His journey to discovering his abilities alongside Freddy is one of the many highlights of the film. Every time there is a dramatic moment, he undercuts it just as a sarcastic kid would. By the end of the film, Mark Strong and his Seven Deadly Sins are the only serious characters which adds a wonderfully off-kilter feeling to the climax, with this incredibly angry man essentially fighting a bunch of kids.
The first act of this film is certainly the weakest. There is a lot here to set up, but the film handles it all fairly well. The first scene with a young Sivana is a banger of an opening. And Billy’s introduction is also fun (even if some of the pop songs are slightly annoying). The children are all very good in their roles and each come across as individual, yet important characters. But I do think that the acting of the parents is a bit hammy... and also stilted. It’s almost as if they learned how to act like parents from watching 90s sitcoms. It gets better as the film progresses, but there are some lines in the beginning that really suffer.
There are also some weak CGI body doubles. Shazam! didn't have the budget of Man of Steel or Wonder Woman, so it shows in some shots. But let's be honest, digital bodies doubles have always been hard to get right.
My other big complaint is the introduction of the Briars (the film’s bullies). They seem to just appear out of nowhere. First of all, the way this scene is cut doesn’t make it look like they go to the same school (a fact which is confirmed later on in the film). They just drive up to the school as if they are coming to pick someone up. We did not see them in the school earlier in the film, so this is very jarring. Secondly, it seems these bullies took a page out of the Stephen King Book of Bullies. They actually hit Freddy, a disabled kid, with their truck and then slam him up against it for scuffing the vehicle. And Freddy treats this like it’s a normal Tuesday. Where are the faculty members? Did NO ONE see these kids hit another student with their truck? Seems like they hit him on purpose too, so they’re actually committing vehicular assault and treating it like it’s normal bullying. That seems very extreme. They are softened up a bit throughout the film, but this entrance is oddly harsh. They also do get their comeuppance by the end (receiving a pair of suitcase wedgies), but I wish that moment was longer and these guys suffered just little more because they were SUCH jerks in the beginning.
Tone can be a tough thing to get right, and this film certainly has a very odd one.
Sivana and the Seven Deadly Sins are deadly serious characters and genuinely frightening in moments, so juxtaposing them against a child can be tricky. But director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) handles things with assurance. He is able to juggle both tones perfectly, blending the film into a hilarious clash of comedic children against world-ending horrors. The film also needs to balance out the heart, with Billy’s search for his mother and true family. This becomes the most moving part of the film. Sure, the flashback in the beginning is a little ham-fisted, but it becomes very important once Billy finds his mother and she reveals her side of the story.
This could have been very cut and dry, with Billy’s mom positioned as a bad guy who never cared about her missing son. But it’s not that simple. Billy’s mother was simply a scared young woman who honestly thought what she was doing what was best for her son. The script is also very economical in this scene. We hear earlier that Billy’s father is in prison, so when we hear an angry voice coming from inside the apartment (a voice that makes her shutter), we immediately realize that Billy’s mom doesn't have the taste in men; a weakness in her personality. This may also be one of the reasons she let Billy go. However, Billy has built his mother up in his head after all these years. He wanted her to welcome him with open arms. But it’s not that simple and Billy ends up realizing who his true family is in a moment that is both heartbreaking and heartfelt.
Which brings me to the finale of the film.
This is one of the most emotionally cathartic and satisfying climaxes of any recent super hero film. Every single character is handled incredibly well, with each personality getting a moment to shine. This film doesn’t just boil down to a fist fight (although there are plenty of those). No, it boils down to Billy fighting with his family. I’m a sucker for themes about family and this film is no different. The moment Billy gives the rest of his foster siblings their own powers is applaud worthy. The adult actors do a brilliant job of bringing their characters’ respective personalities and ages into their performances. So not only is the ending exciting, but it genuinely feels emotionally earned.
Bottom Line: Shazam! is a near-perfect super hero film. It has all the prerequisite action and effects one could ask for, but also truly knows that none of it works without the heart of the characters at the center of its story. This film has a very smart and funny screenplay that perfectly captures the spirit of a child gaining superhuman abilities. It’s only let down slightly by a few awkward performance moments, and the very odd introduction of the school bullies. Otherwise, DC has struck gold with this film. As it stands, Shazam! is my favorite DCEU film and I am extremely excited for the sequel!