You know Superman. You know Batman and Wonder Woman. The few people who didn’t know Aquaman before James Wan’s 2018 movie now know Aquaman, as well. Shazam is another story, because the character formally named Captain Marvel — read some comic history if you can’t figure out the very obvious reason why that name was changed — is not as well known. He has appeared in some cartoons, rarely as a key player, and had an ill-fated Saturday morning show in the ‘70s.
Otherwise, Shazam was never a priority for DC… until Geoff Johns took over. In fact, a movie has been in development by New Line for well over ten years. Unlike Batman, Superman and other DC heroes, there isn’t as much pressure to deliver since the diehard fans of the character are few and far between (and likely, very old as well).
This makes it the perfect opportunity for the studio and director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) to find new fans for the character, which Shazam! most certainly will do.
The movie begins with what we think is the typical superhero origin story — we see a kid in the back seat of a car, driving along a road in the dead of winter with his father and brother in the front seats. It’s immediately obvious how much contempt the kid’s relatives have for him, but he vanishes and reappears in a cave where he encounters the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). The wizard gives the boy a big speech about looking for a champion to keep the Seven Deadly Sins at bay, but the boy is deemed unworthy and is sent back to his unfortunate situation.
We’ll get back to that kid, as we shift to Philadelphia where Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a street kid getting into trouble while trying to find his mother, who he lost as a child at a fair. He eventually gets put into the latest foster home with the Vasquez family and their wards, including obnoxious joker Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), Mary (Grace Fulton), intellectual Eugene (Ian Chen), quiet Pedro (Jovan Armand) and adorable and enthusiastic Darla (Faithe Herman). Billy and Freddy instantly become pals, but Freddy is being bullied at school so Billy devises a revenge.
While being chased by the bullies, Billy also ends up in Shazam’s cave, and you can probably figure out the rest.
If you’ve read Johns’ and Gary Frank’s new 52-page re-origin for Shazam, then you might go into the movie thinking you know exactly what to expect. There are a few direct beats and scenes from the comics, but there are enough significant changes to keep the movie compelling even using that origin as a skeleton. (I will say that Black Adam does not appear in the movie despite Dwayne Johnson being listed as executive producer on the movie. Clearly, they’re saving him for his own origin movie.)
There are aspects of Shazam! that reminded me of the best parts of the Spider-Man movies, but not in a bad way. As soon as Zachary Levi enters the picture, Shazam! delivers one of the funniest straight-up action-comedies in recent memory, particularly with a hilarious “testing out his powers” montage that’s full of laughs. (The Spider-Man comparison even extends to using a Ramones song for the highly-creative animated end credits.)
Levi is so well cast as Philly’s newest superhero — also called Shazam, apparently, but only after Freddy tests out numerous more embarrassing superhero names — that you might wonder why he’s been so neglected in terms of making him the lead in movies. Granted, he did play Fandral of the Warriors Three in a couple Thor movies, but those never really gave him a chance to shine. Many of Levi’s scenes are with Grazer as the superhero-obsessed Freddy Freeman, and surprisingly, Grazer is just as funny as Levi, even if Levi has previous TV comedy chops where Grazer doesn’t.
This doesn’t mean Shazam! is perfect, because it still takes a good 45 minutes before it’s rolling after the characters are introduced. There is a definite danger of the scenes with Hounsou feeling a little cheesy, especially when the CG Deadly Sins of Man are in play, because they do veer closer to the “bad CG demons” than good. However, you do get used to them.
Mark Strong gets his second chance do-over at playing a DC villain with his portrayal of Thaddeus Sivana. He plays the role quite admirably, adding plenty of menace while acting as the straight man for Levi to get in more than a few quips at his expense. The only problem there is that Strong’s Sivana is cast aside for a good portion of the movie, and it’s only when he returns and actually confronts Philly’s new superhero when things start to get rolling.
Director Sandberg is the real deal, and he does a fantastic job with the movie, first of all in working with a mostly young and somewhat inexperienced cast but also creating a movie that’s faithful to the Johns/Frank series without replicating it to the point of being a straight adaptation.
One should note that there’s only one credited screenwriter on the movie, Henry Gayden, who helps greatly with that all-so-important tone thing. Superhero movies these days are either so dark they take away all the joy of the escapism superheroes are supposed to bring, or so full of jokes it’s impossible to take any of the stakes very seriously. Shazam! finds that perfect middle ground where it’s constantly funny, but it also has a few darker moments that might very well be too scary for younger kids. (Presumably that comes from Sandberg’s horror background?)
Some of the best superhero movies have had a strong sense of place, whether it’s Gotham City or Metropolis or the Avengers’ New York City. Shazam! is very much a movie of Philadelphia, which makes sense if DC’s Gotham/Metropolis are meant to represent other major cities. The movie uses that location in many funny ways, even throwing in a few Rocky references.
I’m not going to get into the last act, because it offers one of the nicest surprises of the entire movie, as well as pulling together all the elements for an impressive final battle between Shazam (the superhero) and Sivana with his Seven Deadly Sins.
If you’ve been a lifelong Shazam (or Captain Marvel, if you’re older) fan, you’ll be pleased to see that those who made this movie found a way to make this often-neglected DC character fun and even cool at the same time. Everyone else should also find many things to love about the movie, maybe because it always keeps a foot in the light even during its darkest moments.