Shazam! is a pleasant surprise. While the DC Extended Universe has been a bit of a mess – trying to play catch up with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe too quickly and filled with movies who think forced brooding and edginess equate to maturity – Shazam! takes a step back, looks at the current state of the super hero genre, and happily takes it back to its more innocent early years. In a time when even Marvel’s films are becoming more and more serious (though they have actually earned their more mature tone after years of growing, and still understand that being ‘serious’ doesn’t have to come at the expense of fun), it’s fun to see a movie like Shazam! embrace the sillier side of comic book super heroes.
Formerly known as Captain Marvel (yeah, it’s a little confusing, so let’s not go down that rabbit hole right now), Shazam is actually one of the oldest comic book super heroes. And yet, he’s remained relatively obscure, never reaching the mainstream heights of Superman, Batman or Marvel’s Spider-Man. Hopefully this movie can change that, and do to Shazam! what 2008’s Iron Man did for its titular super hero, and turn its subject into a mainstream attraction.
It’s a wonder why Shazam has remained in Superman’s shadow. The origin story of this hero is at once simple and earnest, and something of a parody of super hero conventions (which it did long before parodying super hero conventions was a thing). Most super heroes are born with their powers (like Superman or the X-Men), gain them through freak accidents (the Incredible Hulk) or make them through their own skillsets (like Batman and Iron Man), and have duel identities of hero and civilian. Shazam, meanwhile, is a kid who transforms into an adult superhero by the magic gifted to him by a wizard.
It’s a beautifully simplistic origin story, really. And I kind of wish more comic book authors would have looked to it for inspiration over many of the more convoluted super hero origins that became the norm.
The kid in question is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an orphan who has bounced around from one foster home to the next, often running away on his own volition. Billy eventually finds himself in another foster home, where he becomes foster brothers with Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled super hero fan who quickly becomes Billy’s best friend, despite their differing personalities.
Meanwhile, in another dimension, an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) has been keeping seven demons (named after the Seven Deadly Sins) imprisoned with his power for centuries. But Shazam’s body is succumbing to age, and his seal on the demons is withering along with his body. Shazam has thus been seeking an heir to inherit his immense magical power, both to keep the demons sealed away, and to protect the mortal world from any other supernatural threats. After his fellow wizards put their faith on a successor that went rogue long ago, Shazam sought to find the perfect heir.
Shazam’s spells had found him many candidates through the years, but all of them failed his tests of character in one way or another. So he continued his duty despite his weakening seal on the demons. One of these failed heirs, however, became obsessed with discovering the way back to Shazam’s dimension. Naturally, this individual became an evil genius, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). After Sivana discovers a portal to Shazam’s realm some decades later, he takes revenge on the wizard by taking the power of the demons, which he plans on unleashing on the Earth for his own nefarious gains.
With no more time to lose in his misguided quest for a ‘perfect’ candidate, Shazam changes course to find the best possible candidate in the time he has left. And when Billy displays his strength of character by standing up to some bullies who were harassing Freddy, he is summoned to Shazam’s chambers to inherit the wizards unfathomable power, which he can call upon at any time by saying the sorcerer’s name.
In place of merely possessing the wizard’s abilities, Billy is transformed into an adult super hero (Zachary Levi) whenever he utters Shazam’s name (and reverts back to his normal self whenever he says it in his hero form). Not knowing what to do with his newfound power, Billy seeks the aide of Freddie’s extensive knowledge of super heroes to discover the true extent of his abilities.
The premise itself is just so much fun. I make no secret my disdain for Superman, a character who can essentially outdo every other DC hero at their own game, and does so with a holier-than-thou disposition. But here we have a hero who is just as powerful as Superman (more so in some continuities), but has the carefree, irresponsible and sarcastic attitude of a kid. While Superman often seems to look down on “lesser” beings, Shazam is likely to be as surprised and amazed by his own powers as everyone around him. Superman is so often treated as a perfect beacon of heroism, but is actually kind of arrogant and condescending. Shazam, on the other hand, is recognized as having flaws despite his power, and has to learn and grow because of his faults, making him a far more compelling character.
Yeah, I’m going on about the contrasts between Shazam and ol’ Supes. But I find that Shazam as a character is essentially a better and more lighthearted version of the Man of Steel. I’m happy that this movie might make more people recognize the character of Shazam after being left out of the mainstream for so long.
And yes, the film Shazam! fully embraces the silly nature of the character. This is one of the funniest super hero films in recent memory. While the majority of the DCEU has been bogged down by its “edgelord” mentality, and the MCU has grown more serious as it reaches its crescendo, Shazam! is a delightful break from brooding that tells a good story, and has a whole lot of fun with it.
That’s not to say the film lacks seriousness. On the contrary, the character development feels organic, and the emotional moments feel rightly earned. Shazam! is a super hero film that understands you can laugh at the material without making itself a joke. The acting is similarly well done, with Angel, Grazer and Levi all giving memorable performances that add to both the film’s story and its sense of humor.
Unfortunately, Shazam does make a few missteps with its pacing. A number of key story moments come off as rushed, while other, less important moments can linger at times. In one notable example, the first scene we meet the adult Dr. Sivana and learn of his quest to return to Shazam’s dimension…is also the the scene in which Dr. Sivana discovers his way back to Shazam’s dimension. The film’s opening scene (which depicts a young Sivana who fails Shazam’s test) gives us a good understanding of the character’s motivation, but it’s a shame that when we’re re-introduced to the character in his proper villainous state, we kind of get rushed through his ambitions.
Still, whatever pacing issues the film may have ultimately can’t detract from Shazam!’s entertainment value. Shazam! is a film that rewinds the clock back a bit, to a time when super hero films were a bit lighter and more breezy, but still treats its story with respect and dignity. Shazam! is a funny and surprisingly thoughtful movie that delivers on its poignant moments almost as often as it does its comedic ones (the relationship between Billy and Freddy is a refreshingly original dynamic for a super hero film). It’s certainly the best DCEU film so far, and one of 2019’s most charming movies.
And yes, I think Shazam would totally beat Superman in a fight.