Shazam! is the latest offering from within the DC Extended Universe, the cinematic universe where one might find Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. However, like it’s predecessor, Aquaman, the film is less concerned about trying to the greater cinematic universe and instead focuses on a much more smaller and human story than we’re used to in these DC films. Shazam! is all the better for it, and that’s before we get into everything else that is so much fun in this movie.
Most superhero films are about a hero saving the world. And while there is a villain out to do harm in this movie, that’s definitely the B story. The main story follows Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a fourteen-year-old who has bounced between over twenty foster homes for most of his life. He’s either run away or been kicked out, largely thanks to his pessimistic attitude about living with people who aren’t his real family. Billy lost his mother at a carnival as a child and has been determined to find her ever since. He openly rejects any family that tries to show him any support or love in hopes that he’ll find his real mother one day.
After a stunt involving a police car, Billy is transferred to the Vasquez’s foster home and meets his new foster siblings, including his bunkmate Freddy Freeman (IT’s Jack Dylan Grazer), who is a huge superhero fanboy and collects their memorabilia and newspaper clippings. The two don’t have the best of first impressions as Billy is a bit of a jerk to Freddy. But when the bullies start going to town on Freddy, Billy intervenes which catches the attention of the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), the last member of a council of seven wizards at the Rock of Eternity. Normally, he has a strict vetting process for who shall inherit his powers but time has run out for him and Billy is bestowed magical powers that make him a superhero.
Or at least, they should have. But Billy is fourteen, irresponsible and dispirited. So begins a hilarious and personal journey of Billy as he becomes Shazam, played by the scene stealer Zachary Levi. Shazam may be buff and have superpowers, but he’s still fourteen at heart. What would you do if you had superpowers at that age? For Billy, it’s becoming a YouTube sensation and a glorified street performer posing for selfies. He loves the newfound attention, respect and admiration that Shazam grants him. People flock to see this new superhero and Billy is suddenly surrounded by people who are paying him attention. At the same time, Freddy coaches him on trying to discover what exactly Shazam’s powers are because you can bet Billy doesn’t know, the former Shazam didn’t exactly leave a manual.
Levi plays the role of Shazam perfectly, offering tons of humour, plenty of heart while still carrying that angst that Billy had in his child form. Billy has no interest in being a superhero and for most of the movie, we follow his journey from being a selfish nobody to understanding a thing or two about the bigger picture. In short, take the movie Big starring Tom Hanks and add superpowers. Zachary Levi is the heart and soul of the movie but so is Jack Dylan Grazer and Faithe Herman as Darla, the youngest of the Vasquez foster children. She’s funny, adorable and will make your cold heart melt while Dylan Grazer has great comedic timing and works great as the mentor character who just happens to be a nerd who has read every bit of superhero trivia to date. Also, the foster parents in this movie aren’t evil! So that was also really refreshing. They genuinely care about the kids they’ve taken in which is great to see as they’re often portrayed in a negative fashion in film and literature.
While all of this is going on, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) unleashes the seven deadly sins and becomes “the supervillain” as Freddy likes to call him. As mentioned, the villain plotline is definitely the B story and Dr. Sivana and Shazam don’t come into contact until much later in the film. But since this is a coming of age story focused on character, the film is actually in the right to have Sivana be more of a plot device than a character. He’s at least given some motivation and context so he’s not a blank slate but the villain does not drive the plot of the movie, unlike Aquaman’s King Orm. And that’s totally okay for what this story was telling.
I thought the film was perhaps 5-10 minutes too long in the end. The end fight sequences could have been trimmed just a little bit. There’s also an end movie surprise cameo that I won’t spoil but I was very let down by it, especially when you consider the actors involved with the DC Universe right now on the big screen. It was a bit anti-climactic. The beginning scene was also a bit slow and while it set the stage, came across as a bit heavy-handed.
But those are minor complaints for what ultimately amounts to a fun and enjoyable experience with a positive message. Of all the DC films that have come out since Man of Steel, this would be my second favourite after Wonder Woman. Zachary Levi is gold as the man-child Shazam. This is a coming of age story first and a superhero action film second and that’s honestly quite refreshing for the genre, hats off to director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) and writer Henry Gayden. The film accurately portrays what a teenager would do with superpowers and what it takes for such a dispirited kid to find the hero within. Plus, it’s a self-contained story that doesn’t concern itself with setting up other films and expanded its universe. This is a fun, light-hearted and inspiring tale that harkens back to an older type of superhero film. It’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face.