By Chaz Lipp
The Lowdown: Fun for superhero movie fans of all ages—but definitely skewing toward youngsters—this Superman-meets-Big adventure is the DCEU’s most accessible crowd pleaser.
If the lighthearted, but heartfelt, comedic adventure Shazam! represents the future of the DC Extended Universe, then kudos to producer Peter Safran, director David F. Sandberg, and writer Henry Gayden for arriving at such an agreeable tone. Updating this particular comic book hero (one of the least hip in the DC stable), once the subject of a popular though now-quaint mid-’70s TV series, couldn’t have been an easy task. Landing upon a hybrid of standard-issue origin story and Big (there’s one notable tip of the cap to Penny Marshall’s classic) turned out to be the right call.
As entertaining as Shazam! is, especially in the early sequences with Billy Batson (Asher Angel as a teenager, Zachary Levi in adult form) first discovering his newfound powers, it’s a bit superficial. Billy goes to live with foster parents in a group home and develops a prickly, tentative friendship with housemate Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Through typical comic book movie machinations, Billy happens upon a dimensional portal that leads him to the aging, weakened wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, instilling inherent silliness with a sense of noble dignity).
Shazam seeks someone pure of heart to inherit his mantle. The recipient of his powers will be able to transform into, simply by saying the old wizard’s name, a superman whose powers rival, well… Superman. Of course there’s an arch nemesis, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), with a dark past involving extreme sibling rivalry and psychological torment at the hands of a domineering father. It’s here that director Sandberg and company flirt with depth. In fact, Sivana’s back story—mostly crammed into a startlingly intense pre-credits cold open—is given short-shrift where it might’ve helped to plumb it further.
But ultimately Shazam! is far less interested in tortured souls than in the bonds of childhood friendship and the joys of discovering your are capable of far more than you ever thought possible. Though unlikely to ever be branded a classic of the comic book genre, Shazam! is far more successful than the usual DCEU junk as exemplified by the recent abysmal (though inexplicably popular) Aquaman or even the overrated Wonder Woman.