March 2024

Shazam! (2019)

DIRECTOR: David F. Sandberg

CAST: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Djimon Hounsou


With Shazam, the DC Expanded Universe plays about as far as possible from the dour dreariness of Batman v Superman. Shazam has its share of more conventional superhero action, but it’s not a straight entry; it’s far more family-friendly than the likes of Deadpool but exists in a somewhat similarly self-parodying vein (though even Shazam is not as openly satirical). The result is an effective mix of superheroics and spoofing thereof, and Shazam‘s status as a minor league player among the comic book superheroes who’ve been brought to the screen (no one expects it to compete against The Avengers: Endgame, but it’s not trying to) doesn’t stop it from being one of the fresher and more entertaining entries to crop up lately, especially from within the troubled DCEU. Were this MCU, it’d be a middle-of-the-road offering, but it’s the most unreservedly enjoyable entry to emerge from the DCEU thus far, and while it’s not a 100% straight comedy, it offers more laughs than some that ostensibly are.

The opening set-up presents two kids with troubled family backgrounds. One will grow up to become the supervillain Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), who has Daddy issues. The other is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a juvenile delinquent who incessantly runs away from a series of foster homes and is obsessed with tracking down the mom he was accidentally separated from as a child. Billy’s latest stop lands him in the middle of a large, eccentric foster family presided over by the genial Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) and including talkative, clingy Darla (Faithe Herman), obsessive video gamer Eugene (Ian Chen), aloof Pedro (Jovan Armand), college-bound Mary (Grace Fulton), and half-crippled Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), who compensates with fast-talking and a slightly warped sense of humor. One day, Billy coming to Freddy’s defense against bullies leads him to be chosen as the worthy champion by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who bestows his powers upon him, leaving a very confused Billy turning into a thirty-something, buffed-up superhero version of himself (Zachary Levi) with superhuman strength whenever he utters the word “Shazam!” (through trial and error, he also eventually finds out he’s impervious to bullets, can shoot lightning from his fingertips, and can fly). At first, Billy uses his newfound papers to become a Philadelphia celebrity and YouTube sensation, but when he runs afoul of his fledgling supervillain counterpart Doctor Sivana, he’ll have to get the hang of this whole “superhero” thing, which he might find easier said than done.

Shazam‘s premise is deceptively simple, attempting to delve into what might actually happen if a fifteen-year-old boy suddenly gained superpowers. Suffice to say, Billy at least initially is a little less responsible than Peter Parker/Spider-Man. This is essentially a superhero twist on the premise of the comedy Big! starring Tom Hanks as a boy trapped in an adult man’s body; in case there’s any doubt that the similarity is intentional, the movie throws in a hard-to-miss direct homage. The basic underlying framework is generic stuff; there’s a plot with Sivana wanting to steal Billy’s powers and add them to his own to unleash the Seven Deadly Sins (here in physical form as generically nasty CGI monsters that look like Ghostbusters rejects). The movie doesn’t shy away from some more serious scenes, including the opening car crash that kickstarts Sivana’s supervillain origin story, and also throws a twist into a seemingly predictable subplot when Billy’s long-awaited reunion with his mother doesn’t go as well as he expects, but for the most part it maintains a cheeky irreverence, and director David F. Sandberg smoothly transitions between tones without it ever feeling whiplashy. Bewildered by his newfound superpowers, Billy turns to comic book nerd Freddy for advice, which isn’t always 100% reliable. There’s an enjoyable training montage—set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”—as Billy, filmed by a not necessarily safety conscious Freddy, experiments with his superpowers (it takes him a while to get the hang of the flying thing, and he accidentally learns he’s bulletproof when he gets shot by a couple of robbers). There’s also a running joke about Freddy trying to come up with a good superhero name for Billy, including things like “Mr. Philadelphia”, “Captain Sparkle Fingers”, and “Maximum Voltage” (his original alias in the comics, Captain Marvel, is not used here for obvious reasons, and the coincidence of having two completely unrelated “Captain Marvel” movies in theaters at the same time is further enhanced by the fact that Djimon Hounsou appears in both of them). Billy also uses his adult body for some less-than-noble purposes, including buying beer and visiting a strip club (the contents of which, this being a family friendly movie, are left offscreen). While Freddy gets the biggest role among Billy’s new foster family, the others get enough screentime to make a likable supporting ensemble, especially when (SPOILER WARNING) they all get the “Shazam!” treatment in the climactic battle. And the movie maintains its cheekiness even in the third act when things surrender to a more-or-less conventional superhero finale, with Shazam and Sivana battling across the Philadelphia sky like Superman and General Zod in the climax of Man of Steel, while his newly superpowered foster family takes on the Seven Deadly Sins at a fairgrounds (the Sins are not a well-developed part of the movie; they’re not characters, they’re CGI blobs thrown in to fill out some action sequences). Along the way, even while serving up some straightforward superhero action, the movie skewers a couple tropes ripe for the picking, most notably the Villain Monologue (which also recently got mocked in Captain Marvel). And meanwhile, there’s an unsubtle theme about the importance of family (and emphasizing that family isn’t always about blood, when Billy eventually realizes his latest foster family is more true “family” material than the birth mother he’s obsessed with) and Billy going through a standard character arc of letting his newfound powers go to his head before learning the true meaning of heroism (nobody says “with great power comes great responsibility”, but they might as well have). These elements are generic and entirely predictable, but Shazam‘s irreverent approach is fresh enough to make its more saccharine aspects easier to overlook.

There aren’t really any “stars” in the cast, but the actors do good enough jobs. A buffed-up Zachary Levi, who previously had a small role as the semi-fatuous Fandral in the second and third Thor entries in the MCU and here recalls a bizarre amalgamation of John Krasinski and Lou Ferrigno, does his best impression of a fifteen-year-old kid trapped in an adult man’s body and geeking out about his newfound superpowers. This helps us see Billy as the same person as he switches back-and-forth between Levi and Asher Angel, who is likewise effective as the “real” Billy. Mark Strong, one of Hollywood’s go-to “bad guy” actors, makes Sivana a formidable adversary with a commanding presence and never breaks his air of grimly determined seriousness amidst the goofiness surrounding him, although it’s mildly disappointing that after a couple opening scenes seemingly aiming at giving him a little more substantive character development and motivation, Sivana slips into spending the rest of the movie coasting along as a generic one-note villain. Jack Dylan Grazer provides an effective sidekick as a character who’s not entirely dissimilar to the one he played in It—another motor-mouthed smart-ass—and while he rotates between acting opposite Asher Angel and Zachary Levi, he “clicks” with both of them, which helps Billy feel like the same person whichever body he’s in. Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans have a nice down-to-earth warmth as Billy’s new foster parents, who are loving and patient and worthy family material, even if it takes a while for Billy to accept them as such. Djimon Hounsou doesn’t have much to do—issuing exposition and portentous pronouncements while almost buried behind an old man beard—and there’s other small roles for John Glover (as Sivana’s father and the source of his Daddy issues) and Adam Brody (as Freddy’s superhero alter ego).

Shazam isn’t anything exceptional—its “family” theme is sappy and the backbone plot elements are thinly-developed and generic comic book movie stuff—but it’s a fun enough experience for the positives to outweigh the negatives. It might be a minor entry compared to Batman v Superman or Justice League, but does a far better job of entertaining.

* * *