HomeMoviesShazam! Review: DC's Latest a Near-Perfect Lightning Storm of Humor & Heart

Shazam! Review: DC’s Latest a Near-Perfect Lightning Storm of Humor & Heart

Shazam Movie
Photo Credit: DC

Ladies and gentlemen, they did it. DC’s delusions of needing to be distinct to be competitive seem to have finally evaporated, because they and Warner Bros. went and made themselves a Marvel movie.

For better or worse, superhero fans can walk into a DC film with an expectation of comforting familiarity. If nothing else, Shazam! is a confidently-realized character piece that shares in the highs and lows audiences expect from the modern language of the superhero genre. Where it distinguishes itself is in the dozens of ways it organically finds to upend the genre to subvert and often mock its recognizable conventions. Shazam! strikes a highly resonant tone of following the MCU formula as a blueprint for an uproarious comedy without picking a fight over the repetitive tropes and character beats, positing instead that there is room for varied stories from both brands within the structure’s confines.

Not only is Shazam! far and away the funniest superhero film to date, it has a stronger sense of pathos and a calculated reserve of weaknesses sacrificed to elevate its strengths. But by the time it ends, it leaves a very real question hanging in the air of whether the genre-defining superhero team ups (the kind DC failed to deliver on two years ago) need to be built over several years in order to feel earned. Shazam! would argue they do not.

The movie stands on its own as a wholly satisfying blockbuster experience full of laugh-out-loud humor and a strong character arc for Billy Batson. But it also concludes in a subtly nostalgic and ferociously satisfying spectacle (that should stay unspoiled for as long as possible) as a self-aware culmination of that character arc that didn’t need four years and five movies in which to do it. Except for some genre-specific gripes, it is a delight from start to finish. And with luck, a strong indicator of what’s to come from the DCEU.

At its core, Shazam! is a coming of age comedy in reverse. 14-year-old Billy Batson has the powers and physique of a god magically thrust upon him by a 9,000-year-old wizard. But rather than learning to grow into his new Zachary Levi body and abilities and accept the responsibility of being an adult by way of also being a superhero, the lie Billy believes. about finding his long lost mother by himself so he can have a normal life again bars him from enjoying his childhood and accepting his place in a family. Billy’s journey is not to grow up, but to come to terms with being a kid and open his heart to others. His superpowers complicate that objective as they make it easier for him to abandon his foster-family while also validating his independent mindset.

Billy’s arc is intended to be a perfect contrast to Mark Strong as the villainous Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. The operative word being “intended.” Unfortunately, following the Marvel formula also means suffering Marvel’s familiar shortcomings. Both characters spend their whole lives in search of an unattainable sense of self-validation after never moving on from a childhood trauma. But Sivana is given neither the screen time nor the character depth to make each character’s respective inversion of the other a meaningful point in the narrative.

Strong marks his fifth appearance in a comic book film (and umpteenth appearance in a leather trench coat) with a performance as generic as the role is dull. Sivana’s motivation is weak and his desires are unclear. He has no humanity or depth and his guiding principles reveal little about Billy’s true nature beyond pushing him to a point of urgency in which his character is truly tested. There may never have been a man more typecast in the history of the genre.

Sivana’s emotional range fluctuates between stern patience and high-energy frustration and is rarely interesting to watch. He spends most of the film posing villainously as others commit acts of mayhem for him. Once upon a time, this part may have been half of a strong dichotomy between the hero and villain, but little to none of it remains in the brief screen time he is given. Strong has proven his status as a fine performer multiple times, but can barely be asked to do more than show up and snarl when given nothing to sink his teeth into.

Perhaps Strong’s dour sternness is also meant to contrast against Zachary Levi’s charismatically zany and hilarious Shazam, but it only makes Sivana more monotonous. Levi’s role comprises an MO similar to his character in Chuck—another story of near-unlimited power being transferred into an individual with neither the maturity nor the expertise sufficient for the responsibility their powers requires. In doing so, he becomes one of the best cast superheroes yet.

Not many performers can successfully channel a pre-adolescent mentality into the body of a god, but it is as though Levi is born to it. After a slightly long and hokey first act, the film springs to life the instant he appears—as though it too were jolted with lightning from his glowing hands. Every single joke lands, every subverted superhero trope is a victorious notch on his and the film’s belt, and he is still able to convey the terror of being in over his head when the script calls on him. The only issue with the performance is the connection between Shazam and Billy feels minimal, and could have benefited from the two actors bonding and mutually feeding off the other’s energy more than they likely had time to.

All of Billy’s emotional heavy-lifting, however, is reserved for Asher Angel, who plays young Billy. Though far from a Hollywood wunderkind, Angel is more than effectively able to convey Billy’s stunted emotional state and the humanity that lies underneath. Billy’s emotional development is tracked through the narrative by his relationships with his foster parents and siblings and primarily his disabled roommate/best friend Freddy. He is at first distant and aloof to them, then later softens as his arc progresses.

Freddy works as an audience surrogate due to his nature as a superhero fan and his perspective as someone in awe and absolute euphoria at seeing Billy’s new powers. He gets a monologue near the end of the film that plays a key role in establishing his and Billy’s relationship as well as the overall tone of the movie, and it sets up a spectacularly cathartic payoff in the finale that will likely give parents of children with disabilities something they have been waiting for for years.

All the residents of the Vasquez foster home supply the film’s pathos contrasted to Billy’s guardedness, and the film is at its best when Billy accepts them into his life and they finally work together. But rather than simply giving the audience what they want early and often, the film uses this sparingly and keeps the focus on truly earning Billy’s development. His cathartic confrontation at the end of the second act is heartbreaking and at the same time the perfect device to trigger his growth and get Billy to open his eyes to what’s right in front of him.

Despite Shazam!’s near-perfect sense of comedy and focus on family, its overall tone strikes surprisingly dark. Sivana bears similar powers to Shazam because he opts to become a vessel for the Seven Deadly Sins. The sins are manifested by grotesque, Guillermo del Toro-like demonic beings that wreak havoc and kill indiscriminately. The violence in the film is shockingly gruesome at times, and it makes for an above average obligatory “watch the bad guy being bad” murder scene involving Sivana’s family.

Unfortunately, the over-the-top violence edited against the jovial nature of Billy exploring and at times abusing his powers makes it difficult for the film to pick a tone. At rare times, it will undercut the seriousness of the violence with another joke when it may have been better to maintain the tension. It is infrequent enough to not hinder the experience, but apparent enough to be noticed.

But the comedy, while consistently funny, always plays as though it were written and executed for a film shot in 60% less gray than it is. The Shazam suit is a beautiful candy apple red against a bleak and gray Philadelphia. It almost deliberately highlights how starkly odd the relationship is in essence between its ultra-serious villain and the comedic riot hero. And in another resemblance to the MCU, it leaves the film on a regrettable sour note, as the action and stunt choreography is some of DC’s best but fails to be visually striking enough to be memorable.

Despite some minor gripes with its color grading, some plot threads that go nowhere and the tertiary character models, the facts are inescapable. Wonder Woman implied it, Aquaman said it outright and now Shazam! confirms it: the departure of Zack Snyder from the helm of the DCEU opened the possibility for solo adventures that are not merely competent, but thrilling and socially resonant.

DC is officially on a hot streak, and the imminent success of Shazam! will give them a nudge of encouragement to continue on their current path. They never had anything to prove about being distinguished from Marvel and they are the last ones to realize it. But WB and DC have finally given audiences an ensemble of heroes and films they can be proud of.

Billy Batson takes his place on the Mount Olympus of the comic book sphere as well as in the imaginations of 21st century audiences with an introduction that examines the benefits of youth and the strength of family. It is a film that seamlessly ushers the angsty adolescent at its center from “I’m just a kid and life is a nightmare” to a triumphant “we’re the kids in America,” in a near-perfect lightning storm of humor and heart.

Shazam! hits theaters nationwide on April 5


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