Shazam! isn’t just the best movie to come out of the troubled DCEU, but a truly great throwback to what superhero movies are all about. In an era where comic book movies top the box office and media attention, it’s easy to remember that these movies don’t necessarily need to be taken deathly seriously, and Shazam! works entirely due to its simplicity; it’s a movie about what it actually means to be a hero, and instills these very elemental qualities through a really heartwarming story about a kid searching for a family. Sure, there’s action and bad guys, but the message itself is something that’s often lost in other comic book movies, and the film lifts it’s story from Big to create a really fun and often hilarious origin story.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is an on the run foster child who has run from nearly every instilled family in search of his mother, and reluctantly joins a new foster home alongside his enthusiastic new roommate Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a superhero expert. As he struggles with accepting this new home, Billy is unexpectedly united with a mysterious wizard (Dijmon Hounsou) who transforms him into a superhero (Zachary Levi). The rules and backstory here are perfectly simple; we understand how the powers work fairly early on, and the film both establishes why Billy was chosen to get this power and what he must do to earn that responsibility.
What’s great about Shazam! is that it does so much with its concept; being a superhero is the ultimate wish fulfillment for any kid (especially a foster kid), and the film mines some great comedy over what Billy does with his newfound powers and discovers what he can do. It’s great fun learning how Billy becomes a superhero; he already has the powers, but seeing him grow into this role perfectly mirrors how Billy grows into his new family. The core message behind both developments are simply, but that’s exactly what the film is going for, and it doesn’t hurt to be corny- it’s impressive that the film is so self aware without being smug.
Levi is clearly having a blast, and while there’s a lot of just inherent goofiness to the premise, its never a cartoon. Each joke has a clear set up and payoff, and the script does a great job at tying all of the humor into natural places in the story, and not just bouncing random jokes off the walls. Angel and Grazer are also really phenomenal here; while the entire foster family is the heart of the movie, it’s the relationship between Billy and Freddy that draws out some of the best moments.
The film is keen to construct a villain who is a clear opposite to Billy; he shares many of his qualities, but makes different decisions. Mark Strong revels in the goofiness of the role, but there are moments when it feels a little too silly, even for what the film is going for. I appreciate the film’s more scary and darker elements (which feel reminiscent of many ’80s kid films, like The Goonies or Gremlins), but a lot of the action leaves something to be desired; the best action in the film occurs when there are character stakes, including a really fun third act and a great scene early on with Billy saving people for the first time.
Shazam! is a truly wonderful film that hearkens back to a different conception of what superhero movies should be, and while it pays tribute to what came before it both within and outside the superhero genre, it’s not full of obvious references and is able to become its own thing. It’s a nice, silly adventure that has real emotional stakes, yet doesn’t ever take itself too seriously, playing a nice sincere hand encoded in a great deal of humor. Grade: B+