For most people, the DC cinematic universe got started on the wrong foot. The first two Zack Snyder directed films are controversial to say the least and set a tone that is certainly not to everyone’s taste. But people seem to be unable to let go of his two and half movies and see what DC has been offering for the last couple of years. Wonder Woman was one of the best just straightforward superhero movies of the last decade. Aquaman was a bonkers spectacle that is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Shazam continues DC’s trend of making individual movies that play the strengths of the characters, with the unifying feature the sincerity with which they approach things. Shazam is a pure delight.
Shazam manages to find a new niche in the super hero movie genre. It feels like a throwback, like the 80’s Amblin version of a superhero movie. What came to my mind while watching it was Gremlins. Gremlins is a weirdo family horror movie. This movie is combines a sincere, even touching drama about foster kids with strange magic secrets and some moments of terrifying horror. It is a unique mix, but one that absolutely works.
Shazam starts with the young Thaddeus Sivana, bullied by his father and older brother, being magically transported to the realm of the wizard Shazam. Shazam is old and his power is fading. He is tested to see if he is worthy of the wizard’s power, but succumbs to the temptations of the seven deadly sins, who are monstrous spirits trapped in statues. Shazam returns Sivana to his horrible family; Sivana then spends the next thirty or so years trying to get back there to get the power he feels he was wrongly denied. Eventually he does, and the wizard is too weak to stop him from freeing the sins. The story then shifts to Billy Batson, a troublesome foster kid who is searching for his birth parents. Knocked around by the system, he doesn’t trust anybody and constantly finds himself in trouble. At the start of the movie, he is assigned to a group home as sort of his last chance. After sticking up for one of his foster siblings, he is transported to the wizard. The wizard is unsure of Billy’s worthiness, but he is out of options and grants Billy the power to turn into the superhero Shazam. The distrustful Billy must learn how to be a hero before Sivana finds him and wrests the power away.
Shazam feels like something from the 80’s because it is ostensibly a kids movie, but it still features some horrific stuff that is sure to scare kids. The scenes of Billy and Freddie testing Billy’s new powers are delightful and sure to please children. But mixed in with those are some scenes of the villains committing terrible crimes or one particularly graphic death. They are these weird atonal elements that mostly get ironed out of kids movies these days. There is also the a few genuinely heartbreaking scenes with Billy attempting to track down his mom. It is this idiosyncratic mix of tones that makes the movie feel fully fleshed out. It also doesn’t feel like an accident, the movie wants to vary the tone. And the mix just works.
It helps that it has some genuinely charming performances. The combination of Zachary Levi and Asher Angel as Billy Batson/Shazam is perfect. They manage to echo each other, making it easy to believe that they are the same person just with different outside appearances. Jack Dylan Grazer has a perfect mischievous air about him as Freddie Freeman. The two of them carry the movie, really feeling like a pair of teenagers that stumbled upon superpowers and are pushing the boundaries and seeing what they can do and get away with. Shazam perfectly juggles teenage irony with a touching, childlike naivety with these two damaged kids figuring things out as best they can.
The movie does spend a little too long on the final confrontation. It is a scene that seems to go on too long, and that time feels like it could have been better spent fleshing out Billy’s interior journey just a little more. Still, that is a small complaint in a movie that is otherwise a delight.
Shazam treats the genuinely strange magical backstory of the mythos with admirable sincerity. Shazam is a concept from the 40’s and it feels like it. Most often backstories like this get sanded down in the adaptation process, Shazam leans into it, to great effect. It is just a genuinely charming movie.