Shazam! drops the DCEU’s grimdark persona completely, picking up a more retro, free-styled screenplay, reminiscent of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Billy Batson, an orphan boy in Philadelphia, finds himself chosen by an ancient wizard to become imbued with a godlike powers to protect the world. These powers however, have the side effect of giving him the appearance of an adult.
Is it a coincidence that DC Comics and Warner Brothers released Shazam! mere weeks after Marvel and Disney released Captain Marvel? You can ask this because of the often forgotten history between the characters: the name “Captain Marvel” was originally part of the DC Comic franchise, but due to trademark conflicts with Marvel Comics, they rebranded the character Shazam. It is also worth noting that this character, as Captain Marvel, was the first superhero character to receive a theatrical released, all the way back in 1941.
So is it a coincidence? Hard to say. But hopefully there is no unnecessary comparisons of the two films, as they differ quite significantly.
DC Comic movies are in a state of flux, with showrunners changing regularly. At first, we had Zack Snyder infamously paving the way, from Man of Steel to Wonder Woman. Then we had some actual DC Comics aficionados working on the franchise, for just Aqua Man and this film, Shazam! with the reins being taken over again for this year’s Joker, and beyond. So tonally the DC “extended universe” doesn’t have any integrity, at least by comparison with Marvel Studios who live and die with their consistency.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Snyder era tried to compete with Marvel and failed, and perhaps trying new things and being less reliant on a overarching narrative is a way forward.
Ditching the dark and brooding tone of Snyder’s films completely, Shazam! feels like a return to the lighter, broader strokes of comic book movie making. There’s no insistence on cameos, no demanding multi-verse logic. There aren’t twenty good guys and thirty bad guys, there isn’t a purple CGI man with an army of cloned CG thugs, there isn’t even grim, social-political undercurrents that have drowned the genre since Nolan’s Dark Knight. Shazam! is a surprisingly pulpy, easily consumable, retro-styled experience.
The film follows a young orphan boy living in Philadelphia, Billy (played by Asher Angel) as he gains superhero powers (and adult proportions, played by Zachary Levi) after experiencing a vision from an ancient wizard. At the same time, a supervillain emerges through similar means, Dr. Sivana (played by the ever capable Mark Strong).
The film is heavily weighted towards comedy, with our mid-teens hero transforming instantly into an adult and back at will, the obvious jokes are played out early: he buys alcohol, he tries to get into a strip club, etc. We have a host of characters for him to interact with, several other kids at the orphanage (including the biggest Asian stereotype) who all get their own comedy moments, along with the typical High School setting, complete with two bullies who tower over our cast comically. But along with this lighter note, there are some surprisingly dark moments. With Mark Strong playing the straight man, a villainous sorcerer with the power of the Seven Deadly Sins, comes some pretty creepy visuals. The Seven Sins are monstrous entities, depicted with impressive CG animation and texturing, who can liberally eat people, and there’s a lot of threat towards our child heroes. There’s even bad language within the first ten minutes!
It is more grounded and relatable than any of the other DC Comic movies. One of the best things Shazam! does is something a lot of comic book movies fail to do now; to make emotional and ethical connections between the hero and the villain. The film’s principle theme is “family”, and what people can interpret or misinterpret what family means to them. This is possibly the best thing the film achieves, and it does resonance.
It isn’t a perfect movie, enjoyable and entertaining, but not perfect. Some of the jokes don’t exactly land, and more importantly, there’s a degree of separation between Zachary Levi and Asher Angel. There’s a certain quality that doesn’t quite gel with them; it feels like watching two different actors, not the same character, at points. The mid-point of the film is also perhaps the weakest, when Billy has a falling out with his new friend Freddy. The emotional strife felt exaggerated with what caused it, there could have been a greater betrayal shown from Billy besides goofing off with his powers. This could have synergised with Dr. Sivana’s Deadly Sins in the third act quite masterfully.
Also, kids of 10-12 years old should be a lot more scared of demon monsters from another realm. Just saying.
Overall, Shazam! is a lot of fun, and while it may or may not usher a new era for DC Comic movies, it could well be remembered as a bright spot (literal and figurative) in their current fiasco.