Let’s get this out of the way first – Shazam! is the best DC movie since The Dark Knight. Sure, it has the benefit of being able to fly under the radar a bit – it doesn’t have to carry the weight of expectations that Wonder Woman did, and it doesn’t have to handle the over-stuffed story mechanics of Justice League. But to say that is to do Shazam! a disservice – it’s simply a great film in its own right.
The film sees 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) get granted superpowers by a mysterious Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) that turn him into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) whenever he says “Shazam”. He’s aided in his heroic misadventures by foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), while being pursued by villain Dr Sivana (Mark Strong, having a whale of a time), who wants Shazam’s powers.
The film’s story is blissfully simple. Sure, the fate of the world is probably at stake, but the central battle is very personal. The film’s scope is small, allowing director David F Sandberg to really spend time letting us understand Sivana’s motivations and getting to know Billy and his foster family. Every single family member has a distinct personality and the kids give off a fun Goonies vibe whenever they’re on screen together (Faithe Herman as Darla, the youngest of the bunch, is a shameless scene-stealer).
Superhero films are often dismissed as ‘kids’ films’, but this is the first to actually feature kids in the central roles, and they are never talked down to, and are as fleshed out as adult characters would be. Billy’s backstory is unconventionally tragic, and Freddy might be the funny superhero fanboy, but his crutch is always in the foreground, reminding viewers just why this disabled kid is so fascinated by people who can fly. The friendship between Freddy and Billy – in both his child and adult forms – is the movie’s touchstone, and it feels completely authentic. Freddy and Billy might be cynical, but this movie has more heart that you can shake a magic staff at.
Which is why the film’s humour works so well. Marvel movies are stuffed to the seams with knowing jokes, even when the tone of the scene might not call for it. But Shazam! is a family adventure movie, so the gags come as standard, especially in the scenes where Billy and Freddy are trying to figure out his superpowers. Levi is a gifted physical comedian, capturing the essence of a kid suddenly in a much larger body. He plays Billy slightly lighter than Angel does, bringing an endearing goofiness to the character as his cynicism melts away and, for the first time in his life, he decides to start looking out for other people as well as himself.
DC films have a terrible habit of going too CG-heavy in the final act, and although you can expect your fair share of CG-powered fights, Sandberg keeps the emphasis firmly on Billy and his foster siblings caught in the middle of Sivana’s nefarious schemes, and pulls out an air-punch of a final act. Despite all the magic and monsters, the focus always boils down to Levi and Strong face-to-face, fighting it out. We’re with them for the entire journey.
In a sea of dark superhero movies with sky-high stakes, Shazam! is joyous, wish-fulfilment escapism, from the surprising opening scenes to the genius closing credits. Its warm, funny sincerity allows us to completely root for the heroes without keeping us at arm’s length from them. Sod the Black Adam movie – DC need to give us more Shazam as soon as they reasonably can.