(This review will be SPOILER-FREE for the first portion; I’ll warn ya before I start talking about who dies)
In Shazam!, young Billy Batson receives the same powers that Tom Hanks gets in Big, and ushers in one of the more fun entries into Warner Brothers’ dark and mostly serious DCEU (Detective Comics Expanded Universe). Well maybe not exactly the same; Tom Hanks couldn’t fly, shoot lightning, or return back to his boyhood self after uttering the name SHAZAM! (At least not in the version of Big that I saw).
Back in 2013, Warner Brothers’ sought to replicate what Disney had done with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with its own freshman entry, Zack Snyder’s, Man of Steel. Steel was met with middling to not so great reviews, setting the unfortunate norm for many entries into the DCEU cinematic universe. Some stand-out entries have shown signs of a ship slowly being steered towards a better course: 2017’s Wonder Woman, featuring a plot that makes sense, a powerful performance from Gal Gadot, and a mediocre final villain showdown (can’t win ‘em all). Then there’s 2018’s Aquaman, featuring a plot that makes sense enough, but regardless is a VERY entertaining spectacle. So now onto 2019’s Shazam!, which is (in my opinion) the strongest film in DC’s cinematic universe thus far.
Shazam! brings the fun. Zachary Levi’s performance as an adult who is (literally) a child at heart is a joy to watch. He carries this film on his red and white caped shoulders. His chemistry with his foster brother and plucky young sidekick, Freddy Freeman, played by Jack Dylan Grazer, is great and sells this bizarre superhero origin story. That’s what the plot of this movie is at the end of the day, an origin story, although it doesn’t feel too bogged down by that fact. Batman and Superman are mentioned often in this film; we see action figures, apparel, and “real world” memorabilia from the Caped Crusader’s escapades. This helps sell the casual nature of the film. Billy/Shazam isn’t the first of his kind. He has other examples in the world to emulate and with Freddy as his superhero aficionado, the otherwise mundane origin tropes become self-aware and fun to watch.
It was nice to laugh during a DC adventure. The moment-to-moment gags are great. Asher Angel’s performance as the young, non-superpowered Billy Batson has a lot of heart; he does a good job playing the troubled foster kid with a good head on his shoulders. On the surface, the movie is a fun journey, filled with some great jokes and solid action throughout, but not all of the elements of this film gel together perfectly. The MCU took many years to solve its ‘bad guy problem’ and unfortunately, the DCEU hasn’t quite cracked the code on creating great bad guys. Mark Strong as Dr. Sivana, brings forth the best performance that he can with what he’s working with. Overall, the villain falls flat, but that being said, there are faint echoes of redeeming thematic qualities baked into this antagonist that I just wish were explored a bit more thoroughly.
I’m saving the bulk of my critiques for the spoiler section of this review, but at the end of the day, I recommend this movie for the general superhero flick lover. It’s a fun romp with a lot of heart and a lot of laughs. The film delivers on what it’s trying to do and doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard to be connected to its adjacent DC film buddies. An audience member can come into this flick without needing to watch any of the previous films in the DC universe. As an introduction to the big man with a young heart, I’m ready to see what else this hero can do.
(WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SHAZAM! FOLLOW)
While I left Shazam! having enjoyed most of my time with it, later on I did start to accumulate some issues (mostly surrounding our big bad, Dr. Sivana). The film opens with a young Dr. Sivana on a car ride with his garbage brother and father, where he is playing with a magic eight ball. The young doctor is summoned to the cave where the Wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) resides. The Wizard spends his life looking to pass on the powers of the champion: summoning those he deems pure of heart and testing them to see if they are worthy. This test includes making the summoned one resist the temptations of an orb containing the spirits of the seven deadly sins (generic looking gargoyle monsters who are mostly lame and frozen in stone). Dr. Sivana fails the test and returns to reality throwing a temper tantrum, during which his dad dramatically crashes the family Buick and loses the use of his legs. This opening sequence sets up our villain fairly well, but more importantly, it sets up the rules of Shazam! in a solid, coherent fashion.
My gripes with the film concern Dr. Sivana’s search for the cave and Wizard, along with his motivations for doing so. We later learn that Dr. Sivana screens patients experiencing hysteria, (as a part of an experiment that I think is run by actual mental health physicians) so that he can eventually find someone who can give him the right order of magic symbols, with the hope that he can return to the Wizard’s cave and then take the power of the seven deadly sins. This makes almost NO SENSE. Step by step, sure, that’s one way to find a magic cave, but it’s such a strange way, (even in the world of superheroes) to achieve this task. Once Sivana gets this power, he goes on to murder his papa and his brother, because they didn’t initially believe that he went to the Wizard’s cave growing up. Which, to be fair, I wouldn’t believe four eyes either. Am I missing anything? (If I am, don’t be afraid to let me know). Once he gains this power what does he want to do? Get the power of the champion, also known as Shazam, but if he were to get that then what? World domination? To put an end to a world where papas and brothers don’t believe their sons or siblings?
Despite my logical conclusion that the film’s villain is not all that logical, I really enjoyed what Dr. Sivana represented to Billy, and how these two characters compare and contrast in the movie. Both Billy and Dr. Sivana reject the idea of family in the film, but in different ways. Dr. Sivana grew up resenting his family, and once he is endowed with powers, he uses them to kill them. Billy rejects his new foster family because he knows that his “real” family is still out there, so he doesn’t need what he deems a “fake” family. Both characters are given power, Billy, (now Shazam) treats it with childlike wonder. When he is Shazam, he smiles, he is happy, he is free to be (ironically) a kid having fun while he’s in this powerful adult form. Dr. Sivana on the other hand, is given the power of the seven deadly sins (fitting for a bad guy, no?). Perhaps it’s a narcissistic way to look at growing up and growing old: that we all eventually carry these sins at some point in our adult lives. Dr. Sivana’s power of the seven sins represents the dark side of adulthood, while Billy/Shazam represents the hope and wonder of childhood. We have an exciting battle of philosophy in the film. I wish the film hugged a little tighter to some of the bigger thematic questions it raises, because for me, it’s those questions that kept me invested in the film; although, we ended up with a third act that slogs and doesn’t culminate in much.
Like I said, Dr. Sivana is my biggest gripe with the film; his weak motivations, along with the poor design of the seven deadly sins (they are just gray matter gargoyles) did not impress me. Because of this, I didn’t find the film’s ultimate conclusion all that satisfying. It was just a fantasy free-for-all brawl, with Shazam battling more uninteresting monsters that did not do much for me. By that point in the movie I felt the fun had run dry, and I just wanted the flick to wrap up.
Negativity aside, I really enjoyed so much of this movie, once Zachery Levi hits the scene, the film explodes at the seams with fun. I could watch hours of Shazam and Freddy figuring out our new hero’s superpowers, and watch some goofy superhero fun. Also, let’s talk about the final shot before the film’s credits: Headless Superman. While in the moment, the shock value of “OH MAN it's Superman!” is great! But once I started to mull it over, it just doesn’t really match the overall tone of the film. This film isn’t grounded in reality, but given the rules of the film, I don’t think Shazam would be able to pull Superman away from Metropolis to come get lunch in Philly. I don’t mean to suck all of the fun out of the scene, (because it is fun) but it makes for an even more unsatisfying conclusion to the movie. But hey, that one might just be me.
My final thoughts on Shazam! are that it’s very much a step in the right direction for the DCEU. It’s a movie that is fun and not too concerned with trying to connect itself to all of the other movies in the DC franchise. Instead Shazam! just gets to marinate in this world, absorbing all of those DC-heros’ juices (ew?). I think it’s safe to say we’re getting a Shazam! 2, and with it, I just hope we get a more motivated villain, more fun, and a ton more Shazam!
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Robert has a degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting and works in multiple genres. He's just your typical man-child who enjoys most things nerd culture. You can follow him on Twitter @RoBaeBae