Shazam! goes Big in a lighter and free-spirited adventure that still can’t quite escape the shadow of DC’s muddled storytelling. Despite its flaws, it stands as DC’s best film to date and firmly breaks ground into a better, brighter formula for the comic giant.
A common criticism of the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) is its just all a bit too ‘dark’. Though this criticism isn’t unfair, its been tagged to almost every release thus far in the franchise. In an overt and opposite reaction to Marvel’s humorous overtones, DC have fashioned their films in a seedier, hard-edged world and deposited grit over them in abundance, thematically and visually. From Man of Steel to Justice League they are, in all essence: ‘dark’. But the model, one can argue, wasn’t performing as well critically amongst the press and its fans and not long after Justice League, a tonal shift in the direction of DC’s output was addressed. Aquaman was so far removed from this older aesthetic with its tongue-in-cheek dude bro antics, it was a clear statement of intent that a new path had been laid out for future films to follow. Shazam! is all the better for doing just this and it was so effective that for the first ten minutes of the film I forgot I was watching a DC film (Even though the glaring intro credits reminded me moments before the prologue).
After a well-paced intro which sets the groundwork for the film’s villain, we are introduced to Billy Batsen (Angel Asher) a young orphan who bounces around the system, constantly running away from potential foster homes in search of his mother. After another failed attempt which ends with him apprehended by the police and seeing no hope that he’ll ever reunite with his mother, Billy reluctantly moves into the Vasquez’s foster home when they offer him a chance. He becomes part of a family with 5 other siblings who welcome him openly and quickly start calling him brother, but he can’t bring himself to integrate into their lives just yet. Though when superhero enthusiast Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) starts getting beaten up by bullies at school, Billy stands up to them and leads them on a chase to the subway where he is then transported to the last surviving member of the Council of Wizards (Djimon Hounsou). It’s here that the Wizard bestows upon Billy his superhero alter ego Shazam (Zachary Levi) and its also where the film begins to get really, really fun.
In an amusing series of gags and bumbling comedy errors, Shazam sneaks back to his foster home and confides to Freddy and a surprised Darla (Faithe Herman) about his identity. From there, the film takes on a Big style approach as Freddy and Billy/Shazam test out the limits of these new superpowers. Super strength and speed? Check. Lightning bolts? Check. Invisibility? Not on the list. The buddy friendship is hugely endearing and is the most successful core of the film but it also highlights the difference in how they both see the uses of Shazam’s power. Billy seems content to just use them for minor goodwill gestures and busking on the streets, whilst Freddy sees a waste of potential and greed.