Director: David F. Sandberg
Writer: Henry Gayden
Cast: Asher Angel, Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 | Minutes: 132
Release Date: April 5, 2019
The DCEU isn’t the dark and brooding cinematic superhero universe that you first knew when it was launched way back in 2013. Since then it has gone through a series of improvements that have helped build it to become a much better superhero cinematic universe. And now director David F. Sandberg‘s Shazam! starring Asher Angel and Zachary Levi as Billy Batson and the title character, will continue the momentum that was first started by Wonder Woman and then continued with Aquaman.
See, Wonder Woman has this incredible message about female empowerment, while Aquaman surges by centering on a person accepting the life of coming from two different worlds. Each of these films had their own distinct voice while also being superhero films. As for Shazam!, audiences will see a coming of age superhero film that is not only a great origins story but speaks about the importance of foster families. My full review below.
Shazam! centers on Billy Batson (Angel), a Philadelphia orphan who is looking for his mother. Constantly running away from the foster families that he has been given, Billy finds himself in a new loving home where his new foster parents (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) introduce him to his foster siblings. There’s the tech-savvy adolescent Eugine (Ian Chen), the energetic and talkative Darla (Faithe Herman), the shy but strong Pedro (Jovan Armand), the den mother Mary (Grace Fulton), and the superhero fanatic Freddie (Jack Dylan Grazer). Though they all may look different and come from different backgrounds, this foster family is very much the picture-perfect version of what a happy and loving family should look like.
While Billy may not be heroic, he does something that is considered to be “pure of heart,” which catches the attention of an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who believes that Billy can be his champion. So he bestows these powers on Billy, who when calling out the name “Shazam” shall become the titular hero (Levi) who has the wisdom of Solomon, the superhuman strength of Hercules, the superhuman stamina of Atlas, the thundering powers of Zeus, the increased courage of Achilles, and the superhuman speed of Mercury.
The ancient wizard has long searched for a champion that could protect the earth from the seven deadly sins, which are currently trapped in stone. This exhaustive search has gone on for years, with one of his potential champions Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) returning to the ancient wizard’s lair to reclaim the power that he was denied. However, in order to fully harness it, he must claim Shazam’s powers for his own, at any cost.
It’s pretty clear that Shazam! is going to be a very different kind of superhero film from its predecessors as it has no problem with playing with the idea that it is a superhero version of Big. In its silliness, we see the latest DCEU film embrace all the warmth and childhood innocence of a kid-friendly film. And at the same time, it still can address very poignant themes about the importance of foster families and that yearning to feel like you belong.
Billy has been desperately trying to find his real mother for so long that he forgot what it was liked to be loved. The film quickly established that he’s been given so many chances to have a home. But the rebellious teen will stop at nothing to find her. Even if that means running away again. His happiness will come from achieving that one goal.
This provides a nice foil to Thaddeus’s journey. As a child, Thaddeus had a family but an awful upbringing. Bullied by his older brother, demeaned by his father, and told he wasn’t worthy of the ancient wizard’s power, Thaddeus took a different path towards achieving power. And while Strong is having so much fun playing the villain, it doesn’t necessarily make the character a great one. Thaddeus is rote and one-dimensional, lacking any sort of depth that would make him a memorable.
Still, the film is very much geared towards kids or those who are still kids at heart. It plays around with this idea of doing what every kid dreams of, which is being a superhero. And it teases that very early on as Freddie asks Billy which superpower he would have and which one is the correct answer. It becomes even more silly when Billy gets his powers, and he and Freddie test the limits of those powers through trial and error and various crime-stopping. And the two use this experience to bond as brothers. Something of which Billy never had.
Though humorous, it does run a bit long as the film devotes a lot of time to Billy wildly misusing the powers to do things they could never do as kids, for a few laughs, increasing his popularity on social media, or monetary gain. Furthermore, it’s as though Billy doesn’t learn about the consequences of using his powers recklessly. Even when Freddie lectures him, Billy doesn’t quite understand the concept of using his powers responsibly.
That being said, Shazam! is still very much a tender and warm film that has plenty of humor and heart. It’s certainly a huge turn for Sandberg, who is best known for his horror films Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation. And it still has some of those horror fingerprints on it, which may be a bit too intense for some of the younger members of the audience. The manifestations of the seven deadly sins are horrifying and almost as if they came straight out of a child’s nightmares. Even some of the minor characters’ deaths are a bit extreme as one character painfully disintegrates, while another is thrown out of a skyscraper window.
It’s not entirely scary, though, as it returns its focus on the core themes about family and Billy’s desire to find the family that he could never have. He’s emotionally distant and doesn’t want to connect to anyone because he believes his stay is only temporary. However, his family isn’t going to give up on him and will show how much they care in hopes that he will be a part of their family.
Shazam! reminds us that a superhero film can be fun and poignant at once. Levi is terrific as the large and muscular man-child who has no idea what it is to be a superpowered adult. Asher and Dylan Grazer provide nice back and forth that helps give the film huge laughs. Though it has the generic and obligatory action sequences and superhero moments, a lot of the heartfelt themes allow it to be so much more than a superhero film.