Technically, you’re not supposed to make any noise in a theater, but if you yell “SHAZAM!” while seeing Shazam! because you’re having a good time, I’ll let it slide once.
Yes, there are a few heavy moments that deal with abandonment and the value of family, but the film is also packed with hilarious bits that make this one of DC’s lightest and most entertaining movies yet.
Director David F. Sandberg is primarily associated with horror films like Annabelle: Creation and Lights Out, but he does a great job bringing this lighter, almost parodic material to the big screen. Parts of the film come across as cheesy, but Shazam! frames a lot of its campy, more stereotypical moments as jokes about the larger superhero genre. Screenwriter Henry Gayden, best known for the found footage sci-fi film Earth to Echo, clearly loves this character because his appreciation for Billy Batson and the entire supporting cast of characters beams through in every scene. Future superhero screenwriters should take note because Gayden packs in a lot of material and even sets up teases for future installments in a really succinct, efficient way that never pulls the movie off-course of the primary story it wants to tell.
Shazam! may have two main characters in Billy Batson and Freddy Freeman, but it’s supported by three leading actors. Asher Angel plays Billy, a convincing street-kid who likes to pretend he only cares about himself but actually has a big heart. He’s the perfect contrast to Jack Dylan Grazer’s zany, superhero obsessed and often self-deprecating take on Freddy. At the heart of this movie though is Zachary Levi as the physical manifestation of Shazam’s champion. Levi has the charm and swagger to play a young boy’s idea of a cocky superhero, but he also has the vulnerability to portray someone who’s finally trying to do something good for others and progress with his own life.
Dr. Thaddeus Sivana is an understandable villain with an interesting, empathetic origin story, but it really does seem like Mark Strong phones in his performance. Sivana’s journey to prove himself worthy of greatness is compelling in theory, but Shazam! doesn’t give enough time to exploring his inner demons and motivation beyond his youth. Instead, Sivana comes across as a relatively simple man whose grand ambitions are merely manipulated by forces more powerful than himself.
The main thing that holds the film back is the relatively basic plot. Yeah, Billy’s transformation from a loner into a bonafide family man makes for a solid emotional core to the movie, but the rest of the story can be predicted beat by beat. Everything about the history of magic in the DC Universe is fascinating, but the movie could have benefited from giving the Seven Deadly Sins more time to corrupt the people of Earth instead of framing them as simply magical baddies who want to destroy the world. The plot is an important and easy thing to critique, but really it’s the characters and their interactions with the world that makes Shazam! so enjoyable.
Shazam! ditches a lot of the grays and cliched settings of other DC movies in favor of a more colorful, varied visual tapestry. Instead of directing fights in dark alleys or on military bases, Sandberg opts for well-lit battle sequences in interesting locations like a mall or Christmas fair that gives the movie an ’80s action vibe at times. Not only do these choices give Shazam! some visual distinction, but moving through the set pieces imbues the fight scenes with a sense of progress since characters can interact with new props and the battles change and intensify as everyone progresses through each new setting.
The visual effects throughout Shazam! are somewhat hit-or-miss. The hero’s movements look really fluid as he flies around or runs at hyperspeed, but the visual representations of the Seven Deadly Sins are a little weak. Thanks to some cool framing by cinematographer Maxime Alexandre there are moments where the Sins certainly look menacing in a group, but whenever the audience gets a close peek at one of the monsters it’s a little underwhelming. There’s one scene in particular with a bus that includes a convincing combination of practical and computer-generated effects reminiscent of the train sequence from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, but even that has a few hiccups. Like I said before though, the parts of the movie I enjoyed the most were more so when Billy interacts with random people as he discovers his powers, and the VFX there, especially Shazam’s classic “lightning from the hands” trick, are pretty good.
It doesn’t feature any major crossovers, but Shazam! is very much planted inside the DC Extended Universe. Like Wonder Woman and Aquaman, part of what makes this film so enjoyable is the fact that the protagonist truly stands-out on his own. Shazam doesn’t need another hero to pop up and make the film more appealing to general audiences. Sure, seeing Shazam and Ezra Miller’s Flash interact in the future could be entertaining, but part of me wants to see Zachary Levi’s superhero lovingly separated from the pack because the movie does a good job poking fun at all the other DC characters in an eccentric and pleasant way.
There are a few nit-pick worthy things that anyone searching for too much reality in their comic book movies can fixate on, but Shazam! is delightful and charming from start to finish. The constant influx of superhero movies has left me, a lifelong comic book reader, a little jaded to the burgeoning genre, but I’m genuinely excited to see what happens next for Shazam and the rest of these characters.
Final Score: 8/10