In a lot of ways, 2019 was the culmination an entire decade in which superheroes dominated the popular culture. Obviously, you have the unprecedented success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with three big hits with Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home and of course Avengers: Endgame as well as the release of the DC Comics standalone film Joker taking the world by storm. But when I look back at 2019 in regards to the superhero genre, there’s one character that resonated with me the most thanks to what he represents, and that is Zachary Levi’s Shazam, the original Captain Marvel.
With all due respect to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow’s heroic sacrifices in Avengers: Endgame, there is something about Zachary Levi’s Shazam and Asher Angel’s Billy Batson that reinvigorates my love for superheroes on the big screen like no other character in 2019. Much of that is thanks to David F. Sandberg’s remarkable job directing this hilarious and heartfelt coming-of-age superhero film but also thanks to the brilliant performances of both Zachary Levi and Asher Angel.
For one, Shazam! plays into the primal desire that every one of us have felt when we were kids, or honestly, something we still feel to this day: having superpowers. The film obviously plays up that desire just from the premise alone: 14-year-old foster kid Billy Batson unwittingly encounters an ancient wizard that chooses him as champion. In this fateful meeting, Billy immediately transforms into an adult superhero by just saying the magic word, “Shazam,” which is an acronym representing Solomon’s wisdom, Hercules’ strength, Atlas’ stamina, Zeus’ power, Achilles’ courage and Mercury’s speed. We then delight at Zachary Levi’s portrayal as the 14-year-old Billy inside an adult superhero’s body along with his pitch-perfect chemistry with his foster brother Freddy Freeman, portrayed by a scene-stealing Jack Dylan Grazer.
There is something truly joyous about seeing Zachary Levi’s Shazam testing out his superpowers with Jack Dylan Grazer’s Freddy. With every new superpower discovered, the audience relishes with excitement along with the characters themselves. In particular, the “Don’t Stop Me Now” montage where the duo ditch school to test out the superpowers plays into every kid’s fantasy.
It is through Zachary Levi, Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer’s performances that Shazam! immediately wins over the hearts of audiences thanks to the film’s wit and spectacle that manages to keep up with its intimate approach to the superhero genre. Despite taking place in the DC Extended Universe with numerous references to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League, Shazam’s refreshingly smaller scale harkens back to two films by Richard Donner: Superman: The Movie and The Goonies.
The comparison to Superman: The Movie is a given, especially due to the fact that the film often pays reverence to the 1978 film in its approach to portraying inspiring superheroes that evoke a childlike optimism amidst the perils of the real world. But it is its Goonies-esque dynamic within the rest of Billy’s foster family that bring home the themes of heroism and belonging. The adventure that the foster family embark on together in the film’s third act evokes a child’s desire to go on an adventure with their best friends on earth.
And if you thought that was delightful in and of itself, the moment in which the rest of Billy’s foster family transform into superheroes themselves is a moment that rivals the moment in which Thor, Groot and Rocket appear in Wakanda during Avengers: Infinity War.
Yes, Zachary Levi’s performance as Shazam checks all the right boxes in delighting viewers thanks to his pitch-perfect comedic timing, but the character would not resonate as greatly as he does without Asher Angel’s Billy. In particular, the scene in which Billy confronts his long-lost mother after all these years is crushing for anyone to deal with, especially for someone his age. As viewers instantly empathize with Billy as he realizes his mother’s abandonment, they are instantly attached to the rest of his journey as he realizes that he found his true family after all. So when Billy runs off the top of the apartment complex and mightily yells, “Shazam!” we are flying along with him in his determination to embrace his destiny.
Whether it is his irresistible sense of humor, his heartwarming and optimistic spirit or his desire to find where he truly belongs, Zachary Levi and Asher Angel hold the mantle as both Shazam and Billy Batson respectively as the best superhero of 2019. Kudos to them and David F. Sandberg for living up to the original Captain Marvel’s name, and here’s to the sequel, which can’t come soon enough.