Superhero movies are so commonplace these days that it’s near impossible for them to get by without some sort of gimmick. Marvel Studios hit the nail on the head early on by giving neat, original nips and tucks to other film genres like heist movies, WW II epics and cold war thrillers. DC, on the other hand, have usually stood their ground with simple, comic book style superheroics, confident that their characters’ reputations are enough of a draw for audiences.
Shazam! needs an additional selling point though. A relatively obscure character outside the fandom, this Superman-esque character is hardly a guaranteed heavy-hitter compared to other DC Comic giants like Supes, Batman or Wonder Woman. The fact his name is actually Captain Marvel and not Shazam, a moniker now-unusable thanks to legal manoeuvring on Marvel Comic’s part, doesn’t help raise the character’s profile either.
Luckily, this longstanding character comes complete with a unique conceit that is a gift to any screenwriter or filmmaker. 14-year-old teenage tearaway Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has the powers of the wizard Shazam bestowed upon him, allowing him to transform into a grown-up superhero whenever he utters the magic word ‘Shazam!‘. It’s this integral element that the filmmakers utilise, and what ultimately makes the film so enjoyable.
The idea of an immature kid becoming a super-powered adult is ripe with comic potential, which is mined for all it is worth here. Zachary Levi as the grown-up version of Billy is dynamite throughout, delivering a masterful and convincing turn as Shazam, one that is incredibly funny yet also fully-fleshed out and relatable when it counts. The script has plenty of fun with sending up the genre’s more cliched aspects, yet steers clear of venturing into full parody by way of genuine human drama and pathos, something which the cast relish throughout.
These comedic elements are especially well executed, never distracting from the drama or action, but complementing it instead. Unlike previous DC movies where the humour felt a tad forced in places, here it serves as an organic part of the story, never jarring or uncomfortably out of place. The original comics featuring Shazam veered dangerously into the realms of twee, but this adaptation trades that in for genuine warmth and laugh-out loud comedy set pieces.
Director David F. Sandberg makes the leap from horror pictures to the big blockbuster sandpit with ease, delivering a fun and breezy flick that is big on both laughs and action. There are elements of horror contained within that he clearly relishes, but for the most part, the focus is purely on the comedy, the cataclysmic action and the characters.
If there’s one element that does let the film down somewhat, it’s that it feels a tad overstuffed – like Green Lantern (2011) and Aquaman (2018), the film tries to pack in too much of the larger comics mythology all at once. They may all be good ideas in their own right, but the end result is a film in desperate need of stream-lining. Plenty of characters and moments introduced here could have waited until the inevitable sequel, but alas, at the rate the DCEU is going, it’s no surprise that the producers want to throw everything and the kitchen sink in at once.
This issue aside, Shazam! has its heart firmly in the right place. The visuals are superb (especially on the BFI’s IMAX screen), the characters well-rounded and vibrant, the tone bright and colourful with an emphasis on fun throughout. A far cry from previous entries in DC’s Extended Universe, Shazam! marks both a genuine step in the right direction for the franchise and a solid superhero caper in its own right.