With superhero movies coming out in theaters on what can feel like almost a weekly basis, we are now faced with a newcomer to the film world: SHAZAM! A hero nearly as old as Superman and already with a multi-season history on television decades ago, it is strange to realize that the general public really doesn’t know that much about Captain Marvel (no, not that one). With an interesting history in Fawcett Comics and DC Comics that predates most people alive today, Captain Marvel (or rather now officially named SHAZAM!, as I’ll refer to the character from here on out) has a powerset, backstory, and overall mythology that has influenced comics even beyond his own series. Still, all that weird and colorful material has only now been given the opportunity for audiences to really dig into, so how does it fare? Well, let’s just say it is exceedingly better than I could have foreseen.
As far back as SHAZAM! goes, it follows the story of young Billy Batson. This film does the same, with the character played charismatically by the young Asher Angel. Here, he is a teenage foster kid, bouncing from home to home while defiantly seeking connection to a family he hasn’t seen since he was very small. The latest home he finds himself in is host to many foster children, one of whom, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) is close to his age and a self-proclaimed expert on all things superhero. After a strange trip on the subway leads Batson to a mysterious meeting with an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou), he finds himself imbued with ancient magical powers and able to summon this empowered form (manifested to perfection by Zachary Levi) upon saying the wizard’s name, SHAZAM! Learning to deal with these new abilities (in incredibly funny and entertaining ways) attracts the attention of Dr. Sivana (impeccably played by the always masterful Mark Strong), and inevitably, the two are drawn to battle each other.
Does much of that description sound formulaic? Of course it does at this point in the succession of hero flicks we are in now! What is godsend about this film, though, is what it brings to the table, as an individual film, as a Warner Bros./DC film venture, and just as a noteworthy piece of pop-culture entertainment. Marvel has tonally leaned on humor in recent years in an increasing manner, and people eat it up. DC, on the other hand, has arguably struggled in finding their own overall tone (and whether or not there should even be one), and after the much-felt disappointment of Justice League, anyone’s guess is valid for what they might try next. Aquaman, even with its ties to that film, surpassed all expectations placed on it and became a global box-office smash. SHAZAM! exists now as further proof that DC is doing much better in making crowd-pleasing films, as this may be the most crowd-pleasing they have ever attempted. That unique hook of a boy being turned into a superhero is all the film needs as a foundation for comedy and fun, and boy, does this film nail that aspect!
I could tell you (and I will) about the successes of the director in crafting the look and feel of the film, the writers nailing a uniquely fun tone, and the special effects keeping it all engaging, but the success of this film largely hinges on one man: Zachary Levi. As a fan of his for years following Chuck and Tangled, I’ve waited for him to be able to truly break out into the public consciousness, and this is it. It’s no secret that the character of SHAZAM! has a goofy edge, even when portrayed in comics as serious. With that in mind, Levi takes what I knew he could do well and just plays the part to the absolute fullest. I will go so far as to say that I can think of few actors who were a better fit for the hero they played than he is for this, and that’s for all superhero films of all time. Sure, it took a muscle suit to give him bulk, but he transcends all that to completely sell the idea of a muscley man-child. I have absolutely nothing bad I could say about his take on the character, and while I’ve read the character in comics with much more seriousness than we largely get here, I would say this film only works as well as it does because of the light approach taken. Levi‘s rapport with Jack Dylan Grazer is something I could watch for countless films. Couple that with the dual actor work for the character with Asher Angel, and it’s all just greatness.
Mark Strong, never able to continue his pitch-perfect take on Sinestro in the flawed 2011 Green Lantern film, resurfaces for DC as Doctor Sivana, and he nails it as well. Admittedly, I’m not as familiar with SHAZAM! lore as I am other comics, so all I knew was how the character aesthetically influenced Lex Luthor, just as SHAZAM! reshaped Superman in the comics. Still, what I got with this film was a fine performance with a fearful sense of menace that strangely complemented all the fluffy fun, rather than conflicted with it. I was genuinely intrigued with the character and his motivations, and seeing how his villain was tied to the hero made for a much more touching conflict than I could have foreseen. The fact that the film and its plot work at all is crazy enough, but it all works so well because Levi and Strong are so good, on their own and on-screen together.
On top of all that, the remaining cast grounds the emotions of this film in ways that hit me harder than most any superhero film comes close to doing. The topics of foster care and family not only gave the film uniqueness, but it amplified the fun by giving the story a backdrop that is understandable and elicits connection to the stakes of it all. Superhero films surely dazzle us, but few of them attempt to make us cry. This one succeeded in that attempt. Amidst the flurry of fun, there is some hard-hitting drama, and again, this all defies the odds and works throughout. I laughed heartily and I felt deeply the story it was telling. I point to the fun and poignancy that comes out of the script for a large part of the enjoyment, and that is all amplified by the direction of David Sandberg, who paints it all with a mostly cheery palette of bright and shiny hues. Even the villain pop with primary colors amidst their gray exteriors. Throughout, the film evokes the Golden Age of comics and even the musical cues of the adaptations of that day and age, yet it still supplies relevancy to the modern day with pop music and a wink-nod to YouTube and other ways of life. After watching Superman painted in muted hues for several movies, it’s hard to not want a re-do after seeing how well this hero is handled visually.
Content-wise, while much of the fun keeps in step with adolescence, many families may not feel the film is appropriate for their kids. Language abounds, for sure. Not that Richard Donner has any involvement here, but imagine the visual iconography and mythic backstory of his film, Superman, smashed together with the chaotic and sometimes crude camaraderie found in his other film, The Goonies, and you get an idea for what to expect here. I know some who would have liked the film to be more family-friendly, but given the power of Dr. Sivana, I really don’t think that was ever going to happen. There are jokes and plot points that center around a strip club, but don’t expect anything visually suggestive. They leave the bawdy for the jokes if you catch them slipped in. I’m not trying to paint this as a full-on “no-go” for families, but do be aware of what to expect.
Spiritually, the film focuses on the matters of the heart, and in the most surprising thing about it all (which shouldn’t be, as it is reflective of the source material), no other mainstream film I can recall features the concept of sin like this one does. Granted, it handles it through the extra-Biblical concept of the “seven deadly” ones, but still, the film allows watchers a natural starting point for discussion with family and friends about those internal and external things that cause us so much distress in life. Even amidst the discussion, while one can debate the film’s idea of goodness versus the Bible’s account of only one being truly good (that being God), talk could easily lead to Jesus being the true answer to the problem of sin. That’s a lot of great potential to come out of a trip to the movies. We will be publishing a FREE BIBLE STUDY at Geeks Under Grace for the film, so don’t miss out on that when it publishes!
Overall, the film blew through my expectations, and it has brought to the public eye a hero that is long overdue better exposure. Zachary Levi effortlessly steals the spotlight in a crowded landscape of hero films with an instantly iconic performance, and I personally want to see more of what follows. The fun and heart offered by the film make it a film well worth watching. Not that the sentiment matters, but DC has made a film that gives Marvel a run for its money in many ways, and while it may be too campy for some, it wasn’t for me. SHAZAM! knows what it is, and it confidently presents an incredibly entertaining and poignant story; it further proves that there is still much potential to be mined from the hero genre, and here’s hoping that we can get as much mileage out of young Billy Batson while he is young.