By Drew Kiess
It seems like a lifetime ago that we fans were speculating that Dwayne Johnson was hinting at the possibility of a DC Universe movie featuring Shazam. Of course, when the movie was initially announced five years ago, Dwayne Johnson was announced as Black Adam. Things have changed, and while many (including me on some, but not all, fronts) will bemoan that change at Warner Bros. and DC Films, we now have our first winning streak as fans of this world on screen.
Aquaman was a moderate critical success and a major box office force. Following in the footsteps of James Wan, David Sandberg brought a truckload of magic into the DC universe with Shazam. Written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke, Shazam brings back the Amblin spirit and tells the tale of an orphaned Billy Batson and his search for family…and there just so happens to be an ancient wizard looking to hand out superpowers to someone pure of heart.
Zachary Levi and Asher Angel together create a likeable Billy Batson. The movie works because these two actors convey an undying hopefulness and despite perhaps him behaving badly at times, we empathize with his journey. Jack Dylan Grazer as his foster-brother Freddy brings a nerdy perspective to the cast, and he is very much the audience’s viewfinder into the superhero world at-large. Mark Strong as the villainous Sivana adds a level of gravity to the proceedings and provides a poignant foe for our hero. The rest of the cast fills in beautifully, and I cannot find a weak point.
Where Shazam! soars where other superhero movies have fallen short for me is the use of humor. Most of the jokes land well and feel character appropriate. The film balances comedy and the understanding that the situations are, in fact, serious, very well. The humor is the kind of humor a fourteen-year-old would use in similar situations that Billy finds himself in, while Sivana is allowed to carry the weight of the darker elements of the story.
And the story does have darker elements. Sivana channels the Seven Deadly Sins in his search for power. Sandberg taps into his horror roots and creates a threat that has vibes of Gremlins-style horror, all balanced by Big-style heart. Levi’s childlike glee contrasts nicely with Strong’s childish envy.
Shazam! is the film that will win over many stragglers onto the DC Films bandwagon. It is a true crowd-pleaser and offers something for the whole family. My only concern heading out of this movie is the DC slate moving forward. Yes, Wonder Woman 84 hits theaters next summer, but between now and then, Joker and Birds of Prey, both of which are expected to be rater R, are on the horizon. Will this darker turn turn-off the fans hopping on board with the Aquaman-Shazam! vibe? Time will tell. But for now, get ready to enjoy one of the most joy-filled superhero movies we may ever see.
Final rating: A