By: Steve Pulaski
One thing I'm not sure I've mentioned about the DCEU is that, at this point, I like how singular most of the films have been. Even the weaker ones like Suicide Squad and Man of Steel were, in their own ways, commendably autonomous. I've gotten exhausted by every new Marvel film's desire to tangle its narrative in order to intersect with other installments. This leads to distracting narrative quandaries and convoluted timelines that make trying to map out the entire universe coherently an AP science project. Shazam! isn't *yet* concerned by trying to fit into a larger puzzle. It's very well-paced, pleasant, not incessant, with its comedy, and Zachary Levi plays a great hero, and reminds us that he's been largely ignored by the mainstream for far too long.
Shazam! got its start in a magazine called "Whiz Comics," which would later become acquired by what is presently known as DC Comics. Shazam also used to be known as Captain Marvel at one point too, but I'm not even going to go down that rabbit hole. He was a character, too, easily found in early 1940s serials along with his own 1970s cartoon program, and being that Batman, Superman, and now Wonder Woman have all seen about umpteen appearances in various movies, it was time for DC to bring a second-tier hero into the mix. The end result is lively and favorable.
The film opens by introducing us to Billy Batson (an effortlessly likable Asher Angel), who spent most of his childhood fleeing foster homes in search of his mother, from whom he accidentally separated at a carnival never to see her again. His latest foster home, however, shows some promise, particularly in the form of Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a Superman fan with a solo crutch to help him walk. One of his first lines to a noticeably shocked Billy is a keeper: "You look at me and you think, 'why so dark? Disabled foster kid? You got it all!'")
Out of nowhere, a wizard known as Shazam (Dijmon Hounsou) summons Billy and grants him the power to transform into a superhero by simply saying the word, "shazam!" Upon uttering the word, Billy morphs into a spandex-clad, God-like figure in a yellow suit, capable of shooting lightning from his fingers, utilizing super-strength to lift impossibly heavy objects, running at the speed of light, and flying (but only after he believes enough). This is one of those superhero stories that takes place in the real world, with heroes coexisting with average human beings. With that in mind, it's only pragmatic that a good chunk of the film's midsection is devoted to Billy and Freddy sort of stumblebum around in trying to see all that Billy can do when he is Shazam (Zachary Levi). But no hero is complete without a supervillain, which is why there is Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong, who I confess I thought was Stanley Tucci until the credits rolled). As a young child, Sivana was rejected by the aforementioned wizard for allegedly being unworthy of such incredible powers, so his own malcontent attitude and own evil powers make the perfect contrast to the wholesome titular hero.
Shazam! has few surprises along the way, but one of them happens to be the strong theme of family and how Billy comes to run to his foster family as opposed to running away. Coming to grips with his place in the world in conjunction with learning how to use his own powers to save the greater population is intertwined in a way that adds the kind of narrative progression to make a story this cohesive and whole. I cannot stress how solid the pacing is throughout the picture. Screenwriter Henry Gayden, who penned the overlooked Earth to Echo, and Darren Lemke, who wrote both recent Goosebumps films, do a solid job at making this origins story work on the basis that it's linear and digestible, not hampered by an all-too-powerful supervillain or a hero whose problems stretch the seams of what one film can bear. It's quietly ambitious without being overstuffed.
Shazam! is also often hilarious without trying too hard. Many jokes land because they're conversational or practical in context. Much of the humor is derived from Billy trying to see what his newfound powers can accomplish, and cooperating with Freddy without being too selfish or not respectful of his foster-brother's own feelings. The comparisons to Deadpool have already started, but the whiz-bang action and vulgar quips are kept to a minimum, obviously for the sake of the film's rating and with respect to the IP at hand. Shazam is a much easier hero to root for, and that's because even with all the powers, he's still recognizably human, not to mention lighter, which makes him a stark contrast from other DC heroes whose grim nature can become overbearing.
Finally, there's director David F. Sandberg, who made a name for himself on the horror circuit with Lights Outand Annabelle: Creation. Sandberg's horror background works well during scenes with Sivana, which are effective in their ability to chill with how quickly the character can assert dominance by extreme violence. There's a scene in an office boardroom that turns dark and helpless quickly, and Sandberg employs the scarier elements in a way that's been consistent (I'd argue better) than DC films have in the past. But even with that, Shazam!'s present Christmastime vibes are still make its tone more Jingle All the Way than anything this side of jump-scare-reliant contemporary horror, and merging it all into a nicely crafted, well-structured origins story gives me a little bit of a second-thought when I consider really cutting back on how frequently I indulge in this genre.