Shazam! is a wildly fun superhero adventure, with plenty of humor and heart, but struggles at times to strike a good balance between levity and drama.
The latest entry in Warner Bros. and DC Films' unofficially titled DC Extended Universe, Shazam!, introduces viewers to one of the sillier superhero premises in the franchise. A teenage boy is granted powers by a magical staff-wielding wizard, and in doing so, gives the boy the ability to transform into an adult superhero - fully equipped with a bright red suit and white cape. However, to avoid Shazam! veering too far into campiness, screenwriter Henry Gayden and director David F. Sandberg work to balance the silliness with a grounded backstory and an OK villain. Shazam! is a wildly fun superhero adventure, with plenty of humor and heart, but struggles at times to strike a good balance between levity and drama.
In a world where Superman, Batman and Aquaman are known superheroes, Shazam! introduces the 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a troubled foster kid who spends more time looking for the mother who abandoned him than trying to acclimate to any of the foster families he's been placed with. That all changes when he's placed with the Vasquez's, meets superhero buff Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) and is turned into a superhero himself. After gaining godlike powers from the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) and becoming the hero Shazam (Zachary Levi), Billy needs Freddy's help to figure out what abilities he possesses. It's a fairly typical origin story as far as superhero movies go, though Shazam! has a new twist because we get to experience it through the eyes of two kids who are more full of wonder and excitement than responsibility.
But the movie also explores that aspect of Shazam!'s origin in a compelling way, asking the question of what a kid would do if granted superpowers - especially one who has no loyalty but to himself. Billy and Freddy's friendship is undoubtedly the heart of the movie, grounding it in a way the premise of Shazam! needs to feel believable in the real world. But the film never does shy away from poking fun at its own premise, typically through humor excellently executed by Grazer, Levi and Angel. The convenience store scene is a particular standout moment and exemplifies the uproarious fun Shazam! has with its premise. Where Shazam! struggles is in some of the more dramatic moments, particularly Billy's backstory about how he became part of the foster system and his search for his mother. It's all necessary to his character arc, but certain scenes feel more contrived to move that emotional storyline forward than provide any real pathos. Altogether, though, Billy is an interesting enough character who undergoes a fairly standard journey to becoming a superhero.
Like many superhero origin stories, too, Shazam! toils under the effort of developing its villain enough to be a compelling foil to Billy Batson. Shazam! does give Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) his own backstory in an effort to establish him enough, but the movie doesn't quite get there. Although Shazam! reveals Sivana's motivations to become a villain, he's still rather one dimensional. On the script's surface, Sivana does make an interesting foil to Billy, but Sivana never really becomes more than a one-note villain. In fact, he works best in humorous moments with Billy/Shazam when he's positioned as the straight man in the superhero's comedy schtick. Strong's melodramatic performance, contrasted with Billy's more grounded tone and humor, makes for some of the film's most entertaining moments.
Since Shazam! focuses most of its time on Billy and Freddy, and to a lesser extent Sivana, the movie doesn't quite have time to develop the characters of the Vasquez family. Darla (Faithe Herman) is a scene-stealer as the talkative youngest member of the foster family, and the rest of the kids - Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Keith Choi) and Pedro (Jovan Armand) - get moments to shine. Though they're instrumental enough to Billy's origin story, the movie simply doesn't have enough time to spend with the other kids. That said, they do contribute to the overall theme of family in Shazam! and since this film is only an origin story, they are one of the aspects of the movie that has a great deal of potential to be further developed in a possible sequel.
Ultimately, Shazam! is a different kind of DC movie than those that have been released in recent years, but that derives from Sandberg and Gayden building the film from a character-focused standpoint. Because Shazam has a sillier origin story, it makes sense for the movie to be on the lighter, more humorous side. Though it still has moments of darkness and drama, they are mostly earned by the film, even if the balance isn't always quite right. On the other hand, Shazam! isn't necessarily reinventing the wheel and largely sticks to a standard superhero origin story. The filmmakers have added a twist by combining superhero action with the dramedy of Big - and some meta humor in a similar, if PG-13 vein as Deadpool - to craft an entirely enjoyable experience in Shazam!, even if at times it feels more like a hodgepodge of other movies. Still, fans of DC and superhero movies will no doubt want to check out Shazam! for its action and heart, and a delightfully fun time at the theater.
Shazam! is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 132 minutes long and it’s rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language and suggestive material.
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