I often walk around the city looking up at the skyscrapers and finding myself getting upset that, despite having all of the best intentions in the world, I am not Spider-Man. If anyone deserves to swing from building to building, taking down purse-snatchers with playful efficiency, it’s me. Granted, the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” thing is a bit lost on me, and I am extremely disinterested in fighting supervillains of any flavor, but still, I should be a superhero so that I can do fun things with superpowers. I won’t hurt anyone, I promise.
I suspect that I am not alone in this desire. In fact, I believe that just about anyone on the planet with an imagination feels the same way, and it’s precisely this shared desire which Shazam!, the latest entry in the DCEU, taps into. Once again, we’re staring down the barrel of an origin story, but for the first time since Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man movie, the “hero’s first outing” template feels fresh and fun.
It should be noted that despite being an entry in the DCEU, Shazam! only connects to the larger narrative by way of image. Yes, this film takes place in the same world as Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman, but short of small Easter eggs and the notion that the people are fully aware of superheroes, it’s really just brand connectivity. It’s a much more hopeful world than the one put forward in earlier DCEU entries in that the populace all share in the very human desire to live vicariously through the costumed heroes that protect our world from evil.
Enter Billy Batson (Asher Angel). He’s a young orphan who, after being abandoned by his mother at a carnival, has spent the past few years bouncing between Philadelphia foster homes (well, Toronto-delphia), usually escaping from them in an attempt to locate his mother. The system has now placed him into a group home run by two former fosters, and populated by a charming variety of fellow orphans. He doesn’t fit in at first, least so with his geeky, superhero-enthused adoptive brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). But when a chance encounter with a dying wizard grants Billy they ability to transform into a ridiculously costumed adult superhero, it’s Freddy who becomes his greatest ally. Meanwhile, an embittered man named Dr. Thaddeus Silvana (Mark Strong), possessed by the monstrous physical manifestations of the seven deadly sins, begins a violent (very violent) hunt for the newly crowned superhero, in an effort to absorb his magical powers.
It sounds like a lot of exposition, but I assure you, it’s all presented with energy and clarity. Unlike a lot of comic book films which find themselves bogged down by exposition (::cough:: Captain Marvel ::cough::), Shazam! makes exposition fun. And with such a broad expanse of characters, all of whom are portrayed with heart (even the evil ones), the slightly overlong film never wears out its welcome. Throw in a beautifully hammy moral framework exploring just what constitutes a family — and just why family is important — and you’ve got yourself a crowd pleasing superhero movie without an ounce of cynicism.
Director David F. Sandberg puts more of a directorial stamp on Shazam! than so many other filmmakers who were brought up from the minors to helm a chunk of a cinematic universe. Perhaps this is because DC’s plan is constantly shifting, resulting in a universe that is so far from cohesive that it ends up being not much of a universe at all — ends up being malleable in a way that the MCU can no longer afford to be. So here in the “dark and gritty” DCEU, Sandberg has delivered a candy colored family film that is tonally variant, but still completely on brand. It also has some seriously scary horror elements, as is to be expected from the director behind Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation. Between Shazam! and Aquaman, DC has twice dipped into the pool of horror directors (thrice if you consider Zack Snyder to be a horror guy, what with Dawn of the Dead being his breakout hit), and it has resulted in two excellent films. Time will tell if Shazam! will be as financially successful as Aquaman, but my guess is it will be.
These horror elements are what my brain keeps going back to. Shazam! feels PG-13 much in the way that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom feels PG-13. Dark and scary when it needs to be, fun when it doesn’t. I wouldn’t fault a child for being frightened by the Ghostbusters-esque beasties on display, but I also think that kids can handle more than we give them credit for. PG-13 was a designation invented (for Temple of Doom) to let viewers know that things could get a little extreme while also assuring that it won’t be explicitly adult. PG-13 means “PG with an edge.” After a long period where it came be known as “R, but with no edge” it’s nice to see something that feels more in spirit with the original intention of the rating. Not to get hung up on ratings (I think they’re all dumb), but there is a tone here that I haven’t seen in a very long time, and my nostalgia detector is firing in a way that nostalgia-grab properties don’t always succeed in doing…but I wouldn’t consider Shazam! a nostalgia property.
Zachary Levi does excellent work as the titular superhero, perfectly capturing what it’s like to be a 14 year old boy, despite having an adult’s body (a condition that many adult men suffer from, myself included), even if the dual characterization doesn’t perfectly line up. What I mean is, Shazam and Billy Batson don’t always feel like the same person. It’s a noticeable disconnect, but perhaps that is par for the course when two very different actors have to play a single, physically amorphous character, each working with half the typical screen time required to do so. Small potatoes, really. All that matters is that unlike a lot of onscreen heroes, Levi is having fun. So are we.
Released nationwide April 5, 2019.