That’s two in a row for the DCEU! At this point in time, given that even other WB/DC properties like The Lego Batman Movie have openly mocked the franchise’s former unnecessarily dark and cynical roots, we’ve certainly seen a gradual shift towards optimism and fun from Wonder Woman to Justice League. Then to the colorful craziness of Aquaman,and now, Shazam!; DC’s lightest and most family-friendly movie to date. And honestly, especially after seeing Shazam!, in my opinion the results work so much more than they did in the earlier stages of the franchise.
Shazam! is a movie that emphasizes how much fun seeing the DC Universe on-screen in live-action can be when it ditches the self-serious, self-important nature of previous films within the franchise. Over the course of the press circuit, the cast, as well as director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) and producer Peter Safran, have really emphasized the idea that this is, at its core, a wish-fulfillment movie. And that intent comes through loud and clear in such a breezy, fun manner, because you genuinely come out smiling after watching it, feeling like a kid who just became a superhero.
Driving the film are the winning performances from Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, and Jack Dylan Grazer. The chemistry Levi and Angel share with Grazer is enormously palpable, and Grazer’s enthusiasm and charisma throughout the film is infectious, often times reminding me of a very “Seth Cohen-ish” character (‘nuff said there). His interactions with Levi bring the comedy, while his interactions with Angel bring the heart. Levi is utterly charming, approaching the role with the child-like joy and (at times) neuroticism that made him a household name on Chuck. While Angel brings more of a somber soulful, brooding take on the Billy Batson character, allowing you to feel for and connect with Billy effortlessly.
However, this also perhaps leads to Shazam!’s biggest weakness, which is the massive discrepancy between Levi’s take and Angel’s take on Billy. While I respect the notion of making the younger actor the adult performance, and the older actor the younger performance, you can hardly tell it’s the same character at all. Both performances individually are so entertaining in the context of the movie they’re trying to make, that you’re not bothered by this too much, but given they’re performing as a single character, it does come across as odd, because Angel’s Billy is nothing at all like Levi’s Billy. That said, if you turn your brain off to this factor, it doesn’t make the movie any less enjoyable.
Surprisingly enough, the movie’s heart is perhaps its greatest strength and secret weapon, and that is dependent on Angel’s interpretation of Billy. Shazam! wisely has an innate tenderness to it that no other DC movies have accomplished, which comes off way more genuine than over-saccharine. And all that comes from Billy Batson’s arc in the movie while portrayed by Angel. Billy’s search for his true family, is utterly heartbreaking at times, and completely winning in terms of payoff. It perfectly balances out with the barrage of non-stop jokes and action set pieces (both of which exist as the strengths from Levi’s performance) and it ends up genuinely resonating with you by the end of the movie.
Speaking of the jokes, however, this is the funniest DC movie to-date, given the snappy dialogue from writer Henry Gayden, and energetic physical expressiveness from Levi and Grazer. You can tell they are just having a blast making the film, because their characters are having a blast on screen, and that good time completely rubs off on the audience too.
There’s a grounded sense of realism and effortless charm that Levi brings to the character in terms of interpreting how a kid who becomes an adult superhero would genuinely act in real life, which is perfect for the movie (even if, again, Angel’s Billy doesn’t seem the type who would act the same way). It can get a little silly at times (a chase scene with Mark Strong’s Thaddeus Sivana through a mall comes to mind), but the movie knows what it is, and you’re on board with the silliness, laughing along with the movie (as opposed to at it).
While much of the credit will be rightfully given to the Billy/Freddy trio, I simply can’t short-change the supporting cast. This is the one DC movie that makes the greatest use of its supporting players, introducing us to Freddy and Billy’s full adopted family. There’s Mary, Darla, Pedro, and Eugene, portrayed by Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Jovian Armand, and Ian Chen, respectively.
The entire Marvel family (am I still allowed to call them that?), is absolutely awesome and plays a great part in the climax of the film, but it’s really Grace’s Mary, the eldest and de-facto leader of the family, and Faithe’s Darla, the youngest and most adorable (and the only one other than Freddie who knows Billy’s secret), that really get the most to do (Darla single-handedly steals the show at times). To fans of the comics, the climax shouldn’t be a surprise, but for everyone else, without spoiling anything, the screen time these characters get, minimal or otherwise, certainly pays off in the funnest way possible, and it all is smartly in service of developing the familial bonding themes the movie focuses on.
As far as the villain situation goes, Shazam! does fall into the trap set by all superhero origin stories where the villain is not particularly compelling or interesting. Strong’s performance is great, and he even gets 1-2 funny moments while interacting with Levi (in particular an evil monologue that goes horribly wrong comes to mind), but the character comes across as kind of a one-dimensional power-hungry sniveling brat, on the whole — regardless of how initially sympathetic his backstory is. That said, the Seven Deadly Sins he commands are pretty creepy for a kid-targeted family movie (watch out for that when you bring the Darla-aged ones to the cinema).
Regardless of its shortcomings, as previously stated, Sandberg, Gayden, and Safran knew full on what kind of movie they wanted to make. And for a family friendly superhero movie, centering on children/teens as protagonists Shazam!could have easily become a knock off of Spider-Man: Homecoming. Instead it decides to go for something a bit more unique, but no less fun, literally taking cues from Big instead of the previous dour, gritty movies in the DCEU.
And the entire cast fully commits to the tone, wit, and heart the movie has to offer, which makes things great! So, while it may not be the best of the best, I can honestly conclude that Shazam! is fun enough to enjoy with the family, and will leave you smiling by the time the credits roll.
ALSO: There is one end credit scene that ties heavily to a few easter eggs you may see in the Rock of Eternity. Make sure you brush up on your Shazam! mythology first though or you’ll be lost!
Shazam! Soars into Theaters April 5, 2019.