The (relatively) recent inundation of pop culture by superhero movies has allowed an entire generation’s worth of children’s minds to run wild. What would we do if we were superheroes? We’ve seen grit and realism and all those “more adult” buzzwords used to describe DC Comics films centered around damaged men who use their superhuman abilities (or money and lack of a hobby) to fulfill some hole in their lives. But when we strip the idea down to its most basic form, we realize why we’d love to be the heroes on the screen: Being a superhero just looks pretty damn cool and like it would be a lot more fun than whatever we mere mortals do every day on the surface.
“Shazam!” is DC’s newest entry into its shared superhero cinematic universe, and like “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” before it, DC is taking another step in the right direction, seemingly because it’s realizing there are more ways to tell stories than by dimming the lights and making its audience feel miserable.
FILM FACT BOX
Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mark Strong, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans
Writers: Henry Gayden, Darren Lemke
Runtime: 132 minutes
“Shazam!” tells the story of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old foster kid feeling alone in the world, continuously running from situations where he doesn’t feel at home. He’s been looking for his mother ever since they were separated when Billy was only 3 years old, and while his manufactured families generally mean well, it’s not good enough for Billy.
All this changes, naturally, when Billy’s commute home from school is interrupted by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou), the last of a dying breed. The seven wizards protect the so-called Rock of Eternity, from which all magic derives and which keeps the Seven Deadly Sins from manifesting. As the good wizard doesn’t have much time left, he seeks a pure soul to transfer his powers to. Enter Billy Batson.
Now, with the help of his fostered brother, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy navigates life as both a superhero and his original, 14-year-old self, cycling between the two forms by shouting a single word: “Shazam!”
To say the film exists through a lens of childlike wonder and appreciation for the implausibility of the story isn’t to say that’s the only card it plays. Director David F. Sandberg was the perfect choice for “Shazam!” Sandberg drew on his horror roots — he’s notable for directing films like “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation” — to create some moments of genuine dread throughout the movie.
Much of the tension comes in the form of a mixed-bag villain named Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), your typical evil guy with daddy issues. Dr. Sivana, who comes across his powers essentially by doing the same thing as Billy, just from an evil perspective, has some incredible moments showing what an unbelievably terrifying baddie he is — a scene in a boardroom springs to mind — but not all of it works. Strong is, by his very nature, a scary man. But his character suffers from the film’s surprisingly bloated 132-minute runtime. There are at least three or four moments where it seems like Sivana goes from harbinger of doom to bumbling moron, walking around looking confused instead of taking the seemingly very simple route to killing Billy and wrapping the movie up in time for lunch. I mean, the guy literally has demons spawned from Hell beside him, and he’s fighting an eighth grader. It had to be that way for the story, but it takes away from the tension.
Like last year’s Palme d’Or-winner “Shoplifters,” family is a key aspect of the emotional baggage of “Shazam!” It holds weight — Billy’s transformation from out-for-himself to understanding family doesn’t need to be blood-related — but by the end of it, it feels like the foster family storyline is adding 20 extra minutes of unnecessary padding to an already too-long origin story.
Where the film doesn’t drag for a second, though, is when Billy and Freddy are testing the former’s new superhuman abilities. It is pure cinematic escapism, watching two kids do exactly what two kids would do if they were in a similar spot. In terms of looks, scrawny 14-year-old Asher Angel turns into buff adult Zachary Levi. And the duo do the first thing a 14-year-old kid would do if he suddenly looked like an adult: They go and buy beer. It’s moments like those that keep “Shazam!” grounded in what the story really is, a kid grappling with being a superhero while not technically legally able to drive. Levi, basically just an overgrown child, but in the best way possible, is perfect for the role.
DC and its extended universe or whatever the hell they’re calling it nowadays now has three straight hits. Seven films in, a pattern is starting to emerge. Its three best films — “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman” and “Shazam!” — are all fun, stylistically unique and generally have a hopeful essence built around them. The four stinkers DC has produced — “Man of Steel,” “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Suicide Squad” and “Justice League” — were all the general, doom-and-gloom fare DC had become infamous for. It’s hard to say what caused this course correction, but it’s working. Characters like Batman and Superman or Joker and Harley Quinn carry a certain darkness within them, but DC seems to finally be understanding that’s not the only character trait out there. DC is finally letting Bruce Wayne take a backseat for a while, and we should at least enjoy the fun while it lasts.
Cameron Hoover is a film critic. Contact him at email@example.com.