Shazam!: Exuberant Heart & Humor Anchors the Original Captain Marvel

Shazam! tries to be what super hero movies often try to not be: childish fun. It doesn’t try to explain a twenty movie connected universe and it doesn’t try to ask weird philosophical questions about our heroes at the cost of missing their appeal. It just tries to enjoy the moment.

Shazam! is basically a superhero version of Tom Hanks’s Big (1988). Billy Batson is an orphan in search of his family and runs into a wizard, granting him extraordinary powers by merely saying the word “Shazam”. He abuses his magical gifts and adult body with his best friend and learns a lesson about treasuring what he has.

The film relies on the chemistry between Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer. Thankfully Levi knows how to be a big kid, and Grazer knows how to be the adult.

As a superhero movie, it’s gonna be very formulaic. It’s an origin story, the bad guy roughly has the same powers as the hero, and there are CGI monsters. Sorry if you wanted something that will break the mold.

Yet, the tired hero formulas and somewhat lazy villain don’t matter. The mold isn’t broken, but instead D.C. was finally able to perfect the mold. They are able to get you to care about every character on screen. The unlikable characters have sympathetic moments that create depth, the likable characters have a warmth that makes you wish nothing but the best for them. The foster family is Billy’s supporting cast, and the diversity in all forms of the characters creates a family that’s bound together from love, not blood.

Asher Angel has a difficult job here of being whatever the scene needs him to be. Sometimes he’s mean and selfish, other times he’s the best brother. Angel does a great job with that balance.

The jokes are what keep everything glued together here. I wouldn’t say there’s any gutbusters, but every joke safely lands to at least a smile. It helps that they hired an actor (Zachary Levi) with comedic chops to play the lead instead of a normal muscle man or dramatic lead chiseled better than marble. In fact, choosing a comedic actor and stuffing his suit is appropriate for the film in tone and concept. Shazam, the hero – formerly known as Captain Marvel, but DC lost that lawsuit and Brie Larson gets to fly around with that name – is meant to be pure wish fulfillment fantasy. It’s the hero your child self would draw: ridiculous muscles with zero definition. Levi also plays a kid in a man’s body in 2019. and so his basic heroism and selfies are tied to rewards of candy and cash. Only at the end is he truly grateful for his gifts.

The action isn’t special, but it’s used sparingly in exchange for the comedy. There’s only one major fight scene before the ending and that scene mainly consists of our hero running away. This is a good example of why Shazam might be an easier character to write than Superman: even if Billy had all the powers he could dream of, he’s still a scared fourteen year old boy. That character flaw is what creates conflict for the audience. That’s how tension can be created out of perfect heroes.

The ending fight is very simple CGI monster stuff where our hero unlocks his true power inside himself, yet thankfully there is a welcome twist in that moment that changes the dynamic of the film and makes what would otherwise be boring into something rewarding. People that haven’t read the comics might even think about it halfway through the film, and the film answers that question. That twist speaks to the appeal of kids wanting to escape, and I think it’s magical.

The foster family adds a true weight to the people Shazam has to save, and it’s nice how immediate the stakes feel because of that.

So it sounds like I’m dismissing the film when I talk about how generic it is, but this is strong praise. DC hasn’t made a movie like this in a long time, and I gotta say the tone of this film is great. This was the first superhero film I’ve seen in over a decade where families filled the theaters, not adults. This film can be a little intense at times for younger kids, particularly involving the villain – but it’s PG-13 – any kid between six to twelve is honestly the target demographic. Anyone else can bear it or cover their eyes.

If you’re curious about it, see the film. If you have no interest, don’t see the film. Yet, I think it’s safe to say this is the best DC movie of the past decade, and that alone is worth noting.

I’m not Shazam’s #1 fan, but I recognize major storylines and characters from the comics and love them. This film is based on Geoff Johns’s New 52 run almost to the letter, and there’s good and bad with that. Billy is more selfish than his classic self, but the film better explains it as actions a troubled fourteen year old would do. Sivana suffers as a villain, his classic comic incarnation is boldly original and memorable yet here he’s pretty generic. He has a promising future, and the tease for the sequel is a welcome surprise for me. I would gladly anticipate Mark Strong’s return for the role. Seriously, no spoilers, if you like Shazam as a franchise you owe it to yourself to see the sequel tease at least. The other bit of fan service is the final fight’s twist. Many thought it wouldn’t happen in the film, but it does. What they sacrifice for translation to the cinema is worth it.

Don’t let the rest of the article fool you though, Mark Strong’s Sivana is lethal and intimidating.

I think for its formula, it makes up for its sheer competence. I think people will remember this movie in a different way than other hero films. It’s not amazing “ten out of ten” special, but special enough to think DC has figured out how to make their movies work and avoid the problems and baggage super hero films have started to bring.


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