Reviewed by Steve McGowan Upon saying that word of power, young Billy Batson magically turns into an adult superhero. That’s the premise of Shazam!, a film based on an 80-year old title published by Fawcett Comics featuring the character. He was originally called Captain Marvel, and was the first superhero to bear the name, but due to a series of lawsuits, rights-buying, and other licensing shenanigans, was renamed Shazam and now owned by DC Comics.
After the success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the Warner’s superhero film franchise is now gradually tonally much more fun and bright than the grim and edgy tone set by the earlier Zack Snyder helmed films. Directed by David F. Sandberg, the latest film in the DCEU is an origin story of how Billy Batson (Asher Angel) became the superhero Shazam (Zachary Levi). Minor spoilers follow so be warned!
The film opens in 1974 with an aging wizard (Djimon Hounsou), the original Shazam, trying to find a successor to inherit his powers. He first summons a child, Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto), to see if he was worthy. Shazam explains that he is tasked with protecting the world from the physical embodiments of the seven deadly sins, represented as grotesque creatures trapped in statue form and imprisoned in his lair. However the Sins reach out to Thaddeus, influencing his mind. An angry Shazam sends the child back, and resumes his search for a champion that is worthy of continuing the job of being Shazam.
In the present day, a 14 year old Billy Batson is a foster home kid who is on a mission to find the mother he was separated from when he was a child. He’s run from foster home to foster home, never giving up on his quest. After getting into trouble with the police, he is sent to live with a kind couple named Victor and Rosa Vasquez, who have accepted a whole bunch of abandoned children into their home. At the home he meets the other kids; the quiet Pedro Peña (Jovan Armand), the video game nerd Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), the studious Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton), the sweet and adorable little Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman), and finally the disabled Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), who is obsessed with superheroes.
Freddy is happy to have Billy as a new friend and brother, but Billy doesn’t really plan to stick around. However, when Freddy is beaten up by high school bullies, Billy intervenes. The enraged bullies chase Billy who flees to a subway, where at that moment he is summoned by the old wizard Shazam and is chosen to become the new Shazam. Saying the wizard’s name, he is transformed into an adult superhero with a multitude of different powers. However, the old Shazam dies and Billy is now left to figure out just how his new powers work.
He recruits Freddy to try and figure it all out, and shenanigans follow. Both Billy and Freddy are super psyched at this new development, and Billy as Shazam tries to do superhero things like stop robberies, all the while trying to figure out what all his powers are. There is a lot of humor derived from the fact that Billy is really a 14 year old boy in a man’s body, thrilled at being a superhero, while sucking at being a superhero.
However the fun and games aren’t to last; Thaddeus Sivana has now grown up (Mark Strong), and he is obsessed with finding the wizard Shazam and the Seven Deadly Sins. He finally uncovers and absorbs the evil spirits to become a full-fledged supervillain. Meanwhile, Billy does some soul-searching about the meaning of family, and the responsibility of his new powers. He doesn’t have much time to do that though as Sivana does catch up with Billy, and the young Shazam must save the world, and his new family, from the evil of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Shazam! is probably the strongest film in the DCEU thus far, where lighthearted comedic moments are side-splittingly hilarious, the dark moments get very dark, and the central theme of finding a family brings a lot of heart to a rather silly premise. The film has been described as Big with superheroes, and it was probably very intentional; there is a scene where the grown-up Billy accidentally walks on a giant musical keyboard, a visual homage to Big.
Every actor in the film brings their A game to the table, with incredible performances from Levi and Grazer whose on-screen buddy chemistry is the central emotional lynchpin of the film. The younger Billy played by Angel is also just as good, as well as the other kids in the foster home.
It’s not a perfect film, as it does shift tonally at times, and the third act’s final battle felt a little too drawn out for me. However there is a clever little twist at the end which comics readers will see coming a mile away, but if you’re not familiar with the source material it will make you whoop. In a year (or decade) that’s crowded with superhero films, Shazam! manages to stand out for doing something a little different.
Shazam! gets 4 out of 5 superhero wizards!