It’s hard to find a superhero movie that’s just a superhero movie these days.
Things have been very different since the Dark Knight (2008), when it became apparent that superhero films could be prestige films too. And then things changed again with the Avengers (2012), when it became apparent that superhero films could also be massive blockbusters.
The massive wave of superhero films that have swept theaters since then may as well be comparable to a deluge. Suddenly, everyone wanted to make a superhero movie, or at least, a cinematic universe story. Marvel lead the charge, but there was DC, and then Universal and then Disney again with Star Wars. Everything had to be connected, and part of a larger story.
Shazam isn’t really concerned with any of those things.
It’s a throwback to earlier superhero stories, when the core story was about the main character learning to be a hero, going up against a bad guy who’s definitely evil (and not any of that tortured soul stuff that Marvel does nowadays).
The best way to describe Shazam is as a fusion of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man and Richard Donner’s Superman with a dash of Tom Hank’s Big.
It’s about a child who discovers superpowers and learns to become a hero, as well as accept and allow a new family into his life. It’s every bit as ridiculous and wholesome as it sounds.
Worthy and Pure-Hearted
Shazam isn’t a popular hero, but he has tons of history. “I grew up with Superman and Batman, Spider-Man — things like that,” said director David F. Sandberg (who previously directed Get Out) to Deadline. “So, I’d never heard of him when I was a kid, back home in Sweden…I did my homework and read a ton of comics because there’s so much. I mean, he’s been around since 1940, so there’s such a wealth of comics to catch up on.”
Fourteen year old orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been bouncing from foster home to foster home, searching for his mother, whom he was separated from in a fair many years ago. He is given a final second chance with a new foster family, filled with unique but lovable children, in Philadelphia, but he remains focused on his original mission. Everything in his life changes, however, when he is summoned by the legendary wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) to inherit magical powers, transforming him into an adult, muscular superhero (Zachary Levi).
Instead of discovering himself and coming face to face with evil, Billy goes bonkers with his new powers, often stopping small crimes but mostly shooting Youtube videos with his foster brother, Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). As he gets busy with finding internet fame- and with enjoying the perks of having an adult body whenever he wants to- he starts to forget the reason he was chosen by the wizard to fight evil. Namely, the seven deadly sins, who are currently piloting a champion of their own, the ruthless Dr. Sivanna (Mark Strong).
A Simple Story Told Effectively
What’s great about Shazam, paradoxically, is that it’s not concerned with being great or different. It sticks with tried and true formulas and lets the cast build camaraderie with themselves.
Sandberg makes this more of a children’s movie with lots of middle school drama, but there’s also plenty of things that adults can enjoy.
Zachary Levi does really well with his role, always imbuing the wide eyed wonder and brashness a 14 year old probably would feel if he was handed adulthood (and superpowers) on a silver platter. He releases the inhibitions that Asher Angel’s Billy usually has, letting his inner child roam free among the streets of Philadelphia.
“Basically what you’re watching on the screen is just me not reigning in all of my own genuine enthusiasm for what was, and is happening in my life,” said Zachary Levi to PopSugar. “I was a little kid who dreamed about being a superhero — that’s happening. I was an actor who dreamed about portraying a bona fide superhero of my own, leading a big franchise and not supporting someone else — that’s happening.
I’m super grateful that I, like you said, get to play a different type of a superhero. It’s a different take on the genre. The closest other character I can think of who’s similar to Billy Batson is Peter Parker.
There’s a youth and an excitement about the powers that they’ve now gotten, and wanting to use them for good. That made it a heck of a lot of fun.”
Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivanna is also an effective foil, with Henry Gayden’s script pitting, in essence, two child-like adults against each other. Once deemed unworthy by the wizard, Sivanna has spent his whole life running after the power once promised to him at the Rock of Eternity.
Sivanna, in truth, is the spurned child who seeks to destroy everything in his path, while Billy and his cohorts represent the purer, innocent side that wants to use powers to bring happiness and joy to the world.
It’s a simple but wholesome dichotomy, brought to life deftly at the film’s climax.
“I’ve always liked all kinds of movies, so many different genres,” Sandberg told Deadline during an interview. “To me, this was a love letter to movies I grew up with and loved that made me fall in love with film.”
Fun, But Unremarkable
Of course, it’s not exactly untrue that Shazam plays safe with its source material. It’s not working with the kind of gritty, dark stories that Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) or Suicide Squad (2016) was, and in many ways, the film is better for it. However, Shazam doesn’t really expand its mythos, the way Aquaman (2018) did. And while it can double as a pretty enjoyable Marvel flick, it’s a bit more vanilla than something like Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) or Thor: Ragnarok (2017).
Is Shazam going to save the DCEU? Probably not. But it shows that, when individual movies are good stories by themselves, then perhaps the DCEU universe doesn’t really need to be saved. For once, Warner Bros is focusing on getting its own house in order, letting creatively robust directors have their shots at handling their comic book properties.
Zachari Levi talked about possible directions a sequel could go towards. “What we’ve laid out for the end of the movie feels like a really fun direction that we can go in…
Ultimately down the road, Shazam and Black Adam need to have their showdown. I don’t know if that’s the next [film] or the next one after that. But as far as team-ups, all of it is so above my pay grade, but I really hope they make me a part of the Justice League. I hope I get to team up with all of those badasses.”
So we could possibly see Superman and Shazam standing by each other…and do other things too. Isn’t that a novel idea?