My initial take on Shazam was going to be that by the time the liquor store scene comes around, in which Billy (Asher Angel/Zachary Levi) and Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) uses Billy’s newfound superhero transformation powers to go to buy some cheap beer, only to find out that beer is absolutely disgusting— it’s pretty clear that Shazam has a spark; a spark that sets it apart from every other DC releases thus far. A spark that makes the experience of watching it in theaters an absolute joy all the way through despite all of its studio blemishes, and that spark is a soul. But I remembered how great that dinner table scene with Billy and Freddy is and I realized that I lied, actually. This movie has two sparks in its arsenal, the other being sublime child performances. With these two simple but crucial traits, Shazam manages to overcome most of its own hurdles to cement it as the absolute best and most satisfying DCEU release so far.
Set as the latest film in the DC timeline, Shazam follows Billy Batson, a 14-year-old orphaned boy who is welcomed into a new foster family after years of searching for his lost mother. Struggling to get attached to his new surroundings, he runs away and eventually gets chosen by an old wizard, Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) to be a warrior that’s pure of heart to protect the realm from the monstrous seven deadly sins. With the yell of the word “Shazam!”, Billy turns into an older, superpowered, caped crusader of his own. But before any of that saving the world stuff, Billy consults his foster brother Freddy, a superhero expert, to figure out how his newfound gifts work. You might have noticed how little superhero-isms I included in the summary, and that’s actually one of the best aspects of Shazam, it’s a family film first and all of the emotional beats lie in the excitement of these kids using their powers in middle of Philadelphia rather than a colossal, end of the world threat.
When we’re focused on the amazing child ensemble cast, from Billy to Freddy, to Darla and Eugene, that is where Shazam succeeds the most, and every moment with this foster family is its own vital source of power within the film. I particularly love how the children themselves are handling this post-superhero-origins world, how much looking up to and admiring superheroes fosters so much hope within this underdog cast of kids who have their own tragic backgrounds. It’s a cool recontextualization of the events of the other DCEU movies, even though it does come with the cost of tonal whiplash trying to look at previous entries and then connect them back to Shazam. But perhaps that’s the biggest flaw with an otherwise wholesome movie, I really love what this movie is trying to be, but I think there’s a lot holding it back from being a homerun.
The problems I have with Warner Bros. takes on DC characters still fester their way into Shazam, and I think because it’s so otherwise a good movie it actually feels even more frustrating sometimes. There’s a first act that’s far too long, establishing lore that feels like excess. There are really great plot beats, but they’re timed awkwardly. The most triumphant sign of growth in Billy during the whole movie only happens minutes after the lowest point of the film, simultaneously leaving me desired for more moments of self-reflection for the drama to sink in, and also spreading the emotion in the prolonged third act too thin. There’s an apparent struggle in trying to balance tone every once in a while, some scenes shifting from playful and wholesome to actually scathing and violent in a flash and then back again; a sign that David Sandberg, horror director with a background in YouTube shorts, doesn’t quite have a handle on taking a more lighthearted romp.
Frustratingly, the one thing DC always succeeds in, even when it is unpalatable in my eyes, is their unique cinematic look and how that identity ties directly into their heroes. Now, of course, I am happy that the priority of Shazam was story and character first as that should always be the priority for comic book films, however, it does feel like a sacrifice to its own cinematic-ness and this is a visual medium after all. I think about how this could have been shot much more like an indie family drama, with a shallow depth of field or a handheld camera and how that would have really sold the smaller scale and intimate feeling of the film, or how a Spielbergian 70s shot-on-film look would have maybe closed the tonal gap between the darker scenes and the more whimsical fun. Oversights like these just imply to me that the directing was not as precise or sensitive as the performances or the screenplay itself succeeds to be. If DC movies are going to be good, they shouldn’t have to tone down their interesting and bizarre language to be good.
And yet, despite all of my issues, I had a goofy smile on my face the whole time. This is truly the first time I walked out of a DCEU movie and I fully felt convinced I could spend another movie with these characters. Over everything standing in its way, Shazam still manages to be an endearing and sincere family movie with a good heart and a solid understanding of what makes superheroes special to children who need something to believe in. It’s so much more inclusive, optimistic, and proud than the rest of the universe, and I know some kid who really needs the support will watch Shazam and it will show them that love and genuine connection can be found from almost anywhere. I think that counts for something.