Up until recently, the box-office battle for superhero supremacy has been mostly a one-sided beat down. The DC Comics Extended Universe has had a strong foothold in the TV market for much longer than Marvel Studios but could never seem to get off the ground after Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy ended. Warner Bros and the DCEU are undoubtedly playing catchup but the overwhelming success of Aquaman certainly changed the discussion. Regardless of how Shazam performs at the box office, it appears as though DC films may finally be headed in the right direction. While it may not be as polished as entries from Disney’s MCU, creative freedom certainly goes a long way.
Hiring Director David F. Sandberg is a good example of thinking outside the box. His two biggest films to date are both horror (Annabelle: Creation and Lights Out) and many of the filmmaking techniques show through in a way that’s refreshing to the superhero genre. It’s darker than other recent offerings from the studio, both visually and thematically but it still has a light-hearted and comedic core. Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke wrote a serious and complex personal story which the screenplay doesn’t shy away from it but they really utilized a strong sense of humor to elevate the mood in those uncomfortable moments. Ultimately, this is about a kid who’s abandoned by his mother at a young age, bounces around foster homes (which he mostly runs away from), and spends his time tracking down women that could potentially be his biological mom…meanwhile, he winds up with superpowers and has to navigate all that during those teenage years which are already incredibly awkward. It’s like Big with superpowers. There is a lot going on and there were plenty of opportunities to shift the tone to a much more serious drama but Sandberg balanced both aspects well enough to make for an enjoyable overall experience.
This movie wasn’t going to get off the ground if Shazam himself didn’t get across to the audience and Zachary Levi nailed it. Pretending to be a 14-year-old kid as an almost 40-year-old man is no easy task and Levi was right at home in the character. Doing most of the heavy lifting as the titular character, his performance made up for a lot of deficiencies elsewhere. There really cast wasn’t bad but there just wasn’t much depth to go around. Asher Angel plays the teenage Billy Batson who becomes Shazam, and maybe I’m completely wrong, but it felt like a lot of young actors could have stepped into that role and done a comparable job. The character has an interesting story but some combination of the studio/director/writers didn’t really want to take it too far down that path. They played it up enough to get sympathy and define the “family” they were looking for but that’s about all. The real relationship worth watching is between Shazam and Billy’s foster brother Freddy, played by Jack Dylan Grazer. The best friend is always a key ingredient when it comes to these kinds of origin stories and he’s a little over the top and it wasn’t quite clicking all the way opposite Angel, but once he transforms, that dual journey of growth is really what fuels the whole movie. Beyond that singular relationship, the whole foster family, starting with layered and realistic parents, was a well-represented and diverse group that played an integral role in defining who Billy is and how the story played out.
Mark Strong was good as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana while he was allowed to be villainous but the tone is too humorous towards the end to take him seriously. His origin story and subsequent superpowers made for some interesting visuals but there was no real threat that he may ever actually win, or even harm any of the primary characters. This was another instance where it felt like there was a darker story underneath the surface but the studio opted a very family-friendly approach. Even though it’s rated PG-13, it was probably only a few scenes away from securing a PG rating.
Jennifer Spence did a really wonderful job with the production design, especially when it came to the Wizard realm. It had a very Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings feel as it probably should and Oscar-winner Shane Vieau put together some great physical sets to bring the world to life in a tangible way. A hero only looks as good as his costume and Leah Butler designed a really modern take on a classic super-suit, complete with light-up panels in the chest and wrist gauntlets for authenticity. Benjamin Wallfisch’s original music combined with a very enjoyable soundtrack to brings the experience to life with tracks from Queen, Twenty One Pilots, and Bing Crosby.
The biggest issues with the early DCEU came from desperation. It was so painfully obvious they wanted to be where the MCU was but didn’t want to earn it. It took four years and five carefully crafted movies to arrive at the first Avengers in 2012. Man of Steel was a decent enough re-starting point for DC but three years later they were stuck. They rushed into Batman v Superman, throwing Wonder Woman into the mix and burned Doomsday (the iconic villain from the Death of Superman comics), wasting that entire story arc. Then came Suicide Squad, which was so widely panned that it’s basically getting remade by James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy). Let’s face it. When Wonder Woman dropped, expectations were low but Patty Jenkins’ fresh take laid the groundwork for the entire future of the DCEU with that movie. At that point, the wheels were already in motion for Justice League which followed shortly after but that was a hot mess. Even though it grossed more than $1-billion, Aquaman really wasn’t all that good either but people embraced Jason Mamoa. The same is true of Gal Gadot and, if DC learned anything, locking down the lead role is more than half the battle. Shazam should do more than hold its own until Endgame comes to town.
Recommendation: If you’re a fan of the comics or the Justice League as a group, then this is certainly something you’ll want to check out. As much as this has some tie-in elements, it works pretty well as a standalone movie and should have broad appeal as a family-friendly adventure film, beyond its comic book origins.