Warner Bros. has been struggling to find its footing in the bloated superhero movie space for several years now, and while it had hits with Wonder Woman and Aquaman recently, it’s shaky past still makes it understandable that anyone should be slightly skeptical when going into one of its DC releases. It’s latest offering, Shazam!, brings more lightness and fun to the modern DCU than ever before, and while it follows the same tired tropes we’ve seen time and again with the genre, there’s a lot of fun to be had here.
The character of Shazam, or “Captain Marvel” as he’s known in the comics (but never called that in the movie for obvious reasons), began in 1940 and has been a staple of DC since it acquired the rights to the series in 1972. Adventures of Captain Marvel was actually the first comic-book-character movie adaptation, first appearing on screen in 1941, so it’s an interesting journey to see the path of the character from then to now.
Directed by David F. Sandberg, the film stars Asher Angel as Billy Batson, a 14-year-old foster kid who, after being teleported to an ancient wizard’s lair, is deemed to be the protector of the world and mainlined with some magic that gives him a multitude of powers.
When he speaks the wizard’s name, Shazam, a bolt of lightning transforms him into a muscle-clad and all-powerful adult, played by Zachary Levi. With the aid of his new foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), adult Billy learns the ropes of superhero-ing by doing what most 14-year-olds would do with newly acquired, godlike powers: goofing around and having fun.
Similar to Marvel’s Spider-Man Homecoming, this is where Shazam! shines as a film. Often, the focus is on the day-to-day character moments of Billy and his new foster family with the bombastic action sequences being secondary, a nice reprieve from what we get in most comic book adaptations.
Still, it wouldn’t be a superhero movie without a big bad guy to contend with, and here we have Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, a grown man who is bitter about something that happened to him as a child, holding a grudge for decades in order to exact his revenge. More time is dedicated to establishing and developing this character than many films of this ilk, but every time it would pull focus from Billy’s story, I found my attention waning, anxious to get back to the heartfelt comedy Shazam! establishes early in the film.
It seems like a strange pairing to have Sandberg, who previously directed the fantastic horror titles Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation to be helming DC’s most colorful and fun movie yet, but when the film’s additional antagonists are revealed as monstrous personifications of the seven deadly sins that we his horror roots peek through. Each of these characters are surprisingly creepy and well designed, despite their limited amount of screen time.
At its core, Shazam! is supposed to be fun, light and goofy, and Sandberg embodies this in the film, with DC’s most humorous movie to date, thankfully shedding the dark, brooding themes it so frequently likes to use. It has a few missteps along the way, and too often can’t help but adhere to the formula that’s been raking in the dough for these movies over the last 10+ years, but even when Shazam! falls for the tropes, it does so with a smattering of comedy that elevates it above the status quo, if only slightly.