The world of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is a weird one. After the Christopher Nolan trilogy immortalized a new, darker take on vigilantes and superheroes, DC felt that it was set on that path, leading ultimately to Zack Snyder becoming the unlikely — or perhaps unwanted is a better term — godfather of that universe. Snyder launched things with 2013’s Man of Steel setting the stage for a larger, MCU-esque series of films, hoping to bind each of them together through a common narrative thread.
It did not go as planned. While there are certainly vociferous and, uh, intense supporters of Snyder’s visions — and while the films certainly made some bank — the project stumbled, staggered, and ultimately started to collapse. 2016’s onerously titled Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was lambasted by most critics, and DC’s sprawling cinematic world was stumbling right out of the gate. Then we were subject to Suicide Squad, a garish mess of a film that was more entertaining than expected, even if it couldn’t quite pull itself together. Things certainly picked up the following year, thanks to Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, bolstered by strong directorial work from Patty Jenkins, but it appeared more and more that the DCEU was suffering from a crisis of confidence. What the hell did it want to be? Did it want to continue Snyder’s relentlessly grim pursuit of flawed, damaged, cynical heroes? Or did it want to move towards a lighter, more — dare I say — heroic tone? That split personality manifested itself most in 2017’s Justice League, a film that was all over the map in terms of tone and atmosphere. It’s a flawed, inconsistent film, but most will concur that it’s at its best when the tone is light and the actors are given room to breathe and play around with each other.
Then came last year’s goofy, grin-inducing Aquaman, and it appeared that via James Wan, the whole damn playbook had been thrown out.
Which brings us to Shazam!. It’s a seemingly out-of-left-field choice for this universe, but it actually works far better than one would expect. It’s essentially a self-contained film, taking place within the same universe but that doesn’t draw too heavily on the other films other than acknowledging that heroes like Batman and Superman exist. This works well in its favor, allowing it to tell its own story without forcing the narrative to live within the DCEU confines.
Shazam is the story of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an orphan with a chip on his shoulder whose been bouncing around the system, finally landing with a new foster family in Philadelphia. Billy’s still trying to find his long-lost mother, resisting any efforts to become a part of the household despite the efforts of his foster family, particularly those of superhero superfan Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). As you’ve likely seen, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear other than he once stood up for Freddy, Billy is chosen by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) and upon saying the titular magic word, is transformed into a superstrong, superfast, lightning-wielding caped superhero (Zachary Levi) … with just one catch: He still has the mind of a 14-year-old kid.
What follows is a combination of a hero’s journey as Billy/Shazam comes to grips with his new powers, as well as a charming little character arc wherein Billy learns that invaluable lesson about how sometimes your family isn’t always what you’re born into. At the same time, Billy has to contend with Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), an embittered character who was denied the power of Shazam years before. Sivana gains powers through his own nefarious means, becoming nearly unkillable while possessed by seven demons representing the seven deadly sins. So Billy has to stop Shazam, find out the truth of his mother, and come to grips with life with his new family.
And I’ll be damned if Shazam! doesn’t work. However, like last year’s Aquaman, it also works because it eschews the formula that Snyder created three years ago. It’s a lighthearted, fun, exciting tale that is, for the most part, perfectly fine for kids to watch and for both kids and adults to enjoy. The film works best when it’s using the humorous interplay between Billy and Freddy, an unlikely duo whose strengths — Shazam’s superhero powers and Freddy’s encyclopedic knowledge of heroic lore — compliment each other’s weakness, Billy’s discomfort with those powers and Freddy’s physical disabilities. It’s a sweet, organic-feeling friendship that even when the film pits them against each other because of the flaws in their personalities, the things that made them both seem like good kids at the beginning bring them back together.
Admittedly, it takes some time for Shazam! to find its footing, both in terms of the character and the film itself. For the first third, it’s a mess, tonally speaking. Director David F. Sandberg doesn’t quite make his beginning and ending matchup, and it makes it hard to reconcile at times. Some of its first-half violence is a bit jarring and out of sync with the rest of the film, including a scene that can only be described as a bloodless massacre in a boardroom. It’s harshly discordant with the atmosphere of the rest of the film and throws the pacing off significantly. Similarly, the subplot of Billy searching for his mother doesn’t play itself out very well, and the story could easily have survived without it. It felt almost as if the first third was written to appease the Snyder side of the DCEU, and the back half was more for the Wonder Woman/Aquaman crowd.
Angel and Grazer are great together, Mark Strong is deliciously villainous, and Levi is 100 percent in his element as a sort of Chuck Plus — an outsider who never fit in, suddenly gifted abilities he doesn’t understand, trying to figure out his place in the world and how to handle this new responsibility. He’s fun and charming and silly and exactly what the film needs. It also has one of the most satisfying and enjoyable climactic fights I’ve seen in a while, more in line with something like Spider-Man: Homecoming than anything else — the world isn’t going to end, and it’s ultimately bravery and teamwork that save the day, in a clever and surprising fashion.
Shazam! is not a great movie, but it’s just good enough to wash some off the grungy smell of the earlier DCEU entries and freshen things up a bit. It’s bright and funny and really, really weird, but in a good way. Yes, its pacing is nearly disastrous with a first act that almost derails the whole thing, but once it hits its stride? It’s a solid little adventure tale of heroes and friendship and bravery, and who doesn’t like that?
Header Image Source: Warner Brothers