So far, the DC Extended Universe has experienced a surprisingly equal share of ups and downs between its first six releases. Man of Steel wasn’t perfect, yet loaded with much hope at the beginning; Wonder Woman and Aquaman raised the stakes ever higher as standalone original tales that were not afraid to have any fun along the way. Even with the collective struggles to maintain consistent casting, and a few weird avenues still being taken in the name of creative freedom, I was still excited to know we could still have an entry in the canon that can offer something for everyone, AND lend itself deep into the fabric of a larger universe whose framing still needs a little touchup work. Shazam!, somehow is that very film. A balanced combination of serious and lighthearted, it’s the first of the seven that can possibly reach all four quadrants equally, delivering something different to each. That’s really saying a lot, given what many of us who have followed this glut of franchise fare had to put up with, at least until now. And thankfully, the wait was worth it.
As many would expect, Zachary Levi is the key reason why this crackerjack superhero origin tale plays so vibrantly. Having personally been a fan of his work since his small screen glory a decade ago as Chuck Bartowski, the lovably adorkable nerd/secret agent. That quality has never changed, it’s part of his charm as an actor. As the titular caped hero, he’s grown up enough to have a shot at playing nice with the big boys, but is still as much a big kid as ever, literally. His alter ego, 14-year-old Billy Batson (Andi Mack’s Asher Angel), hasn’t necessarily matured much. An orphaned kid in Philly’s foster system, he strives to reconnect with his birth mom, clearly his life’s goal after many years of dead ends.
Yet another sidetrack lands his way once placed in a larger home with a colorful group of characters (think The Goonies cast, only more landlocked): confident techie Eugene (Fresh Off the Boat’s Ian Chen), the shy, bricklike Pedro (Jovan Armand), lovably unrestrained Darla (Faithe Herman), cocky “den mother” Mary (Grace Fulton), and their guardians Victor and Rosa (Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans). He’d bolt at the first five minutes if it weren’t for his new roomie, the uber-geeky Freddy (an energetically on-point Jack Dylan Grazer). Their friendship strikes immediately through a shared love of comic book lore; who wouldn’t want to be close pals with a guy presumed to carry an authentic bullet who temporarily incapacitated Superman?
After a wild series of events, Billy’s luck changes, slowly, and for the better upon encountering an all-seeing wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who had been biding his time, awaiting the right individual to take on his powers. Once Billy says the magic word, “Shazam!” he immediately takes the form of Mr. Levi, bulked up, wrapped in spandex and ready to fight clean. Needless to say, he’s as much a delight as in past works; all the good he’s managed to find in his career has built up to his first great opportunity for a starring role, and one can hope it won’t be the last. His flawless back-and-forth with Grazer can only match what he and Angel accomplish together; there’s no bad blood, no brooding cynicism, nothing more than good-natured friendliness that drives the film’s tonal intricacies home.
All of this and a possible third act team-up is of much use against a slightly undercooked baddie who still gives his all, the menacingly sophisticated Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (a perfectly badass Mark Strong). His backstory mirrors Billy’s quite closely, with the only difference being an extra suitcase worth of held-in emotional baggage, discovering the Wizard’s abilities first but breaking their family apart in the process. Of course, as Billy’s street cred grows, so does Sivana’s anger. That pivotal late-game showdown cannot be described too accurately or in too much detail here; just know it will be worth an extra 20 minutes of padding which may or may not have been fully crucial for the plot.
Director David F. Sandberg, who’s grown into a reliable favorite with New Line execs, following his debut smash Lights Out, and 2017’s intense-yet-forgettable Annabelle: Creation, lets his geek flag fly, and rather high, adapting Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke’s script into a page-leaping treat, the likes of which had been lacking from DC’s film work until recently. Whereas Aquaman centered itself deep into mythology (and that worked in its favor, when one considers the source material), Shazam is just determined to give the viewer a good time, loosening the collar button and just looking for shameless funny bone exposure.
Yes, its roots in the classic comics are not overlooked, nor should they have been. Of course, if I were more familiar, there’d clearly be more to take away. The need to be a little fresh, and very quick-paced, and beyond the limitations of its inspiration, that couldn’t be under-stressed. Sandberg, his DP Maxime Alexandre, and editor Michel Alter bound to build upon the experience to extend his style decisions as a genre-driven helmer, certainly capable to do more than measly horror. They collectively observe such a challenge, surpassing every goal, like it were a walk in the park loaded with a healthy mix of practical and digital effects, and the heart and soul of Toronto being disguised as the gritty home of a second hero that could now compliment a former fictional boxing icon.
Despite the film being perhaps 20 minutes too long, its pacing tapping the brakes during the otherwise spotless final showdown, I knew right off the top that Shazam! would be one of those comic book movies that would have a place in both the heart and mind the same way that a decade worth of Marvel adventures had burrowed into. The world of DC is vast, mysterious, and a bit uneasy to decipher, and yet the current verse is starting to catch on to its own better qualities. Yes, we’re still fine with the darker fare, heavily drawn from established storylines that hardcore fans will recognize; one can hope Jared Leto’s Joker will course-correct that side of the scale. But in every wider cinematic universe nowadays, far lighter fare that the whole family can embrace is in short supply. Let the anarchic, blisteringly jovial origins of Billy Batson be a reminder why we need them, and let Zachary Levi be more of a leading man type more often. He’s worked hard to fit himself in that lightning bolt-adorned suit of red, and I hope he’ll get to keep it in his arsenal for a while. (A-)
Shazam! opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material; 132 minutes.