Shazam! review: A light-hearted triumph of epic proportions

(L-r) JACK DYLAN GRAZER as Freddy Freeman and ZACHARY LEVI as Shazam in New Line Cinema's action adventure "SHAZAM!," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Steve Wilkie/ & (c) DC Comics
(L-r) JACK DYLAN GRAZER as Freddy Freeman and ZACHARY LEVI as Shazam in New Line Cinema's action adventure "SHAZAM!," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Steve Wilkie/ & (c) DC Comics /

Shazam! may bring the lightning, but there is nothing stormy about this brilliant, light-hearted adventure that promises to breathe new life into the DCEU. Potentially minor spoilers are ahead.

DC’s extended universe hasn’t exactly had the best run of it. With more failures than victories, the 2016 experiment has really struggled to get off the ground – so much so that it’s constantly in a state of redevelopment. However, every cloud has a silver lining, so for each Suicide Squad and Justice League, there’s a Wonder Woman and an Aquaman to restore the balance (and the faith of the people) in the DCEU.

Following the unexpected success of the latter, it’s safe to say that the eyes of the world are watching to see if this year’s most unorthodox superhero movie, Shazam!, can carry on that momentum. The answer? Well, unlike the titular character, this superheroic gem can’t be summed up in a single word.

In today’s day and age, there are two types of superhero movies. One is the grim story about a troubled protagonist that must overcome the darkness in his/her life to defeat the Big Bad and makes no apologies for its gritty in-your-face approach. The other is the more family-friendly offering that often recycles the same predictable (but successful) format to make us root for the protagonist and, after a CGI-heavy fight, ultimately sends the audience home happy. Shazam! is that all-too-rare breed that walks the line between both, delivering plenty of light-hearted and action-packed moments while also venturing into darker territory. Yes, it’s occasionally dark, sinister in fact, but the beauty about it is that it’s always just one joke away from restoring the levity.

It all stems from the fact that while the titular hero may look like a mid-30s Zachary Levi, he is actually a moody 14-year old runaway with a wicked sense of humor. Involuntarily transformed into a specimen that is quite literally marvelled at, Billy Batson struggles with the gift that he never wanted in the first place and thus, must rely on his foster brother to morph him into a hero worthy of boasting such gifts – and, if that wasn’t hard enough, he must battle another “champion” to essentially defeat sin itself.

Therein lies its greatest strength. This isn’t just another movie off that never-ending superhero assembly line to feature some broody protagonist that struggles under the weight of their morals and burdens. No, Shazam! tells the story through the eyes of hopeful kids who lap up the idea of having cool super powers and, as a result, it’s all the more relatable to audiences. There’s an innocence to it, an excitement that you’d be hard-pressed to find in even the most light-hearted of comic book movies. That, coupled with the Christmas setting, ensures that it feels less like a modern superhero tale and more like a ’90s holiday classic (think Jingle All The Way but with super powers).

But it isn’t all sweetness and light, as the protagonist undergoes quite the emotional journey, never truly able to get over the fact that he couldn’t track down his real mother. With that grief always in the back of his mind, Billy constantly finds himself struggling to fit in: in school, at his foster home and even as a superhero. That journey provides star Asher Angel with the opportunity to do more than just crack a few jokes (which he does oh-so-well) and he manages to convey the character’s anger and resentment towards the cards that life dealt him really well, turning in a surprisingly mature performance in the process. Similarly, Levi does the opposite, successfully managing to channel the immaturity, naivety and moodiness you would expect from a 14-year old boy. But perhaps the most remarkable part is that he somehow does all of that and still presents the Shazam character as leading-man material and, in many ways, the purest superhero to have graced our screens.

The real star, however, is Jack Dylan Grazer who steals the show as Billy’s nerdy foster brother Freddie Freeman. Not only does he effortlessly share the exact same chemistry with both Angel and Levi, his strong portrayals of both sides of the bittersweet character’s personality are among the show’s standout moments. Sure, Freddie knows how to make us laugh with his never-ending questions and self-deprecating humor but he would also give anything to be gifted with the powers that Billy has and, as a result, much of the story takes place through his eyes – a decision that the film benefits from a great deal.

The script isn’t without its flaws, but it’s a vast improvement over previous entries in the saga. Most of the story is concise and well-paced, never getting too bogged down in mythology or grim moral dilemmas. Furthermore, the dialogue is sharp and witty, giving the film plenty of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. Throw in Grazer’s exceptional comedic timing and you have a comedy gem on your hands.

Perhaps the film’s only weakness is its villain. Despite the script’s best efforts to flesh out his backstory, it still feels underdeveloped, suggesting that there just aren’t that many layers to the power-hungry Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. Thankfully, if you don’t think about it too much, it doesn’t take away from the experience as everything we’re given is elevated by Mark Strong’s deliciously evil performance.

Whether or not Shazam! can “save” the DCEU remains to be seen, but it does promise to take it in a completely new direction – one that could very well end up reinvigorating it. Unlike all of the previous entries, this doesn’t feel like a DCEU movie as it’s actually more of a spin-off. The references to other major superheroes certainly ground it in the same universe but it is very much its own adventure – and that’s one of the things that work best. It’s like Deadpool in that it’s incredibly self-aware (and is annoyingly clever about the whole thing) – it knows that it was a rather left-field choice for a film and, like the kids themselves, it laps it up, constantly subverting our expectations to thrill, entice and move us from beginning to end.

Shazam! is, at its core, a ridiculously fun, over-the-top adventure that never takes itself too seriously. The result is a thoroughly entertaining spectacle that will both bring a smile to your face and a warmth to your heart and, at the end of the day, isn’t that exactly what we want from a good superhero movie?

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Shazam! hits theaters on April 5. Will you be checking it out? Are you excited for its release? Let us know in the comments below!