As Marvel prepares to release the culmination of more than a decade of world building with Avengers: Endgame on April 26, Warner Bros. has quietly dropped David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, one of the most endearing, earnest movies to be released in more than a decade of superhero films.
Shazam is one of the oldest superheroes in print and the character’s origin story has remained absurd and largely unchanged over its almost 80-year history. Basically, a streetwise 14-year-old Billy Batson—played by Asher Angel—ends up in an ancient wizard’s cave where he says a magic word and becomes an invulnerable grown adult, portrayed iconically by a buff Zachary Levi: Earth’s magical champion. Think Big, but with superpowers.
This movie was made for anyone who ever ran around their backyard with a towel-cape; Shazam! is wish fulfillment to the extreme. Levi’s performance of the superpowered Shazam is of particular note as he does an admirable job comedically portraying the confusion, wonder and excitement one would expect from a 14-year-old who finds himself with the body of a grown man.
Levi’s beefy man-child seems more innocent and scared than Billy Batson, aptly depicting how the boy’s streetwise confidence melts away when he’s thrust into an unknown situation.
As much fun as this premise can be—and it turns out to be a lot of fun—the movie’s best material comes from how it addresses the concept of family. Angel’s Batson is a troubled youth that bounces from foster home to foster home before he lands in a loving group home with an eclectic family of four other foster kids. Billy’s foster siblings are equal parts entertaining and adorable, which makes for a highly effective supporting cast.
By the film’s end, Billy learns the value of the family you choose rather than the one you’re born into. His most notable sibling is the sarcastic Freddy Freeman—played by Jack Dylan Grazer—the film’s resident DC superfan and Billy’s eventual mentor in all things hero. Some of the movie’s best moments come when Freddy and Billy experiment with the latter’s newfound powers in order to make an instantly successful YouTube channel.
As ridiculous as the character’s origin is, Shazam!’s small scope makes it incredibly accessible. The movie lacks a world-saving plot and focuses on the hero’s impact on his native city Philadelphia. It’s a refreshing shift, especially when juxtaposed with the heavy interconnectedness of the movies’ super-heroic contemporaries.
Yet nothing gold can stay, and Shazam! trends toward the familiar as it regresses to a traditional superhero beat-’em-up in its final act.
Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana feels underdeveloped when compared with the time the audience spends with Billy and his siblings. Dr. Sivana’s desire for power simply for power’s sake is uncompelling, causing the movie to lose some emotional stake down the stretch.
The movie does have a final trick up its sleeve, however, and its final twist is a moment of pure delight and joy that creates an emotional climax for Billy and his family that will surely leave the audience grinning as they leave the theater.
Shazam! is the first superhero movie in ages that puts forth a hero that feels heroic. Levi’s goofy hero stumbles, but eventually learns the value of looking out for the little guys, unlike other movies in the genre which have boomed in popularity. It’s a refreshing reminder of the values and messages in these movies which, when combined with super-powered action sequences, made the genre so popular in the first place.