I was struck by a rather peculiar thought while I watched the first half of Shazam!. While munching on my hot buttered popcorn it dawned on me that the latest entry in the DC Comics cinematic universe is remarkably similar – at least as far as thematics – as a Tom Hanks film from over three decades ago. I am of course talking about Big; the story of young Josh Baskin who finds himself in the body of an adult and initially revels in his new found freedom. The similarities between the two films are so strong that I found myself wondering if the producers of Shazam! did this intentionally and then my question was answered with a blatant reference to Big (you will know it when you see it). The reason I am bringing this up is to illustrate that while Shazam! shares the same structure as several other superhero movies, the execution sets it apart from other films in the genre. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and I found the experience to be like a breath of fresh air.
Let me preface my review by pointing out that I am not familiar with the Shazam! comic book universe. It is entirely possible that there are references throughout the movie that longtime fans of the franchise would recognize. If I have missed any of these details then please bear with me. I am reviewing this movie entirely on its own merits.
Decades in the past a young by is transported to the lair of an ancient wizard. It seems that this wizard has fought the forces of evil for centuries and is searching for a new heroic champion to take his place. The boy has an opportunity to become the new champion but allows himself to become tempted by demons who represent the seven deadly sins. Seeing this, the wizard casts the boy out of his lair and back to his family. After causing a devastating car accident which ruins the life of his father, the boy vows to return to this lair and claim the power of the Champion for himself. Fast forward to the present and he does manage to return to this lair to claim the power of the Deadly Sins for himself and wounds the guardian wizard. Fast forward to the present and young Billy Batson is the next person the wizard chooses to become the champion and as luck would have it – Billy has shown himself to be pure of heart. He takes on the role of Shazam but the other warrior targets the new hero for his powers.
All of the trappings of a typical superhero flick are present in Shazam! but the story is also very much about family. Not necessarily one’s biological family but the people around us who regularly provide love and support. Even better, the concept of family is not merely a subplot for the film that is resolved within a couple of scenes; it is a recurring theme from the moment young Billy Batson moves into the home of his foster parents along with a group of other orphaned children all the way to the final battle with the big baddie.
When I compare Shazam! to Tom Hanks in Big, I am referring to how the hero learns to live with his new superpowers. The movie actually takes a rational approach to the concept of a person suddenly in possession of super powers – how do you determine what you are now capable of without a bit of experimentation? The scenes with Billy learning the scope of his powers are amusing and the way he revels in his new found abilities is very similar to how Josh Baskin celebrated his new freedom as an adult three decades earlier. Peter Parker’s deeds as Spider-Man are guided by his dead uncle’s advice. Bruce Wayne honed his skills as Batman out of grief for the violent loss of his parents. Billy Batson has a childlike glee from using his powers – at least at first.
Asher Angel turns in a remarkably strong performance as a teen-aged orphan aching for a connection with family. He has great chemistry Jack Grazer who plays Freddy – a disabled young person who guides Billy in the world of superheroes. Mark Strong is appropriately menacing as the villainous Dr. Sivana. If I had to nitpick anything about the performances, it would be that a couple of the younger performers in the movie but I am not going to be overly harsh on small children in an otherwise enjoyable movie.
Shazam! is a well produced movie and it looks good. If that sounds a little less than enthusiastic, it is probably because there is not much to say here. The effects are perfectly acceptable but the movie was produced for a relatively modest $90 million USD. It is simply not packed with visual eye candy like say, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Don’t get me wrong; I am not overly impressed with excessive CGI in movies. I am simply saying that Shazam’s portals and lightning bolts look good on screen the movie seems to a bit subdued when it comes to visuals in modern hero flicks.
The demons that represent the Seven Deadly Sins have unique designs that reflect the nature of their particular sin. As an example, Gluttony is represented by a grotesquely large monster. The design of their bodies aside, all of the demons have the same grey coloring with glowing red eyes. I would have appreciated more variety in their coloring. Speaking of the color grey – there is a lot of grey smoke throughout the film when the villains are present. It makes a nice contrast to the vibrant lightning bolts that Shazam casts but I found the abundance of smoke to be a bit drab looking.
The action scenes are well choreographed – especially a moment when a room full of people meet their demise. Director David Sandberg does a fine job making the audience feel the impact of the more violent moments.
Shazam! is a throwback to the days when comic book movies were fun. Not every hero has to be a brooding loner plagued by inner demons. Let’s be real, the upcoming Avengers: Endgame is going to be a smashing success as far as hero films go but Shazam! is definitely worth a watch for those who like fun flicks which don’t take themselves too seriously.